Unitarian and Evesham’s greatest historian George May was born in Bristol in 1803 and came to Evesham in 1828 to work for John Agg at his book selling and printing business on the corner of Bridge Street. Mr. Agg’s press was already well known among country printing houses for having published a handsome edition of the Rev. William Tindal’s History and Antiquities of the Abbey and Borough of Evesham in 1794 (now, as with May’s books, a much valued collector’s item).
After some time May took over the business himself and continued to devote himself to the study of local history. He carried out much research in the Bodlian Library and British Museum and sought out all the private and public collections he could access.
In his obituary, in the Evesham Journal of May 20 1871, May is described as a “man of wide historical and antiquarian lore of fine taste and deep feeling”.
He had a genial nature and was very involved in the life of the borough, as well as the life of Oat Street Unitarian Chapel, where he is buried together with his daughter Isabel.
His little shop in Bridge street was the meeting place for all those who enjoyed his friendship: “the resort of many for conversation and intercourse of no ordinary kind,” reported the Journal.
“A place where much friendly talk took place over the counter and where Mr. May’s serious face and somber countenance would relax into a smile or even a hearty laugh, during brief but earnest conversations on some subject of literature or politics.”
Sometimes he appeared at public engagements of a political or philanthropical nature where he would “display his noble enthusiasm for all that was liberal, or his scathing scorn for all that was mean.”
In the Chronicle of Evesham Abbey, published in 1863, the editor W.D.Macray MA, said May’s History of Evesham had great merit: “It is distinguished by an unusual degree of research and accuracy and evidently seems to have been with the author a real labour of love.”
In 1845, May expanded his history by publishing a new Descriptive History of Evesham. Two years later he went on to publish A Guide to the Birth Town of Shakespeare and the Poet’s Rural Haunts. And in 1850 May, always deeply interested in religious subjects, he published a small manual of prayers for use of captains and masters in vessels at sea without a chaplain. This book, although of an unsectarian nature, was discouraged by those who knew of Mr May’s Unitarian beliefs
In the summer of 1850 failing health caused Mr May to give up his business in Evesham and he took his family to America. Here he became friends with the Unitarian minister and leading campaigner for the abolition of slavery, Theodore Parker, and many other eminent men.
Four years later he returned to England to live in London. Here he was struck down by a carriage and rendered an invalid for the rest of his life. The kindness of friends secured him a place in the Charter House where, in this cloistered environment, George May lived a life of comfort, while continuing his study of antiquarian customs and medieval buildings.
His last visit to Evesham was in 1870 which, by all accounts, was a particularly happy one re-visiting friends and his favourite haunts. When he died his body was returned to the town, where he was buried in the corner of the peaceful, and still beautiful, cemetery of Oat Street chapel, which is open on most Saturday mornings (next dates December 8 and 15) where coffee, Fairtrade goods, and conversation can be enjoyed in the Gatehouse!
* George May’s History of Evesham has been republished by the Vale of Evesham Historical Society and Capella Archive, copies may be ordered online from www.capella-archive.com or by mail from Capella Archive, The Steps, Foley Terrace, Great Malvern, WR14 4QR.