May Owen (b.1896): Habits, Culture and Belief

May Owen’s autobiographical letter mainly focuses on her father’s life, work and alcohol troubles and her own work which takes up the majority of the letter. There are very few mentions of her any habits, culture or activities that she took part in, where she does bring up any they are brief and do not go into any details.

a4b2b6b36fe6589bb1cf21420c4a7b38During the 1870’s a rise of mass entertainment began that went on for years after and still exist in today’s culture. Rising wages and the working class earning enough to spend on luxuries saw the market catering to the working class. Organised sports, like football and rugby became a regular pass time for the public to enjoy; this is something that Owen took advantage of during her youth as she had a ‘wonderful 12 months. [They] played hockey 70 years ago, once a week at Southfields.’ (p.3). This is the only actual detail that Owen gives in her letter as to what she did to enjoy her time. Towards the end of her letter, Owen describes ‘a small cheque when [she] went home and a good rest in between to enjoy the small fruits of [her] labour,’ (p.9) which she received very late in her life suggesting that it was only towards the end of her life in work that she was able to earn enough to use some of her wages for leisure.

Despite Owen not giving a detailed description of her own cultural habits and activities, she 68f9d187ed8124efdca703d275b75fe8does describe her father’s habits, more specifically his alcoholic habits of going to the pub regularly. Owen was able to recall ‘the big bars being open all day. As a small girl, these places fascinated [her]. Tall golden haired barmaids, hair pulled up!’ (p.2) The development of lighting meant that public spaces were built to allow in more light whether natural or not. By lighting up these spaces it made them more appealing to enter and less threatening as they may have seemed before. These spaces could have been made into theatres, pubs and music halls, etc.  Andy Croll states that ‘drinking in pubs, playing in brass bands, singing in choral societies, betting “on the dogs”, pigeon fighting, all were instances of popular cultural practices that could be understood as being inscribed working class meanings’ (Croll, p.402) From what Croll has said, it shows that Owen’s father’s habits were very normal of the working class male, as women would tend to stay from bars as it was a man’s place, women would instead take part in clubs that revolved around domesticity and mother’s meetings. The lack of recreational groups and associations for women meant that they created their own spaces for where they would entertain themselves by gossiping for example.

Although May Owen’s recollection of her habits and cultural activities and even her father’s too, it still gives the readers of her letters an idea of what was the norm in the past. Her autobiographical letters also help support analysis’ of people such as Andy Croll and show us what it was actually like for the people living in that time, even though the descriptions were brief.


Croll, Andy. ‘Popular Leisure and Sport’ in Chris Williams (ed) A Companion to Nineteenth – Century Britain. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984) pp 396-411

May, Owen. Autobiographical Letter. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:576


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