Emily Gertrude Lea (1902-1976): Life & Labour

“…her remark when she said “The working classes were a lazy lot” used to make me furious for, if people “work” how can they be lazy?” (11)

Forced to leave schooling earlier than desired, Lea’s early introduction to the workforce aged 13 was not greeted happily. This was a common theme amongst almost all working class families, with children only remaining in education until the compulsory schooling age before being pulled out to either help run the family home, or being sent out to work to aid the family financially.

Child Labour in the 20th Century
Child Labour in the 20th Century

Under the forceful hand of her parents, Lea began her first job at Horden’s toy and stationary store two months after turning thirteen. Beginning work at 8:30am, Lea worked 11 hour days finishing at 7:30pm, 9:00pm on Saturdays. Lea’s tasks included serving behind the counter,  running errands, carrying piles of boxes, packaging parcels and “no end of dusting”(7).

Lea depicts the typical working atmosphere the majority of the working class endured; physically gruelling work, poor pay and long hours which left little or no time for leisure activities. For Lea, this was particularly emphasized during the festive season. Lea remembers how she, along with two other shop assistants; “nearly lived at the shop. We never ever got home for tea and kept open each night until after 9:00pm. Christmas Eve brought things to an end at midnight and feeling about whacked  I walked home with mother across the market square and hear the Christmas Bells ring out”(8).  To compensate for all the extra work, Lea received an added five shillings and box of chocolates. Clearly unsatisfied with this, Lea remarks “I supposed I was paid according to the times… but I sometimes wondered how they squared their consciences, especially over breaking the law over the half day…” (8). This highlights how the working class were often exploited at the cost of their labour, however in no position to turn down money, only ever earning enough to scrape by, little was done to improve their working conditions until later in the 20th century.

After the Christmas trade died down, pay and conditions seemed to worsen for Lea, with one colleague walking out exclaiming to “the boss that he didn’t pay a living wage”, Lea herself became “bored and fed up” (8) and sought work elsewhere.

Finding work in dressmaking, Lea comments that despite being unsuited for the role, she wanted “to learn something more useful” (8) with such domesticated roles stereo-typically  being the most popular occupation for women.



Dressmaking in the 20th Century
Dressmaking in the 20th Century

Quickly taking to the role, Lea worked the same exhausting 11 hour shifts from 7:30 am until 8:30 pm and despite earning sixpence more than at Horden’s, taking home 2 shillings weekly, Lea still comments “the wages again didn’t weigh me down” (8) .Whilst both Lea and her older brother Albert worked, Lea’s family still struggled as Albert only earned four and sixpence from a printing job, forcing Lea into taking extra work home continuing work until 10:00pm. Beginning to take more pride in her appearance at work, It is around this time Lea became affected by the differences between her families and others, noting about her mother “I realise now, she just couldn’t afford some of the things I ardently desired…I was never lucky enough to have white shoes and socks and a white jap silk dress like some other children had” (9).

Five years later in 1918, after Albert had moved to Canada on a part paid passage, finances in the Lea household were more manageable and Lea decided she could afford a change and so took on a job at the older, more established dressmaking firm Bodaly’s allowing Lea to appreciate regular hours for the first time despite the slight decrease in pay.

In the year of 1925, after various positions within the dress making industry, Lea took a complete change in her career direction choosing to go into “the service” (16) as she took up post as a maid for a wealthy upper class family.  Alongside four other maids, Lea’s job was to aid to the wants and desires of her employer, with typical duties including running errands, laying out clothes, tidying and “generally running up and down until it was time for ‘elevenses’”(16). Starting at a low wage of only £26 per annum, Lea soon proved to be a valuable employee and enjoyed a pay rise to £36 per annum, and with lodgings taken care of, Lea was soon able to begin saving some of wages, something which used to be virtually impossible for the working class highlighting changes in the working class workplace.

Maids in the early 20th Century
Maids in the early 20th Century

This proved to be Lea’s last post as in the year 1928 Lea became engaged and soon to be married, Lea retired from work like many other working class women to become a housewife. Giving birth just over a year later, Lea embodied a stereotypical working class family as she stayed at home to take care of any domesticated duties and exercising moral authority within surrounding communities whilst her husband went out to work and provide for the family financially.


  •  Lea, Emily Gertrude. ‘Reflections In the setting sun…I Remember after fifty years’Burnett Archive of Working Class autobiography, University of Brunel Library, 2-469


1)     Child Labour: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_labour

2)     Dressmaking: http://lesleyhulonce.wordpress.com/tag/sign-language/

3)     Maids: http://www.npr.org/2014/01/02/258704323/visible-and-invisible-servants-looks-at-life-downstairs

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