“Life was not all play, from a very early age mother taught us how to work and we never questioned out little tasks.”
May’ memoir reflects on life growing up at the end of the nineteenth century in a small village near Macclesfield in Cheshire. The main themes of her memoir are her family, education and general working class life in her village. Through her family life we see how she was responsible for chores and looking after her younger siblings. May also had many jobs during her adolescence and early adulthood including office runabout, shop assistant and an apprenticeship in millinery.
May’s life when she was younger was dominated by work. She always had chores and later on a job so that she could help support her family. She was the eldest sibling and took on the responsibilities that came with it. May talks about the various chores that she had to do in her memoir and although they were strenuous she looks back fondly of the work that she did. Under orders from her mother, she and Frank (her brother) had to “dust, brush the yard, clean spoons and forks… get coal in, shake the doormats and all the small rugs on a wall outside.” (Jones, 6). She had chores every day and her mother would not let them out to play until they were done and up to her standard otherwise they had to do them again. May and Frank were also given a job which is unusual by today’s standards and it was their responsibility every Saturday morning to do. They had to clean knives using a board covered in emery paper as “in those days there was no stainless steel and knives had to be rubbed backwards and forwards for quite a long time to clean stains collected during a week.” (Jones, 6).
May’s responsibilities went further than her brothers as she was expected to help out with her younger siblings, Helen and Ada who were aged two and just a few weeks when May was twelve. May had to miss school in order to help her family. She says how in those days “there was no district nurse or health visitor, a midwife came for two weeks after the birth and then one had to do the best one could, neighbours were very helpful but there had to be someone there to look after the babies all the time.” (Jones, 25). The person who had to be there all the time was her as her father was at work and her mother was often ill and needed help at home. Working-class families had many methods of trying to stay afloat with many local communities pitching in to help each other like May’s neighbours, although it was “the utilization of the support of children” (D’Cruze, 65) that was needed to help out the Jones family.
When May was no longer needed at home she got a job. Her first job was as an office runabout in a factory. Her role was to take messages on the phone and relay them across the six storey building by running as fast as she could. She enjoyed her job as a runabout and earned herself the nickname of ‘flying angel’. Her wages helped her family as her mother was able to buy clothes for May and her siblings.
“There were two of us as runabouts and the speed we ran up and down the steps gave me the name of flying angel and the other girl was the scarlet runner, I liked the work, I liked all the pretty colours the silk on the bobins and people used to tease me and make me laugh” (Jones, 39-40).
The next job that May had was at a newsagent and tobacconist which was also a toy shop. She enjoyed her work there, even though she had to work Sundays and stayed there for three years when her mother thought she should get an apprenticeship at a millinery.
May’s mother Elizabeth thought that she “ought to have some training in sewing” (Jones, 40) so she got an apprenticeship at a big millinery in town. At first her duties were menial as she had to pick pins off the floor and run errands, but she “decided to ask to go on the shop and showroom where I had great fun and enjoyed life there for five years.” (Jones, 40). May managed to find a career in the millinery as she later had her own workroom.
May’s work life highlights a typical view of working-class domesticity and labour for women. Her job roles show her limitations in the work force as a woman due to “differences in task allocation, in wage levels and in status, though blurred in some areas, continued to differentiate between the work of women and men and still located women in the lower ranks of labour hierarchies inside and outside the factories.” (Gomersall, 27-28). Her job as an office runabout, although placed in a male-dominated area was as a low status worker, a ‘runabout’. Her other jobs were in industries that were easier for a female to work in. Millinery was a female dominated industry in the nineteenth and early twentieth century and it was a job that women were prepared for with sewing lessons at school.
D’Cruze, Shani, “Women and the family.” Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 An Introduction. Ed. June Purvis. London: Routledge, 2000. 51-84.
Gomersall, Meg. Working-Class Girls in Nineteenth-Century England: Life, Work and Schooling. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997.
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
Layng, Mabel Frances; Millinery; Darlington Borough Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/millinery-44067
Watson, John Dawson; Cleaning Day; Worcester City Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/cleaning-day-52632