“The little village where I lived was on the outskirts of a large manufacturing town, where all the mills found work for many of the villagers… most young people preferred the factory as it gave them freedom in the evening.”
May Jones’s memoir reflects on her early childhood growing up in a small working class village, Broken Cross near Macclesfield. She talks in depth about her education and home life. Her memoir gives an interesting insight into working class life. It also extends briefly into her late teens and early adulthood, exploring her working life as an office runabout and as an apprentice to a milliner, to her memories of the First World War.
May gives us few names, dates, or places for us to gather a more informed picture of her childhood through her memoir alone. The few details she does give made it difficult to find records of her, although she was finally found through census records. She also never states why she is writing or who she is writing for. Her memoir, however, is filled with rich details of her village, and interesting anecdotes of working-class childhood. Perhaps she is attempting to record her early years in order to preserve an era of history she lived through. However, unlike many other working-class authors, May’s memoir doesn’t seem to express a need to tell anyone about her experiences for any specific reason. She is simply writing down her childhood memories. Despite this, we can guess at her reasons for writing and still take a sense of purpose from what she has written.
Working-class authors wrote their autobiographies for different reasons. Some were to record the history of their town, family or class. Some were written for family members to read and be passed down. May makes no mention in her memoir of getting married and having children in later life. She even sadly states that she “knew then that I would die an old maid” (Jones, 44) after her boyfriend Isaac/Philip was killed in action during the First World War (more details in my War and Memory post). May therefore seems to be writing for herself.
Writing at age 85, May consistently uses the phrase “I remember” suggesting that her memoir was used as a tool to record her own memories. Possibly she was writing her childhood stories as a way of remembering for herself and to be able to reminisce. Her use of the word “I” is confident in her writing and she often uses it is chapter titles, e.g. “I became a vegetarian”. Her use of the word “I” differs from other working-class authors. Many authors apologised for even writing their memoirs and limited the use of the word “I”. Discussing working-class writing Nan Hackett stated: “even in this very personal, subjective, and supposedly egocentric genre, the “I” is minimized and even depersonalized.” (Hackett, 211).
Writing heavily about the village she grew up in, May gives us an insight into working-class life. Her village was “on the outskirts of a large manufacturing town” (Jones, 39) and its residents were mostly employed in the local mills or in domestic service. She talks about how young people preferred to work in the factories as it “gave them freedom in the evenings” (Jones, 39) despite the long work hour with only a half hour break.
May’s memoir also makes comparisons to modern day as she says “It seems to me that among the gaps of life missing today are the street cryers” (Jones, 37). She remembers various street criers in her village and among them were the oat cake man who “if anyone had overslept he wakened them up” (Jones, 37). He also, as the name suggests, sold oat cakes that May begged her mother for a spare penny to be able to buy.
May’s writing is full of captivating descriptions of landscapes and nature. She describes in detail her grandad’s cottage, where she goes to stay for a while when she was seven. She remembers the cottage well as it had “a funny little cubby hole of a room with red house bricks for a floor and a funny smell.” (Jones, 16). The garden was another place that May liked to explore and look for fairies in as she believed that “there was magic in that old world garden” (Jones, 17).
Therefore, although May’s memoir may not have set out for a specific audience, it is still a valuable piece of working-class writing. It details a lot about certain aspects of working class life and is also a heart-warming read.
Hackett, Nan. ‘A Different Form of “Self”: Narrative Style in British Nineteenth-Century Working-class Autobiography’. 12.3 (1989): 208-226, 210
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
King, Henry John Yeend; Figures by a Country Cottage; Brampton Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/figures-by-a-country-cottage-18509
Lloyd, Thomas James; A Country Garden; Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-country-garden-58992
Ward, A. A.; Half-Timers; Greater Manchester County Record Office; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/half-timers-203822