Edith Annie Williams (b. Nov. 1899): Life and Labour (Part 1.)

‘Shortly after leaving the grammar school my mother apprenticed me to the dressmaking trade with a local dressmaker’ (8)

Many of the author’s featured in the blogs discuss labour as a means of exploitation. Joe Ayre, for example, was pulled out of school as a young child to work on a market. Even after migrating to Canada, he found that working conditions were intense beyond anything that he had experienced before and for very little money. Read more about Joe here. Edith had a very different experience as for her, working life was a way of escaping from the struggles of the working classes. Throughout her life she has a wide variety of jobs and as time goes on these jobs become more significant.

She begins her working life as an apprentice dressmaker, much like fellow author Mrs Rm Downer who took great pride in her intricate work. Edith’s career as a dressmaker is cut short because of the war, ‘I had just six months training when war broke out, & everyone’s life was disrupted that changes had to be made including the dressmaking business’ (8). Though she does not go into great detail on this particular occupation, this seems to have been a relatively easy trade for her to train into. This also gave her the opportunity to mix with the upper classes.

Brockleton Court in Tenbury Wells, as it looks now, where Edith worked for the Prescott family in 1915. Find the image at the Birminghampost.co.uk

While working in domestic service, she utilizes her skills learned as a dressmaker to progress onto work with more respectable families. ‘I wanted to use my knowledge of dressmaking to improve my status, & I could do this by applying for a post as a young lady’s maid’ (9). She uses her work as a means of developing her social identity. The war seemed to have had a big impact on this tactic: ‘At a time when clothing coupons, & other scarcities made the buying of new clothes an impossibility almost, my ability to alter their existing wardrobes to looked a little more fashionable, pleased them very much’ (9-10). This suggests that she views her work as respectable and a great marker of social identity if she used it to change her own social identity.

At this point in her life she does express class consciousness, but she does not express as David Cannadine and suggests [1], an ‘us vs them’ consciousness in any profound or obvious way. As her father worked as a miner which was, as she recognises their exemption from Conscription due to ‘National Importance’ (8) there appears no real fear of the workhouse like there would be for many other working class families.

A nursery maid in the early 1900’s. Find on Pinterest.co.uk

The war appears to work to her advantage to some extent with regards to her endeavours with the upper classes. While working in the mansion near Tenbury Wells, she recalls that the ladies, ‘would come into the workroom bringing with them designs & suggestions, in their desire to make their old clothes unrecognisable by the time their menfolk came home on leave from France’ (10). She comments on the impact that war had upon working women. ‘There was no comparable call to womenfolk as yet, their only contribution being limited to the knitting of scarves & balaclava helmets for the “Tommies”. It was not until war had taken its toll of man-power needed for the making of munitions, that women were called in to replace the men’ (8).

She spends her adolescence during the war years working primarily in domestic service. ‘I had been taken away to a post in Radnorshire as second nurse to a little girl of eighteen months, the daughter of a very wealthy shipping magnate’ (8). It is here where she is exposed to opportunities to improve her station. ‘It was explained that the present nanny was soon retiring & I would be expected to take her place. There were four other children from the family, all boys, who were away at public schools, & I was to valet them when they were home on school holidays’ (8).

A Governess at the turn of the century. A role Edith was given the opportunity to fulfil. Find at duke.edu


Still a young girl, aged around 16, she describes feelings of sadness when travelling far away from home for work with little choice. ‘…as the train climbed up through the mountain passes of mid-Wales, a feeling of loneliness & homesickness came over me’ (9).

On her arrival she quickly realises that there had been a misunderstanding. ‘…when I first came face to face with the elderly nurse that my heart sank…I saw the huge pram that had to be pushed up & down the hills of Radnorshire, with the baby taking her afternoon airings in it, I saw what was meant.’ (9). She dares not go home, ‘to face the disgrace’ (9) of the minister who recommended her for this role that she is too young to fulfil. This shows that she is conscious of the respectability associated with working. It is at this point where she feels she, ‘had significant confidence to set out on my own initiative’ (9) and use her skills as a former dressmaker to remain in the post. She is recommended for a post as governess which she turns down due to her own misgivings in her abilities.

‘Circumstances made it clear to me that I had no alternative but domestic service, at least until the war was over’ (9).


Index entry in Burnett et al The Autobiography pf the British Working Class: 832 WILLIAMS, Edith. A, ‘Untitled.’ TS, pp. 39 + 3pp. chapter summary (c. 11,700 words). Brunel University Library.

[1] Cannadine, David. Class in Britain. London: Penguin, 2000.

Joe Ayre ‘Life and Labour’ post by Luke Beighton http://www.writinglives.org/life-and-labour/joe-ayre-b-1910-life-and-labour

Childerhouse, Ruth. ‘Mrs R M Downer (b. 1884) Life and Labour Part 1.’ Writinglives.org. 14th April 2018. Web. Accessed 19th April.

Image references

Featured image https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/77124212340802095/

Image of Brockleton Court https://www.birminghampost.co.uk/lifestyle/house-homes/historical-tenbury-wells-home-could-10567865

Image of a Governess https://sites.duke.edu/anaramirezja/2017/03/23/interesting-thing-in-emma/

Image of a nursery maid https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/163466661452498392/


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