Mrs RM Downer (b.1884): Life and Labour (Part 2, Social Mobility)

In my introductory post I spoke briefly about RM Downer’s experiences of high society, and the opportunities she was given through her work as a dressmaker. RM Downer spent a lot of time outside of her own working-class social sphere because of the connections she made as part of her job. She worked for high status figures, from the wives of army officers to millionaires.

Berkeley Square, Mayfair. Photo by Colin Smith.

This meant that she was working in environments inhabited by the upper class. She writes about one home in Berkeley Square, in Mayfair, London, where ‘the door was opened by a very pompous Butler who gave me a gold pen to write my name in the Visitors’ Book’ (p13). Working in these homes let RM Downer experience a kind of luxury that she would not have been able to access from her own social sphere. In one home, she writes, ‘I had my first experience of the Telephone and Electricity’ (p3) and in another, ‘The food was lovely… and there was always a glass of claret on my tray’ (p4).

 

RM Downer was also given many social opportunities through her work. Her employers gave her the chance to experience a life very different from her own. For example, she writes about a client, Mrs. A., who ‘took me to see the Polo and afterwards to tea in a large tent with tables laid beautifully with strawberries and cream. Etc.’ (p10-11). Similarly, RM Downer’s friend and employer, Mrs. X., was happy to accept her into a higher class environment. She writes that ‘When Mr. and Mrs. X. had seen a play that they thought good, they would give us [the staff] tickets’ (p12), showing the way that RM Downer’s career made these upper class environments more accessible to her. In Andrew Miles’ study, ‘Recent Findings of Research in Economic and Social History’, he observes that ‘the rate of social mobility in nineteenth and early twenty-century England increased steadily. As it did so, English society also became more open’ (p4). RM Downer’s memoir reflects this openness. Her employers gave her the freedom to move between the worlds of upper and working class life, and she was not as limited by her background as a reader may expect.  

RM Downer was offered work at many upper-class events due to the connections she made through her dressmaking. One example of this is the Hospital Ball hosted by Mrs. X. RM Downer remembers an evening working in the dressing room, being brought ‘Champagne and meringues several times’ before joining the guests for a supper that included ‘Lobster Mayonnaise, Chicken and Turkey in various forms,creamy sweets and ices and more Champagne’ (p10). However, these luxuries are not the only thing she experienced at these events. RM Downer also recounts an exciting tale where she was working for a military family at an army camp. One evening at dinner,

‘a new cook had arrived and during the dinner there was a long wait between the courses. When the maid eventually brought mine she said “I shall not stay with her, she is drunk!” Later on the Military Police were called in and the cook was carried forcibly downstairs screaming’ (p11).

 

Still Life With Champagne and Oysters – Johann Wilhelm Preyer, 1857

The class divide between them did not stop RM Downer from becoming close friends with many of her employers. She writes fondly of many of her clients, and stayed in touch with many of them throughout her life. She describes one client as ‘a life long friend’ (p19), and says that the two ladies from South Africa who frequently hired her ‘were like friends and very interested to hear all about [her family]’ (p24). It is clear that, although RM Downer maintained a professional relationship with these women, they treated her as an equal and took an interest in her. For one job, she writes that she ‘worked in a wing of [a] house near the nursery but did not go into the servants’ hall’ and that she ‘was asked to use the front staircase’ (p8). These details show that she was treated more like a guest than an inferior. She spent leisure time with her employers, such as Mrs. C., who she ‘often went for drives with’ (p10).

Mrs. X. was a particularly close friend of RM Downer. After the birth of her son, RM Downer remembers receiving a letter from her, asking her to ‘go to her and if possible bring my son, which I did, and they were all pleased to see me again. The children played together in the nursery while we discussed clothes!’ (p18). This suggests a relationship that was not dictated by class boundaries, and shows that Mrs Downer’s career broadened not only her own social boundaries, but those of her family. Towards the end of her memoir, when RM Downer is remembering Mrs. X., she writes ‘If I have said a lot in favour of Mrs. X. I must say that it was a great privilege and pleasure to work for such a lovely lady’ (p30). In this statement, the reader sees her fondness for her employer, but is also reminded of the distance between them in status. Working for people such as Mrs. X. afforded her privileges and opportunities that would have been hard to come by for someone of Downer’s class. Her career as a dressmaker allowed her to move in different social circles and to overcome class boundaries.

 

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
Miles, A. 1996. Social Mobility in Nineteenth-Century England. Recent Findings of Research in Economic & Social History. http://www.ehs.org.uk/dotAsset/9beeba62-ad6b-4915-84e7-f380c2648e74.pdf

Images
Berkeley Square, photograph by Colin Smith, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Berkeley_Square_-_geograph.org.uk_-_240739.jpg
Still Life With Champagne and Oysters, Johann Wilhelm Preyer. 1857 painting. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2017-02_Johann_Wilhelm_Preyer_-_Still_life_with_champagne_and_oysters.jpg

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