May Owen (b.1896): Life and Labour (Part 1)

May Owen had an extensive life in labour with many different occupations that is shown in her autobiographical letter as it is filled with her experiences in the work force. Owen takes a lot of pride in her work and also in her siblings: ‘my eldest brother had worked his way from a messenger boy […] then a Civil Servant in the foreign secretary […] my eldest sister took a post to a wealthy Lady in Kensington, as personal maid and was with her many years and left a big legacy.’ (Owen, p.4). They were all able to contribute to the family or take care of themselves which gave a lot of pride to working class people for being able to earn their own money.

Unlike other autobiographies that go into detail about their political involvement and other activities, Owen’s mainly focuses around her life in school and the work place. ‘As a generalization, the less literate the writer, and the less he was involved in specific activities of self-improvement or political activity, the greater his preoccupation with the details of his life as a worker’ (Vincent, 1982, p.62) This ‘generalization’ doesn’t fully apply to Owen’s letter as she is a very literate woman, who was able to teach her skills and knowledge to younger generations. However she does not include herself in any political movements and so her autobiographical letter does mainly focus on her life in work. This does not mean that her life in the work place is any less interesting than a political activist it just may not seem as exciting!

At the age of eighteen Owen had the opportunity to go to a teacher training college ‘but [she] _73054301_resized_3286794hated the thought of teaching, so [she] packed a case and went to North Wales and joined the Land Army.’ (p.6) There she planted trees on the Snowden range and earned ‘21/- a week, 14/6 for our room and had to feed on the rest.’ (p.6) When Owen finally came home she followed her mother’s wishes and went to ‘Bingley for two years to train’ (p.6) for a teaching post.

During her time as a teacher ‘an inspector said [she] was too much of a discipline and that the children should be […] free’ (p.7) Owen claims however that ‘my children had no fear of me they would meet me and wheel my wheelchair into the playground. Bring an apple.’ (p.7).

rockwell-female-teacher-and-elementary-studentsThe inspector’s claims could be down to Owen’s views and actions being outdated. ‘By 1900, however, those cherished principles about class, order, work, thrift and self-help, epitomized by Samuel Smiles and long taught and practised by the Victorian bourgeoisie, had moulded the minds of even the humblest. And slow to learn, they were slow to change. Whatever new urges might have roved in Edwardian England, millions among the poor still retained the outlook and thought patterns imposed by their Victorian mentors. For them the Twentieth Century had not begun. Docilely they accepted a steady decline in living standards and went on wishing for nothing more than to be ‘respectful and respected’ in the eyes of men. For them the working-class caste structure stood natural, complete and inviolate.’ (Robert, p.31). This reflects Owen’s opinion and she doesn’t believe that her discipline is too much but most likely sees that it is just how she should be ‘respected’.

Take a look at part two of May Owen’s Life and Labour:


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

Roberts, Robert. “11 Class Structure in Early Twentieth-century SalforcT.” Sociological Research Methods (1977): 192. Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom, p. 6

Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: Study of Nineteenth Century Working Class Autobiography. Routledge London, UK. 1982.

Pictures: – Women’s Land Army – Teacher in classroom

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