“I remember, I remember…”
May Jones was born in 1893 in the small country village of Broken Cross near Macclesfield. She was the eldest of four children and describes her childhood growing up. Her parents were Francis Thomas and Elizabeth and she had one younger brother Frank, and two younger sisters Helen and Ada. Her account gives us insight into her “happy childhood” (Jones, 4) including her family, home life, work life and everyday village life. Her memoir gives us a glimpse into working class village life as she tells us about her cottage, her village and the people that lived there. Her use of the phrase “I remember” throughout her memoir highlights how this autobiography serves a purpose and helps to remember the lives of working class people. As Regenia Gagnier puts it “[Working class] autobiographers insisted upon their own histories, they… state that their reasons for writing are functional rather than aesthetic: to record lost experiences for future generations; to raise money; to warn others; to teach others; to relieve or amuse themselves; to understand themselves.” (342).
May’s memories give us glimpses into working class life growing up in her village. From her own life we see how her childhood was happy as she played games in the street with other children in the village including “ball games, and skipping and jumping with rope.” We also see how the working class faced poverty as she often delivered parcels for her headmistress, Margaret Gilchrist, which she later found out contained “clogs for a child had been to school barefoot… [and] a loaf, piece of cheese and some meat for a family with the father out of work.” (Jones, 14). Learn more about Margaret and May’s education in my Education and Schooling post.
It is unknown why May wrote her memoir and she does not include certain identifying details including names, places or dates. I have only found out where she lived through researching census records using the few clues in her memoir. She was aged 85 when she wrote her memoir, meaning she started writing in 1978. Her account of her early life is detailed but is sporadic and some stories are often cut short. Her autobiography is sometimes re-written, often repeating what she has already written in neater handwriting. Occasionally she edits what she has re-written and adds extra snippets of information. Her use of chapter titles also shows her whimsical side, such as: “My musical career” and “I became a vegetarian”. World War I is where she ends her memoir and she was in her early twenties at the time. We do not know the exact reason why her memoir ends so abruptly. For more on why she wrote her memoir see my post on Purpose and Audience.
I found the description of May’s memoir in Burnett et al The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945. Her memoir intrigued me as she was writing about her childhood and life as a young woman at end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century. My interest in gender history is a reason why I chose her memoir as it is clear how her gender and class affected her education. Her jobs as an office runabout, shop assistant and her apprenticeship to a milliner are interesting to me as I’ve worked on a previous project about working women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
May begins her memoir with her earliest memory, “I remember, I remember the night I was born.” (Jones, 2). May remembers crying and her mother and father not coming to soothe her as they always did. In this memory she “must have been about two years old” (Jones, 2) and May recounts how she felt alone. This seems quite a sad to start to her autobiography that goes on to tell us many happy memories. She reveals that she believes she was ignored as her parents were preparing for the arrival of her brother and it is from here on May tells us of her childhood.
Her education is discussed often and it is clear that it was interrupted due to illness in the family. May’s interest in learning is seen throughout her memoir as she says that she was brought up to speed quite quickly after starting school at a late age. Her passion for reading went well with her imagination as she believed in fairies and was “always searching for the little people” (Jones, 42). However, her education was cut short as she left school age 12, which left her sad as she “loved going to school and cried a bit when no one was looking” (Jones, 26).
May’s memoir shows us a lot about childhood in the late nineteenth century and give us a glimpse into the life of a working class woman in her teens and early twenties. The latest part of her life that she writes about is about the First World War. This is the saddest part of her memoir as she writes about receiving a letter from the war office informing her of her boyfriend’s death on the front line. Read details on May’s ‘love story’ in my War and Memory post.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987), 335-363
‘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
Potter, Frank Huddlestone; A Girl Reading; Tate; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-girl-reading-201305
King, Henry John Yeend; Figures by a Country Cottage; Brampton Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/figures-by-a-country-cottage-18509