Winifred Relph (B.1912): An Introduction

‘As a grubby kitchen maid I must NEVER go through the front of the house, always use the back stairs and remember my place! At times I really felt that I was the lowest thing that ever breathed, but I was a natural rebel and deep inside me I knew there was something wrong with this reasoning and I think I was always seeking an answer’ (54).

Domestic servant 1920s
Domestic Servant 1920s

Winifred Relph, the second of four children of a carpenter and housewife, was born in 1912 in the village of Edenbridge, Kent. Winifred’s memoir, ‘Through Rough Ways’, tells of a lively and at times, ‘turbulent and stormy’ (2) life living in the countyside of Britain in the early 20th century.

Winifred, comical and endearing, takes her readers on her journey from childhood to adulthood. Her story is brimming with mischievous tales and the village’s most scandalous gossip: ‘stories circulated that they were German spies! I think they were probably Welsh but in our village at that time, a foreigner was a foreigner’ (4). Winifred’s lively and candid narrative voice, allows us to become wholly immersed in her private life, family, friends and beliefs.

Written in two parts, the first half of the memoir, on the whole, illustrates a happy and fulfilled early childhood: ‘My earliest memories are happy ones, a busy bustling mother, a quiet loving father always somewhere in the background quietly smoking his pipe while reading the newspaper’(19). Winifred describes a loving and secure working-class family, until the death of her father in 1920 leaves Winifred’s mother widowed with four young children.

General Election Poster 1924
General Election Poster 1924

Undoubtedly, after this tragedy, there is a shift in the tone of the memoir. It is clear that Winifred’s mother struggled to make ends meet: ‘Everyone in the village was poor but we were poorer than any’ (38). Although their family struggled, Winifred largely focuses on the enduring strength and fortitude of her mother. It is clear that Winifred was inspired by her mother’s independence and, consequently, was determined, not only to have a successful career but to have her voice heard in politics too.

Winifred was aware of her working-class status from a young age but always considered the class system to be unbalanced and unfair: ‘the barrier between them (her middle-class employees) and myself was like a steel wall, quite impossible to penetrate. They made me feel as if I belonged to a lower form of life’ (67). During her early working-life as a domestic servant, Winifred describes feeling inferior to her employers and how she was subjected to sexual harassment in the work place.

Angry with the injustice of the class system, at the age of 20, Winifred became an active socialist and attempted to organise domestic workers into a union. ‘Through Rough Ways’ is a powerful account of a working-class girl’s determination to rebel against social divisions and give women the space in politics they deserve.

 

 


 

Works Cited:

Relph, Winifred, in Burnett, John, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 3 vols (Brighton: Harvester, 1987) 2:657

2:657 Relph, Winifred, ‘Through Rough Ways’, TS, pp. 120 (c. 63,000 words). Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library

Images Cited:

Image of ‘Domestic Servant 1920s’. Accessed: 12/10/15. www.theguardian.com. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jan/16/country-house-servant-labours-lost 16/01/10

Image of ‘General Election Poster 1924’. Accessed: 12/10/15. http://chorltonhistory.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/with-alice-mcilwrick-fighting-elections.html 16/03/13

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