Ada Marion Jefferis (1884-1981): Labour, Politics and Class

Although labour, politics and class don’t appear heavily within Ada’s memoir, they all combine to tell us more about the type of person she is and how she grew up.

Labour is explored as something that is connected with class identity. Ada’s work life was constructed by her father as a semi-skilled worker and her sister as a head housemaid for a family in Clapham which I discussed in my previous post. Therefore, Ada was able to slot into a privileged job role as a lady’s maid because she “was quite clever with the needle” (7) and had these family connections. The British census in 1891 “found that 1.3 million girls and women worked as domestic servants in Victorian England” (Allitt, 2017). This is because most girls viewed domestic service as an “opportunity for advancement” (Griffin, 2020, p. 39), and in the right house, “domestic service offered training as well as wages” (39). Lucy Lethbridge provides us with some kind of description of Ada’s appearance as a “housemaid should be tall, else how can she put the linen away on the top shelves” (2013). Lady’s maids were warned in the ‘Duties of Servants’ “never to dress out of station nor attempt to rival the ladies of the family” (2013), but Ada would have had a good “knowledge of stuffs, trimmings and fashions” (2013).

A Victorian Lady’s Maid

Ada’s job role consisted of looking after “household linen as well as tending the lady of the house” (7). When comparing Ada’s labour to that of Mrs Yates who worked in the mill factory and had a crippling fear of the machinery, Ada’s life seemed preferable. Whilst Mrs Yates only earned eleven shillings whilst working full time which she had to share with her mother, Ada earned £8 a year which was paid every quarter and she was also given one dress length, seven yards of material. The irony is that if Mrs Yates was to make a mistake in the mill factory, she was fined to make up for lost cotton, whereas Ada was given this as a gift for her hard work.

However, Ada seemingly goes through life looking forward without a thought of what is going on around her in these mill factories or in the workhouses for the destitute. The only reflection Ada has is at the end of her memoir when she states that at the end of her life: “Poverty there may be, but not so much dire distress as in the days when there was nothing but the workhouse facing the poor” (18). This implies that Ada was aware of these conditions all along as “every working-class person in London was aware of the workhouse” (Griffin, 2020, p. 8). But, because she was not part of it, she didn’t feel the importance to mention it or respect those who were in worse jobs than herself. Instead, she described her role as a lady’s maid as “difficult” (7), because the lady of the house suffered from bronchitis, so she was “very fussy” (7), about the temperature of the rooms. As Ada was surrounded by high-class people such as famous actors, Viola Beerbohm Tree and Prime Minister Mr Asquith because her husband worked as a servant on their estates, she still managed to integrate herself into a lifestyle that appears middle-class even though she WAS not.

Charles Green, gardener to Sir George Macleay at Pendell Court, Bletchingley

Regina Gagnier suggests that “the only difference between men’s and women’s narratives is that women refer far more frequently to their husbands or lovers and children (their personal relationships) and men refer more to their jobs or occupations (their social status)” (1987, p. 355). This is apparent within Ada’s memoir as her sole focus is on her family and how they move around the country for her husband’s labour as a head gardener, rather than her own daily duties.

From the way Ada describes “The Gentlemen of the Road”, who were referred to as “Tramps”, as “very dirty and ragged” (5), who produced “a dirty old tin and beg a spoonful of tea, and anything the housewife might have to spare” (5), shows her position in society. Again, it puts her in a place where she appears higher-up than those on the streets and has the ability to look down on them. This shows that even within the hierarchal structure, working class people sit at the bottom but at least they made it into the hierarchy unlike those who experienced extreme poverty. Class is also shown through Ada’s marriage to Walter who is of the same status because David Vincent suggests that “none of these autobiographers, nor any I have looked at who later managed to escape from their class, made any attempt to marry outside it” (1980, p. 234). Walter grew up as a family of 6 in Fordingbridge Hampshire where his father, James Jefferis, was a plumber and his brother, William Jefferis, was a house painter.

Gentleman of the Road

Race is lightly explored when Ada visits Earls Court to watch a show with her mother and remembers “being very interested in the handsome foreigners” (6), because “we seldom saw people with dark skins in those days” (6). Although Britain had an open-door policy towards immigration during the nineteenth century, “migrants were not always welcomed” (Lloyd). Therefore, Ada’s secret admiration for these men was kept to herself and never acted upon.

Politics within ‘The Memories of Ada Marion Jefferis’ is discussed through their stay at Abbots Ann in Andover which was Colonel Churchill’s estate. He is described as a “staunch conservative” (10), who would only employ those that had the same political views of his own. If he was to discover that someone had “sympathy with another party it meant immediate dismissal” (10). Due to Ada’s husbands “very independent nature” (10), he resented this and “so we left” (10). Jonathan Rose states: “Only one in ten nineteenth-century workers’ memoirs were written by women, and the whole sample is skewed to the political left: the twentieth-century volume of the Burnett-Vincent-Mayall bibliography lists many more Communists than Conservatives” (1993, p. 51). Although it is not clear what political party they supported, it is obvious that they were not conservatives and had strong morals that were enough for them to leave. 

Primary Sources:

  • 1:379 JEFFERIS, Ada Marion,The Memoirs of a.M. Jefferis. Written by her Daughter’, TS, pp. 1-19 (c.7,000 words). Brunel University Library.
  • Jefferis, Ada Marion. ‘The Memoirs of A.M. Jefferis. Written by her Daughter.’ Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies. University of Brunel Library. Special Collections. 1:379.

Secondary Sources:

  • Allitt, P. (2017). The Life of Domestic Servants in Victorian England. [online] The Great Courses Daily. Available at: <https://www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/servants-in-victorian-england/> [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Gagnier, R. (1987). Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender. Victorian Studies, 30:3, pp. 335-363.
  • Griffin, E. (2020). Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  • Lethbridge, L. (2013). Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Lloyd, A., n.d. Emigration, Immigration and Migration in Nineteenth-Century Britain. [online] Gale.com. Available at: <https://www.gale.com/binaries/content/assets/gale-us-en/primary-sources/intl-gps/intl-gps-essays/full-ghn-contextual-essays/ghn_essay_bln_lloyd1_website.pdf> [Accessed 28 April 2021].
  • Parr, O. (2021). Mrs Yates (b.1882): Life & Labour. Available at: http://www.writinglives.org/life-and-labour/mrs-yates-b-1882-life-labour. [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Rose, J. (1993). Willingly to School: The Working-Class Response to Elementary Education in Britain, 1875-1918Journal of British Studies, 32:2, pp. 114-138.
  • Vincent, D. (1980). Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class. Social History, 5:2, pp. 223-247.

Images:

  • Featured Image – A Lady’s Maid. Retrieved from: https://lifetakeslemons.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/a-day-in-the-life-a-ladys-maid/ [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 1 – A Lady’s Maid. Retrieved from: https://lifetakeslemons.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/a-day-in-the-life-a-ladys-maid/ [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 2 – Gardener. Retrieved from: https://www.exploringsurreyspast.org.uk/themes/people/gardeners/charles_green/ [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 3 – Tramp in Victorian Hertfordshire. Retrieved from: https://www.northmymmshistory.uk/2018/09/life-as-tramp-in-victorian-hertfordshire.html [Accessed 29 April 2021].

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