Averil Edith Thomas: Life and Labour

Averil’s family lived in the heart of Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, a famous place of trade which held numerous food, drink and farming exchanges. It lends its name to the ‘Melton Pork Pie’; something the town is renowned for across England’s old and contemporary culture. This iconic food symbolises the community’s raw English essence, and highlights Melton as a place that welcomes all farm and trade workers with hearty hospitality. Averil’s autobiography illustrates what life and labour was like in this town during her childhood years, as she writes vivid personal memories and experiences of the town’s market.

Melton Mowbray’s town estate comments;

‘If we could visualise the Melton Market […] we would find each class of commodity had a different selling place around its own particular market cross.’ There were also ‘Stilton Cheese Fairs held in April, September and December’.

image of marketing town
Melton Mowbray – approx. 1910

Averil recalls how ‘on a Tuesday each week there would be a butter woman sitting behind their muslin wrapped rolls of butter, their cream cheeses and really fresh eggs’ (7). She remembers how on some early mornings she would see the ‘market place painting white lines’ (8), which indicated that ‘business like men’(8) would be tasting the stilton cheese from various stalls later that day. The piece that was judged would then be placed back in the wheel of cheese, and Averil was ‘always pleased’ if she found this segment when eating it herself.

The presence of a class and financial hierarchy is noticeable in Averil’s younger years; particularly highlighted here when easily differentiating those who judged the cheese in comparison to those who sold it. However, this hierarchy appears to be inverted as individuals were not identified through their family’s wealth and income but on the skill and execution of their occupation. Though many families may have been lower class, they were still respected within the community as each one helped towards the town’s trading and marketing income. This observation suggests that if Averil grew up in a more urban community during the early 1900s, such as central London, she would have been exposed to vicious social labels and discriminatory treatment that was daily life for poorer families of these areas. It appears that her childhood community was a loving and considerate environment that refrained from judging those with less money; something uncommon across society during this time.

image 2 of melton mowbray
Sherrard Street, Melton Mowbray – approx. 1925

Averil’s autobiography tells us her family lived at No. 6 King Street in a house that doubled up as their place of business. Her home was ‘a very old house’ (1), and mirrored the others on her street which had ‘the front turned into shops’ (1). From here they sold and delivered second hand books and her father’s hand-made picture frames.

However, when researching further into her family’s business, I discovered the following record within the 1911 census of England and Wales. It shows the occupation of her family members after the autobiography ends, at a date when Averil was seventeen years of age and with the status of ‘Student Teacher’. The record brings to lights that her sister, Annie, whom Averil calls ‘Nancy’ in her autobiography for reasons unknown, went on to become a dressmaker.

1911 census of family jobs 2
1911 Cenus of England and Wales [image from ancestry archives]
Her father, John Haigh, still continued to run his business, and unlike many other lower-class workers, was not a labourer or factory worker, and thus did not have to answer to the demands of upper/middle-class property owners. His professional prospects clearly had an influence on his children’s own future aspirations as they paved their own career path in areas working-class people did not usually have the means in which to enter. The Haigh family appear to be educated, successful and hard-working people; reflecting their town’s spirit and inspiring work ethic.

Sources:

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

http://www.meltonmowbraytownestate.co.uk/street-markets/history

Ancestry.com. 1911 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

Images:

http://local-history.org.uk/melton/mm0205/

http://local-history.org.uk/melton/mm0204/

 

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