Averil Edith Thomas: Habits, Culture and Belief

Averil uses her memoir as a way of expressing her rural culture’s beliefs and customs. She does so by recreating numerous celebrations within her town, which seem to have lost their significance with time. A lot of these have a religious implication, such as the Sunday School Anniversary and Michealmas; reflecting how the foundations of Melton Mowbray were heavily based on Christianity and education.

pic of celebration
A street party in Britain during 20th Century

May 1st, or May Day, is acclaimed today as a bank holiday where workers have an elongated weekend. Averil remembers the day differently, stating ‘in the last century in my town we had a custom of getting a ‘bresh’ – generally a piece of hawthorn, decorating it with ribbons and paper’ (8). Shopkeepers would donate small gifts of decoration to those creating a ‘bresh’, before they would be paraded around the village with pride.

Ginger Frost comments on Victorian childhoods:

‘Children in both country and city also enjoyed festivals throughout the calendar year. By the nineteenth century, many formerly rowdy events had become more sedate celebrations, suitable for children. Easter was a majorly holiday because of its religious significance; children remembered having extra food… May Day was a huge affair as well, especially in smaller villages or in close knit neighbourhoods.’ (89)

The day represented a celebration of community; a day that turned neighbours into friends, a town into a family. Averil communicates the importance of such festivities within each page of her memoir, showing these annual rituals hold a valuable place in her memory, and in the heart of her town.

For Averil, personal leisure also formed an important aspect of her childhood. She comments how ‘there were no cinemas or concert halls – no radio or television – and yet I cannot remember being bored, or even thinking holidays were too long’ (21). In the summer she and other children would play ‘marbles and hopscotch’ (21) and ‘wander into the fields gathering violets’ (21). In the autumn this would change to ‘blackberrying and gathering crab apples’ (21), with rainy days resulting in talent shows and other performances for family and friends.

She led an adventurous childhood that did not rely on anyone or anything to provide entertainment. This expresses her belief that society has changed; children and young teens no longer have to use their imagination for recreation, as modern amusements have shaped new generations into being less resourceful and proactive. Her childhood is relatable to many other families who grew up poor during this period, which ties in with her aim to write a memoir not just for herself, but for those from similar communities in the early 20th century. This reinforces the idea that she has a moral obligation to write of her class, and is a voice of the people.

The Haigh family (Averil’s maiden name) ‘had a yearly trip to the sea side’ (14), which was ‘paid for by pennies each week’ (15). Averil travelled to various coastal locations – Lincolnshire, Skegness, Mablethorpe and Cleethorpes.

skegness-pier-old
A photograph of Skegness’ pier, 1910

John K. Walton writes of the history of British seaside holidays during the 1990s, stating:

‘At the beginning of the twentieth century Britain, and England in particular, had a system of coastal resorts whose scale and complexity was unmatched anywhere else in the world… Family holidays were attainable due to ‘rising wealth, an expanding middle class, and upper working class with more disposable time and income that its counterparts elsewhere’ as well as the ‘development of a fully articulated mass transport system in the form of railways’ (1)

Using railways to travel to these various resorts reflects the country’s increasing influx of wealth and industry. It allowed families like Averil’s to experience leisure in ways middle and upper class families were accustomed to, without having to leave the country. Additionally, it leaves Averil in the division of ‘upper working class’, as those at the bottom of the spectrum would never be able to afford such holiday.

Sources:

Averil Edith Thomas, Untiled, pp.26 (c. 6,500 words), Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library. No 1:892

Walton, John K. The British Seaside: Holidays and Resorts in the Twentieth Century. Manchester U.P., 2000. P1

Frost, Ginger S. Victorian Childhoods, Westport, CT and London: Praeger Publishers (2009) P 89 – 90.

Images:

http://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/themes/subjects/military/veday/

http://skegness.caravanholidayrentals.co.uk/article-caravan-holiday-in-skegness.shtml

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