Mrs RM Downer (b.1884): Habits, Culture and Belief

“A Dispute – King Charles Spaniels”
Painting by Benno Adam, 1812-1892

RM Downer spent much of her free time with her employers. She was friends with many of her clients and while completing dresses, she often lived with them. As such, she was included in their leisure activities. In the opening pages of her memoir, RM Downer describes spending time with Mrs. X.’s mother when she lived and worked in her home in Kent. She writes about day-trips to London to pick out fabrics, where they ‘usually had lunch at Dickens & Jones or some other good restaurant’ (p3). As RM Downer was with clients, her pastimes reflect their wealthy background more than her own working-class status. For example, she describes taking her clients’ King Charles spaniels with her on a walk and says,


“Bijou” and “Mimi” were well known in the town and were taken to the shops and


given spongecake. “Yummy” – a lovely little pug – would sit by my chair hoping I would have a bone for him. (pp3-4)


Even the names of her client’s dogs suggest that she was spending time in a very different world to her own.  

RM Downer seemed to enjoy spending time outdoors, and comments on many occasions about the gardens of her clients. In one home, she writes that ‘The garden too was lovely and I learnt about roses; I used to enjoy walking round with this lady’ (p4). Later on, she speaks fondly of another rose garden, suggesting that she was happy outdoors and liked plants.

Historical photograph of a Church Parade, Leigh and District Historical Society

In addition to spending leisure time with her clients, RM Downer was also included in religious events. When living with Mrs. C., RM Downer accompanied her ‘to Church on Sunday morning’ (p10) every week, and when working for Mrs. A., who was a part of a military family, she writes about going ‘to the Church Parade with the family and afterwards the Band would play on the lawn outside the Camp H.Q.’ (p11).

RM Downer enjoyed going to the theatre. Her client, Mrs. X. would sometimes recommend plays and give tickets to her staff. When reminiscing about this, RM Downer writes

‘I remember seeing ‘The Only Way’ with Martin Harvey acting as Sidney Carton. I enjoyed the wonderful acting but finished up in tears. ‘The Breed of the Greshams’ was another good one, and ‘His House in Order’ with George Alexander acting was very good.’ (p12)

‘His House in Order’ is a social drama written by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, an English dramatist, director and actor, known for giving ‘the predominant place in nearly all of his serious plays to women’ and writing about the trials they face in a compassionate way (p38, Rideing).

RM Downer writes in the beginning of her memoir about her first holiday after entering the workforce. She remembers spending time with relatives who were visiting from Canada, visiting Goodwood races. Watching the horse-racing was not an unusual working-class hobby at the time. In A Sociology of Horse-Racing in Britain, Filby describes racetracks as a meeting point between ‘elite sociability’ and the culture of ‘the working class betting tradition’ (pi, Filby). Despite this association between the working classes and gambling, RM Downer does not mention betting in relation to Goodwood. Instead, it is likely that the racetrack was a significant place to her family due to her father’s past and his participation in the Steeplechase, which I discuss in my Home and Family post.

The Royal Landing Stage at Cowes Regatta, 1917

RM Downer continues to describe this holiday with her family.  At the races she says she ‘saw many Royalties and ladies in beautiful gowns walking about. The next day or so we went to Cowes Regatta where the Royal Yacht was racing, then on to Arundel and over the Castle with tea in the park’ (p5). It is interesting that she takes an interest in the clothing of the ladies she sees, and that, even on holiday, she is preoccupied with her work. Later, when writing about a trip to London with her son and husband, RM Downer describes the holiday as ‘very useful and interesting to me, as I could visit the wholesale houses that supplied me and see all the new season’s goods’ (p21). She also says that she visited the Royal School of Needlework.

It is clear that, even during her time off, RM Downer was dedicated to her role as a dressmaker and that her own interests were tied to her work. This is in direct contrast with McKibbin’s comment in The Ideologies of Class that ‘Non-vocational interests rescued workers from inanition of factory labour’ (McKibbin, p140). This is possibly because, as an artisan, she was more free in her work, and so did not feel trapped by her labour. As I have explored here, she was also most likely writing her memoir in order to write about her profession, and so it is unsurprising that her own habits and interests would be described from a working perspective.

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
Filby, Michael Paul. A Sociology of Horse-Racing in Britain: A Study of the Social Significance and Organisation of British Horse-Racing. Warwick: Warwick UP, 1983.
McKibbin, R. The Ideologies of Class: Social Relations in Britain, 1880–1950. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Featured image: Rose garden at Chartwell, National Trust.
“A Dispute – King Charles Spaniels” by Benno Adam, 1812-1892.
Historical photograph of a Church Parade, Leigh and District Historical Society.
Royal Landing Stage, 1917 – Cowes Regatta.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.