“Games somehow were seasonable and all the children of the village played the same games at the same time. In the spring our bowls came out just a ring of wood for girls and of iron for boys, there were different sizes suitable for tiny tots to big ones for children ready to learn school, the wooden ones were pushed and guided with a wooden stick and the iron bowls had an iron rod with a hook on the end and we kept ourselves warm running after them, skipping ropes came out next, and any old piece of rope would do” (Jones, 4).
May Jones’s memoir reflects on her life growing up in a small village near Macclesfield in the late nineteenth century. The main themes of her memoir are family, education and work but she also tells us about how she liked to have fun and some local customs that she attended. Her anecdotes about playing in the street with friends, street dances and a children’s service at the local church highlight some ways in which her working-class village had fun and celebrated together.
For May fun was simple as she enjoyed playing in the street with her friends. May remembers the toys children used to play with including bowls which were different for boys and girls. Boys had ones made of iron and girls of wood and they used to run after them. They used any rope they could find as skipping ropes to play a game called higher and higher. This was were two children stood on either side of a road holding the rope for people to jump over. The person who jumped the highest won. They had many other games that they played in the road, which she says was perfectly safe as “we were all on the look out for the occasional horse and cart and when (?) motor cars came along they did not move much more quickly and we had plenty of time to get out of the road.” (Jones, 4).
One event that involved the whole community was the Sermons. This was a children’s service at the church and involved all the children walking to the church in a procession for people to watch. They carried flowers to lay on the altar. This was an important festivity as parents went through “much scheming and sacrifice” in order to get a new suit or frock for their child. This was an event that children had to look smart for and parents wanted to show off their children in their “new” (Jones, 32). May had a new frock for the event which her mother was proud of as it was made by the local dressmaker. May hated it as its colour was “it was a horrid pickle cabbage purple” (Jones, 32). She also didn’t like her hair as believed she looked “like a hedgehog” (Jones, 32). These types of processions were common in the area around Macclesfield as Manchester and Salford also held Whit Walks. These were when “churches and Sunday schools organized processions of children to Albert Square in Manchester, and around parishes throughout the two cities.” (Davies, 124). They were very popular and thousands of people turned up to watch. They were also an event of religious tolerance as people of different Christian denominations turned up to watch different religious walks.
“The hurdy gurdy man” (Jones, 35) was a weekly treat for May and her family and friends. He was “was a dark skinned Italian, He was a little man always smiling” (Jones, 35) and he had a monkey attached to the hurdy-gurdy that had a tin can for people to put money in. He played music on the hurdy-gurdy for people to dance to. Children and adults would dance waltz’s, cakewalks, veleta’s and military two steps and would get worn out and have to sit down on the footpath which they used for a dance floor. May really enjoyed when the hurdy-gurdy man came as she liked to put a halfpenny in the monkey’s box. Also “It was considered a great privilege to be allowed to turn the handle at the back of the hurdy gurdy, I tried it once, but only once, it was just like turning the wheel of mothers mangle and I got plenty of that exercise every day, at home.” (Jones, 35). Street entertainers were a common fixture of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the North West in particular the tradition survived a long time. Forms of street entertainment sometimes stemmed from an influx in immigration, one example being a growth in Italian immigration. Italian street performers were popular in Manchester but they faced problems with obstructing streets in the city centre. It is possible that May’s hurdy-gurdy man was one of the performers that “shifted their activities to the side-streets of the working-class districts… [were] social commentators testified to the popularity of street music in the poorer districts of the cities.” (Davies, 117).
Davies, Andrew. Leisure, Gender and Poverty. Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1992.
‘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
Forbes, Stanhope Alexander; Children in a Newlyn Street; National Trust, Standen; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/children-in-a-newlyn-street-220922
Gibson, J. B.; Hurdy Gurdy Man; Warrington Museum & Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/hurdy-gurdy-man-104022