Mrs RM Downer (b.1884): Education and Schooling

RM Downer dedicates very little of her memoir to her early memories and school days. As I have explained in other posts, the majority of her writing is about her career and adult life. However, towards the end of her memoir, she does reminisce a little about this period of her life. RM Downer’s early schooling was interrupted when her family moved from Horsham to Chichester. She does not say how old she was when this happened, or name the schools she attended. It seems that she enjoyed going to school. She says, ‘I found learning quite easy as was in the top Class at 11 years’ (p22). She even planned to become a teacher, but as her sister had also made the same choice, she chose to become a dressmaker instead.

1890s illustration of a sewing class by John Henry Bacon

Despite finding school easy, as she grew older RM Downer may have resented it, because she felt ready to move on in her life. After she reached the top class, she spent another three years at school, because at the time it was compulsory up to the age of 14. She writes that, ‘As we could not leave until 14, I was able to take the Dunces and help the teachers generally. I was also given cutting out garments and needlework to do’ (p22). The restrictive way she describes this, and the fact that she ‘could not leave’ implies that RM Downer was ready by then to move into the workforce, showing her to be mature and responsible, but also demonstrating the financial pressures on her family and her need to earn money.

It is not unusual for someone like RM Downer to spend her time at school, not on her education, but on helping teachers and doing needlework. In the autobiography of John Kerr, a school inspector in the 19th Century, he says that ‘A teacher whose heart was in his work gave instruction… from feeling that he was free to do what he thought best for those under his charge, free to take count of and adapt his teaching to varying degrees and kinds of ability’ (Burnett, pp146-147). As RM Downer was a capable student, her schooling was changed to become more useful to her personally.

RM Downer left school in 1898, aged 14. She then spent three years as an apprentice, before becoming an independent dressmaker at the age of 17. This is a relatively short amount of time, as many apprenticeships at the turn of the century lasted 7 years. It is also unusual that RM Downer found employment so soon after completing her apprenticeship. She writes about taking on paid work at 17 years old, whereas David Vincent writes in Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-century Working Class Autobiography that ‘In almost every case the successful completion of a seven-year apprenticeship was followed by a period “on the tramp” during which the unemployed artisan would have to leave his home, family and friends and go off in search of work’ (p68). It is true that she had to leave her home behind and travel for work, but RM Downer did not experience the typical gap in employment that Vincent describes. This may be because she worked independently and so she was seeking short term clients, rather than a long term employer.

RM Downer ‘s apprenticeship not only had an impact on her career, but also on her personal life. She writes, ‘[My mother] knew my husband’s mother, who had several girls working for her and she took me on. I used to stay to tea with the family and there met my husband’ (p23). This shows that she spent a lot of time with her husband’s family and that she had a good working relationship with her mother-in-law. RM Downer also says that meeting her husband made her more enthusiastic about her career, as she ‘was very thrilled with the attention he paid me, and I think that helped me to take an interest in the work’ (p23). This is one of many examples in RM Downer’s memoir that demonstrates how closely linked her working and personal lives were.


Reveille pattern no.19
Gown made by Reville and Rossiter for Queen Mary I’s coronation

There are some references in RM Downer’s memoir to her literacy and education as an adult. She does not talk about reading as a pastime, but she describes using ‘the more expensive Vogue patterns and a French book “La Reville” which was very helpful’ (pp14-15) for her work. It is unclear whether the French book she describes is a book of dressmaking patterns or a textbook, but this could imply that she read and understood French. “La Reville” could refer to ‘Reveille’, a pattern designer, or possibly Reville and Rossiter, which was a London Dressmaking house. Reville and Rossiter were operating in the early 20th Century, and made Queen Mary’s coronation gown in 1911, so it is feasible that the book she describes was written by the designer, William Reville. However, in my research I have been unable to identify the book she is referring to.

RM Downer appeared to have gone through school with relative ease, and her ability may be the reason that she says so little on the topic. Her son seemed to be an equally fast learner. She writes that he ‘gained a Scholarship for a good Grammar School’ (p23). This contrasts greatly with her client, Mrs. X, whose sons ‘were at Dartmouth when when two of our Princes were there’ (p23). Class clearly had a large role to play in education for RM Downer and her family, especially when their experiences are compared to those of her wealthy clients. Nevertheless, her reflections on her education show that she was happy and successful.

Britainnia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, attended by King George V, King George VI, and Mrs X’s eldest sons

Works cited
Downer, Mrs R., ‘A Bygone Age’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, West Sussex Record Office, 1:211, available at
‘Mrs R Downer’ 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): 1:211
John Burnett ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Alan Lane, 1982.
David Vincent. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-century Working Class Autobiography. New York: Methuen and Co, 1982.

Featured image: East Parade School, Horsham c.1910.
The Sewing Class, illustration by John Henry Frederick Bacon c.1910.
Reveille sewing pattern no. 19.
Queen Mary I’s coronation gown, designed by Reville and Rossiter.
Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.

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