May Jones: Illness, Health and Disability – Writing Lives

May Jones: Illness, Health and Disability

“Misses let her go home,” if she lives she will be either a cripple or an imbecile,” Mother said I believe that where there is life there is hope, she then took matters in her own hands, she had (?) and water on the brain from after the vaccination, in her baby to deal with. The long fight to save her baby’s life was on” (Jones, 23)

May Jones’s memoir is about her life growing up near Macclesfield in Cheshire. Her memoir reminisces about her family, education and village life in the late nineteenth century. Her autobiography hints at various illnesses that she and her family go through. Illness and bad health affected the Jones’s family life and work life. They always pulled through, even when May’s first sister Helen was seriously affected by a vaccination.

May’s troubles with bad health are associated with her work. When she got her first job as an office runabout she had to travel a long distance to work and this caused her to get very tired. Along with the running that she had to do for her jobs, May got sick. She only spent six months at the job and it caused her to need six weeks of bed rest. The physical assertion needed to do May’s job is likely what made her ill, although evidence to support the theory that industrial labour affected women’s health is small. Despite this, “many other damaging aspects of [women’s] working conditions received relatively little attention” (Harrison, 160) suggesting that for May, as there were only two runabouts, the conditions that she worked in were never properly regulated or investigated.

Farmer, Alexander; An Anxious Hour; Paintings Collection;

May’s mother Elizabeth also suffered with ill health. May doesn’t give much details into what her mother suffered from but her ill health stems from pregnancy. Elizabeth she got sick after her pregnancies: “My mother was very ill, after the last baby was born” (Jones, 12) which is why May had to help run the household after her two younger sisters were born. Elizabeth’s ill health being linked to childbirth is highly likely as “childbirth was probably the most important cause of ill-health, chronic debility and disability in women.” (Harrison, 171). It is also likely that she was ill as she was a little older when she had May’s sisters, there being a seven year gap in between her second and third child, even though she was only 31 when she had Helen. Also, despite seeing doctors frequently when she was ill it is possible that like most women at that time what was “left untreated… had to be accommodated in women’s lives.” (Harrison, 172). Her ill health was bettered when the family moved to a new house away from the toll bar cottage that was damp and smoky.

A 19th Century vaccination kit that looks like the instruments used to vaccinate Helen as described by May in her memoir.

The main story about illness, health and disability in May’s memoir is the story of her sister Helen getting a vaccination. Vaccination is different to how we have them today as May describes: “I was called in to hold the baby whilst he made four little cuts on the top of her arm, dabbed some (?) on the wounds, covered them with gause and strapped a small wire cage over to keep the clothes off the wound.” (Jones, 22). This made Helen cry and she wouldn’t stop all night and her arm was inflamed so the doctor had to be called out again. It was thought that the vaccination was “taking its normal course” (Jones, 23). However, Helen only got worse, with a high fever and a whole inflamed arm. The doctor was confused and other doctors who came to see her were puzzled. Her condition got worse as “a little while later her head began to swell until it became almost twice its normal size and gradually all the firmness went out of her little bones, they were soft like gristle and bent easily in the wrong places and she shrunk back into being like a new born baby again. Mother had to lift her on a pillow.” (Jones, 23). This is when doctors gave up hope of saving Helen stating that if she lived she would be “either a cripple or an imbecile” (Jones, 23).

Elizabeth Jones refused to give up on her baby. She nursed Helen back to health and went to great lengths to do it:

Walton, John Whitehead; Anxious Moments: A Sick Child, Its Grieving Parents, a Nursemaid and a Medical Practitioner; Wellcome Library;

“She went to the farmer to get milk twice a day from one cow, his healthiest, she got the butcher (?) send a small amount of fresh blood each day She went to the builder yard for a piece of rock lime which she (?) daily, she got cod liver oil and oranges. these she adminstered in very small doses (?) large amounts of love, her little limbs were (?) with olive oil and she carried the baby lying on a pillow for small doses of sunshine into the garden,” (Jones, 23-24)

Helen, by the age of seven, was a normal healthy child that went to school and was “An answer to Mothers prayer.” (Jones, 24). May’s mother’s devotion to her child was linked to her role in life as a mother. Elizabeth’s life was at home and looking after her children as “women gained an important sense of self through motherhood. It was an achievement of a role not just expected but desires, and mothers loved their children so that their frequent loss was painful and distressing.”” (Harrison, 172)


Harrison, Barbara. “Women and health.” Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2000. 57-192.

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

Images Used

Farmer, Alexander; An Anxious Hour; Paintings Collection;

Walton, John Whitehead; Anxious Moments: A Sick Child, Its Grieving Parents, a Nursemaid and a Medical Practitioner; Wellcome Library;

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