“I had a happy childhood tho a very strict one”
May’s memoir is about her childhood and early adult life at the end of the nineteenth century. She tell us a lot about her family, education and working class life in Broken Cross near Macclesfield, the small village in which she grew up.
The main theme of her memoir is home and family. May grew up in a toll bar cottage in Macclesfield in Cheshire, with her parents Francis and Elizabeth and three younger siblings Frank, Helen and Ada. Her home life was a happy one as she tells us many anecdotes of her family life, some people today might relate to. Her love and admiration for her family is obvious. Despite having a lot of responsibility for them, she cared greatly for her family and enjoyed their company.
May’s father Francis was a carpenter who worked hard as he had a day job at a builder’s yard and worked on his carpentry at home at night. He was the breadwinner of the family meaning that when May was older she had to work to help support her family (more on this in my Life and Labour post). As May says “wages were low in those days and my father helped to support his widowed mother as well as his own family.” (Jones, 2).
Elizabeth Jones’s role was as a housewife and mother. She was responsible for looking after the house and her children. She was stricter than her husband as “Mother believed that to spare the rod is to spoil the child and she certainly kept to this principle and after I was too sore to sit down.” (Jones, 4). May tells of times that her mother would discipline her when she was younger including when May ruined her new dress after falling in mud and her mother gave her “a good working with the birch rod and sent to bed without any tea.” (Jones, 33). Elizabeth was like many other working-class mothers according to D’Cruze: “Working-class parents claimed their absolute authority over their children. Obedience was expected and generally unquestioned. Physical punishment was widespread.” (D’cruz, 61).
May’ childhood in some ways conforms to traditional views of looking at working class people “where mothers who don’t go out to work order the domestic day, where men are masters, and children, when they grow older, express gratitude for a harsh discipline meted out to them.” (Steedman, 249). However, her memoir reveals more about the lives of working class people than a mother taking care of domestic duties and the father being financially responsible for the family.
May tells of many happy tales of her father, showing he had an active role in the home. Usually he was the one to comfort May when she was upset. When she was younger and could not sleep “Dada always came upstairs, wrapped me in a shawl and carried me downstairs, where I sat on his knee and shared his tea, which was often an egg butty.” (Jones, 1). He taught her about his trade and spent a lot of time with his children in the home. May learnt about different scents and colours of trees for carpentry and it was her father who taught her the Lord’s Prayer. A father’s role as a religious educator brought him in to the private sphere as in Women, Gender and Religious Cultures 1800-1940 it is stated that “it tended to be fathers who taught their children to pray” in churchgoing households.
Frank, Helen and Ada also feature in May’s anecdotes. She has more happy memories with Frank who she would play with as they were similar ages (Frank was two years younger). They played and did chores together. May, like many siblings, enjoyed annoying her brother and on a few occasions she woke Frank up in the morning by playing her violin loudly: “one morning I had the brain wave of going to play outside his bedroom door to wake him up and played “Blue bells of Scotland (?) at full scratch, it worked like magic.” (Jones, 47). It did work like magic as it annoyed Frank so much that he threatened to jump on May’s violin, which he called the “instrument of torture.” (Jones, 47). Despite showing a lot of love for her sisters, her memories of them focus on taking care of them and highlights how May had to take on more responsibility in the home than her brother. In particular, May had to help look after her poorly sister when she got very ill after a vaccination (more in my Health, Illness and Disability post).
May’s family, although being working-class did have some experiences not associated with the working-class in this era. They were some of the first people in their area to get electricity and they also managed to save enough money for a car, although this story did have a slightly disastrous ending. May’s dad proudly bought the car and declared “This is ours” (Jones, 20) to May and Frank, but to their mother’s disapproval as he had spent all their savings on it. When they set off on their journey to Aunt Ruth’s the car “got about three miles down the road, half way, when the car spluttered and broke down and in spite of all Dads tinkerings it refused to budge, It began to rain and we were told to walk back home.” (Jones, 21). The Jones family managed to get electricity after Francis was employed at a local mansion and started working for the wealthy son of its owners. May talks about her amazement of the new technology in her house: “Soon our cottage (too) was lit by electricity and we had the first telephone in the district installed. It was like magic to hear my father telling us he would be late home for his tea when he was a mile away.” (Jones, 31).
May’s extended family feature in her memoir as she often visited her granddad and various aunts for summer holidays. She once spent three weeks in June at her granddad’s cottage and arrived there by horse and cart driven by a local farmer. Her and Frank were tucked into empty food baskets in the back of the cart to travel the “eight mile magic journey” (Jones, 15) to their granddads. Once there, May enjoyed playing in the magic garden where the fairies lived and she looked for them every morning:
“Grandad was a grand old man we all loved him He worked very hard, the cottage stood well back from the road, it was surrounded by a very big garden… the garden to me was a very special place, every morning I searched diligently under all the gooseberry bushes, but never told anyone what I was looking for however grandad must have guessed, as one morning he gave me a handful of hay and said, put this under a big rhubarb leaf, little maid, I dont think the fairies would leave it under a gooseberry bush it might get scratch and then it would dry, I should be about seven years old at this time,” (Jones, 16).
May shows a lot of affection for her family and this is an example of the cheerful anecdotes that are spread across her memoir.
Overall, May’s family were a strong family unit. This is shown by the family’s connection to music which brought them together in the home. May says: “My father was a Welsh man…he had a beautiful singing voice and loved music. He taught and encouraged we children to love it too, I can still remember the lovely childrens hymns he taught me when I was little more than a baby. There were four of us and when we were old enough he gave us the most wonderful Christmas present, a marvellous new piano, complete with brass candlesticks on the front.” (Jones, 45). All her siblings were involved in music or had extra lessons, her brother played piano and was a choir boy, Helen also played piano and Ada had elocution lessons. May herself played the violin. There connection as a family is best shown when as a family they “often had musical evenings between ourselves and had great fun out of them especially Sunday evenings when after church we went across the fields to see grandmother and sing for her all the hymns we had sung in church.” (Jones, 46).
D’Cruze, Shani, “Women and the family.” Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 An Introduction. Ed. June Purvis. London: Routledge, 2000. 51-84.
May Jones in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:401
Morgan, Sue and Jaqueline de Vries. Women, Gender and Religious Cultures in Britain, 1800–1940. Routledge, 2010.
Steedman, Carolyn. “Stories.” Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader. Ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. 243-254.
Allen, William Herbert; Stranger’s Corner; Museum of Farnham; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/strangers-corner-12964