Ada Marion Jefferis (1884-1981): Purpose and Audience

“No doubt there are a number of interesting things I have forgotten to relate but I hope that those who read this will find it of some interest” (19).

One day in 1980, Ada Marion Jefferis dictated her life story to her daughter Elsie. It is suggested that this was encouraged by her daughter through guided questions and prompts which is evident by the fragmented narrative and absence of names through the assumed knowledge of the listener. 

The purpose of this transaction could be to keep Ada’s memory alive for her “twelve great grandchildren” (17), or it could have been written in response to John Burnett’s appearances on ‘Woman’s Hour.’ Between 1974 and 1982, Burnett put a call out on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour “asking for listeners to write to him about their memories of the ‘early life of the working class’” (Rogers and Cuming, 2019, p.180). 

Since the timing of Ada’s memoir corresponds with the period the historian John Burnett was collecting working-class autobiographies, it is a possibility that the autobiography was written solely to be deposited in Burnett’s Archive of the Autobiography of the Working Class. Similarly to Ada, Ethel Mary Ellen Ley dictated her 700-word life story to her granddaughter and hoped to be included in the collection in order to “preserve [her] memories…because others cared, thought them important, and in need of protection” (Cuming and Rogers, 2019, p.198).

As Ada approaches 96 at the time of writing, I am aware that she probably feels at a state in which she is satisfied to write and complete her memoir as her life is coming to an end and nothing significant is left to happen. This is reflected through the death of her brother: “He had left me with happy memories” (17). This is the last memory that Ada dictates, suggesting that now her brother has gone, she has no one else to make these memories with. After this part of the memoir, she begins to reflect on the life she is living now: “The latter years of my life my main interest has been centred round the young people of my family” (17). 

The death of Queen Victoria, 4 February 1901

The narrative of her life is chronological but inconsistent. Her childhood is told through detailed descriptions and memories of school and days out. On the other hand, in her recollections of adulthood, Ada prefers to stick to timestamped occasions and mentions of the royal family. She follows and memorialises royal lives with the same enthusiasm as her own, paying great attention to coronation ceremonies but also the death of Queen Victoria where the country “was plunged into mourning” (8), and there was a “sombre atmosphere” (8). We find ourselves asking more questions than Ada is willing to answer, and this could be because “the autobiographers simply thought that the details of their [private] lives were not a matter of interest to their readership” (Vincent, 1980, p.229).

However, the consistency within the memoir is that she rarely talks about herself. Ada is categorically vague. She feels more comfortable in writing about the people around her, the places in which she lives, and good deeds done for her such as “one dear old man…John the vegetable man” who would “bring my vegetables in, freshly picked every morning” (14). The self-censored nature of the memoir implies the purpose of reaching a public readership with the intentions to teach/educate those on working-class life and “an attempt to make sense of life as a narrative progressing in time” (Gagnier, 1987, p.357).

The reader is reliant on Elsie’s ability to write well from her mother’s dictation and the hope that nothing was missed or misinterpreted. Although you can tell that the memoir was written in a comfortable setting, as it doesn’t feel rushed, we are in a position where we are left with little knowledge about Ada’s current family. After Elsie is born, she is aware of everything that has happened so Ada may not feel any need to go into detail as she is essentially repeating everything to Elsie that she already knows. 

Bozedown House 1880. Home to Charles Herbert Palmer, director of Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory.

Ada avoids making any generalisations about the struggles of the working class or claims to know other people’s experiences. Although she speaks of where she grew up, her parent’s jobs and her own job as a servant, she doesn’t give a comprehensive representation of the working-class. Ada’s life story is “derived from models more suitable to the conditions of middle-class authors” (Gagnier, 1987, p.357). So, if anything, the memoir of Ada Marion Jefferis is an autobiographical account of how the other half lived. This is shown through the number of large estates that Ada and her husband have lived on. When they moved to Bozedown House, although they were “isolated in the gardens” (15), because of her husband’s job as a head gardener, they had “a much nicer house” (15) with “an endless supply of luscious fruit” (15), and “electric light” (15). There is no aspect of struggle as a working-class woman in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though this was very apparent in other memoirs of this time and discussed by John Robinson, a butler who writes on the servant problem.

Ada’s voice shines through her daughter’s dictation like sunbeams of personality. She is accidentally humorous through stories such as eating the last apple after being told “on no account were we to pick the one that was left” (2), but it was “very tempting” (2), and “I took a bite out of it whilst it was still on the tree” (2). Another example would be when she loses her brother on the way to visit relatives in Scotland at the age of 26 and on the way back, she states: “On the homeward journey I took great care not to let my brother out of my sight so that there was no repetition of the upward journey” (18). This is a representation of how she lives her life through her relationship with others. 

Ada is apologetic towards the end of her memoir where she claims that she may have forgotten some important details, but I think this reflects her relaxed nature and that she wants to please everyone.  

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:

  • Gagnier, R. (1987). Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender. Victorian Studies, 30.3, pp. 335-363.
  • Rogers, H and Cuming, E. (2019). Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant Reading of Working-Class Autobiography. Journal of Family and Community History
  • Vincent, D. (1980). Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class. Social History, 5.2, pp. 223-247.


  • Featured Image – Victorian Women Writers. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 1 – Title of Ada’s Memoir
  • Image 2 – The death of the Queen. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 3 – Bozedown House 1980. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].

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