Mrs RM Downer (b.1884): Life and Labour (Part 1)

RM Downer’s memoir is heavily focused on her career as a dressmaker. As I have explored in a previous post, her purpose in writing seems to be to make a record of this form of artisan working, and to preserve her way of life. RM Downer enjoyed her work, and talks extensively about her pleasant working conditions. She frequently worked in the homes of her clients, for example at large country homes and in a ‘tall Georgian house’ (p1). This environment meant that she was able to do her dressmaking ‘nearly all the time out in the summerhouse with a table and my machine’ (p2) or on the beach (p6). Her clients clearly gave her a lot of freedom to work where and how she chose, and this independence may have been why she enjoyed her work so much. She also describes a pleasant working environment later in her life when she was working at home. RM Downer writes that her family ‘we were one of the first people to have a wireless set’, causing one of her employers to remark, ‘how pleased I am that you will be able to listen to nice music and programmes while you are sewing’ (p24).

Three young women listening to the radio in Brisbane, ca. 1942

In RM Downer’s description of her working conditions, it is clear that her clients treated her kindly, and cared about her well-being.  When describing one of the homes she worked in, RM Downer writes that, ‘This was a quiet house with only two maids, but I was well looked after’ (p7). Later she describes an anecdote in which she was working late to finish a dress when her client, Mrs X. ‘saw my light on and came into my room, saying “You are not to stay up to finish this!”… A few days after I had such a nice letter from her enclosing a cheque, and saying, Your account was ridiculous for all the work you did!’ (p13). This incident shows how good her relationship was with her employers and how appreciated she was for her work. This seems unexpected, as many other working class accounts of the time describe a power imbalance between employers and workers. In one extreme example, Kay Garrett describes being attacked by her manager in her job in an office. In contrast, RM Downer’s description of her working relationships seem to suggest equality and mutual respect between employer and employee.

However, RM Downer’s work does not appear to have been easy. Although she does not explicitly discuss the financial struggles she faced, she does provide details that suggest the significant pressure she faced. RM Downer gives her working hours as ‘9 a.m. to 8 p.m.’ (p31),

Two shilling coin, 1938

six days a week, and in extreme cases, she was also forced ‘to work on a Sunday (this was unusual) to get the dresses finished’ (p9). This shows the reader how dependent she was on her commissions to make a living. In addition to these long working hours, RM Downer also took work at events held by her clients. For example, she describes a hospital ball where she worked in the cloakroom and did not go home until ‘about 4 a.m.’ (p6). Despite how long her working days were, RM Downer does not complain, or express any exhaustion. She remains enthusiastic about her work throughout her memoir and her life.

She tells the reader that she was paid 15 shillings per week, plus expenses for food and travel. Assuming that this was her income in 1915 (she does not specify changes in her wages at different periods), this would be worth roughly £45 in today’s money (National Archive Currency Calculator). She supplemented this income by taking on additional dressmaking work, which she completed at home at night. Although RM Downer was forced to take on a lot of work in order to make a living, she was supported by her family, who she says often helped her with her work.

Floral embroidery sample made by Eveline Gordon, 1934

For example, she writes that her ‘Mother, who had been apprenticed to dressmaking would help’ (p17) and one one occasion when working on embellishments on a dress, her ‘husband who was clever with flower drawing did the design for me’ (p18).

Above all, RM Downer was proud of her work. She describes the dresses that she designed in meticulous detail, telling her reader how much she liked the materials and how well the dresses suited her clients. It is difficult to read about her working life without noticing the passion she had, and the care she took in her work. RM Downer was rewarded for this care with respect and admiration from her peers. She frequently speaks of the compliments she received for her work. She writes that one of her clients, Mrs. X. was ‘famous’ for the ‘perfection’ of her dresses (p6), and ‘A local lady who saw some of the dresses said “fit for the Queen”’ (p18). RM Downer may have been modest about her skills, writing with embarrassment about ‘making two sleeves for one arm’ (p23), but her mistakes were greatly outweighed by her successes, and she was greatly admired by her peers for her work.

Read more about RM Downer’s work here, in a post where I discuss the opportunities and social mobility that RM Downer’s career gave her.

Works cited
Downer, Mrs R., ‘A Bygone Age’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, West Sussex Record Office, 1:211, available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9516
‘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
Currency Converter 1270-2017, The National Archives, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency-converter
Garrett, Kay. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, Brunel University Library, 2.305
Portia Fahey, ‘Kay Garrett, b.1899: Life and Labour’, http://www.writinglives.org/life-and-labour/kay-garrett-b-1899-life-and-labour

Images
Featured image: Embroidery notions, https://pixabay.com/en/sewing-notions-fashion-thread-907792/
Three young women listening to the radio in Brisbane, ca. 1942., photograph held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, 
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:StateLibQld_1_105248_Group_of_friends_gathered_around_a_radio_in_Brisbane,_ca._1942.jpg
Two shilling coin, 1938. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:English_Two_Shillings_1938.jpg
Floral embroidery sample, 1934. Made by Eveline Gordon, Victoria and Albert Museum Textiles and Fashion Collection http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O88023/sample-of-embroidery-gordon-eveline/

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