Elizabeth Rignall (B.1894): Habits, Culture and Belief – Writing Lives

Elizabeth Rignall (B.1894): Habits, Culture and Belief

And what fun was to be had in our long summer evenings and at weekends with the motor cycles

A dancing bear in a London street
A dancing bear in a London street

All So Long Ago highlights Elizabeth’s receptive and open attitude towards the different cultures she experienced whilst growing up in the ‘imperial metropolis’ (Schneer, 8) of London. Jonathan Schneer comments on the thriving multiculturalism of the capital that was connected to Britain’s position as a global power by the end of the nineteenth century: ‘London acted like a magnet not only on the produce of empire and the funds which facilitated its functioning, but on the people of the empire and the world beyond’ (Schneer, 7). The diversity of London is expressed in Elizabeth’s memoir by her recollections of Italian organ grinders walking through her neighbourhood as a child: ‘we would dance to those tunes, holding wide our starched and goffered pinafores’ (Rignall, 20), as well her memory of a dancing bear as part of the exotic street entertainment: ‘But undoubtedly the greatest thrill of my very early London days came when along Gideon road strode another Italian, this time with a concertina, and trailing on a stout chain an immense brown bear which held a long staff’ (Rignall, 20). Although London was a predominantly cosmopolitan city, intolerance and dsicrimination towards different faiths and cultures was also prevalent, as stated by Schneer: ‘Anti-Semitsm was rampant in London in 1900, precisely because the city was being inundated by a wave of Jewish immigrants. In 1881, 46,100 Jews had lived in London; nineteen years later the figure had risen to approximately 135,000, mainly Russian Poles escaping from pogroms’ (Schneer, 7). However, Elizabeth’s advocacy of equality is demonstrated in her memory of moving to North London and observing the customs and culture of her Jewish neighbours: ‘Each Friday evening Mrs.C. would come into the shop to ask if I would go in to attend things, it being after sundown, and so already into the Sabbath…They were really charming neighbours and always insisted on rewarding me…by gifts of unleavened bread, matzos and other typically Jewish delicacies. And if you have never tasted Jewish cooking you have missed a treat’ (Rignall, 64).

In contrast to the fast-paced life of the city, watching the crowds disperse after Derby Day and visiting Crystal Palace with her father, Elizabeth enjoyed the simplicity of the country and the close sense of community whilst in Haworth. A highlight of her days spent in Haworth is her recount of ‘Rushbearing’ or ‘Feast Week’, an annual festival commemorating the tradition of the ‘gathering of winter bedding and floor covering in the Middle Ages in much the same way as harvest-time is celebrated today’ (Rignall, 40). The fair was held in a field and filled with ‘the most exciting ways of spending our hard-earned pence. There were swings, roundabouts, darts, rifle-range, coconut shies, Aunt Sally, and whole rows of stalls displaying every imaginable delight’ (Rignall, 40). As Elizabeth’s pennies ‘did not stretch widely enough to include all these joys’ (Rignall, 41), she recollects how collecting bilberries was the main source of income prior to the fair: ‘Whole days were spent on the moos at this task, for we were paid only threeha’pence a pint for the fruit and it took an unbelievable time to fill a “pint pot” or can. But we enjoyed it’ (Rignall, 41).

Maurice Costello was my great hero in those days and I would sit enraptured through the most banal and unlikely story and in real discomfort just in order to see him’ (Rignall, 42)
Maurice Costello, Elizabeth’s favourite silent film star

Elizabeth embraced the wave of technological advancements that welcomed in the new century, such as the beginning of cinema: ‘By the time I had reached my early teens moving pictures had arrived although of an extremely primitive kind; and from then on the Fair included a booth with low forms on which, for the sum of twopence, once could sit in darkness holding hands with one’s current boyfriend and gazing at the screen’ (Rignall, 42). Not one to shy away from challenging the social constraints placed on gender and tired of the long commute between the family home in Penn and the school she worked at in Taplow, Elizabeth decided to take ‘a most daring step for a woman in those days’ (Rignall, 94) and buy a Velocette motorcycle in 1921: ‘My costume was a real hotch-potch and, as I was the only woman motorcyclist in the country then, largely improvised. All the same, I still think it was more attractive than some of the “gear” of women riders of today’ (Rignall, 94).

From then on took an increasing interest in village affairs, joining the local tennis club and concert party, and taking up the voluntary post of choir- mistress of the parish church, where in the four years I was in charge we did great things


Rignall, Elizabeth, All So Long Ago, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:586

Schneer, Jonathan, London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis, Yale University Press, 2001

Image References:

 (Accessed: 27/01/2016)

(Accessed: 27/01/2016)

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