Winifred Relph (B.1912): Purpose and Audience

‘I had always thought of myself vaguely as Socialist, my father’s early influence and the poverty of my childhood contrasted later with the affluence in the families who employed me made me think that there was a lot of inequality in our society, I think at that time I thought of it as unfairness’ (114).

Cartoon of a working class family
Cartoon of a working class family

During Winifred Relph’s childhood and early adulthood, she was so occupied with her education, relationship with others and work life that her sense of self and identity suffered. Acutely aware of her working-class status, Winifred had a strong ‘sense of inferiority’ (89) and often wondered why the class system was so unfair and unbalanced.

Working as a domestic servant from the age of 14, meant that Winifred ‘never had sufficient free time to develop any interests outside of work’ (114) and found it difficult to consider herself as distinct from the other servants. Gagnier writes: ‘For working-class autobiographers, subjectivity – being a significant agent worthy of the regard of others, a human subject as well as an individuated “ego” … – was not a given’ (338). For Winifred, writing about her relationship with others was far more important than discussing herself as an individual.

The early chapters divided into, ‘Mother’, ‘Father’ and her sister ‘Evie’, highlight the importance of family to Winifred and how she remembers her life through her relationship with others. This memoir may have been Winifred’s way of ensuring that the memory of her family and those who were important to her lives on.

Illustration of working and middle class women
Illustration of working women’s fashion

At the age of 20, Winifred felt it was time to explore her frustration with the class-system and the exclusive nature of politics in the early 20th century. Winifred writes: ‘Joining the Left Book Club stirred something deep down inside me, something dormant that had been there always I suppose. A dissatisfaction with my own life and an awareness that there was a lot of unfairness in society around me’ (121). Seeing her ‘mother struggle’ (16) and growing up in a poor community, meant Winifred was determined to find her place in politics and, if possible, make a difference to working-class people’s lives.

Cartoon of domestic servant 1900s
Cartoon of domestic servant 1900s

During the early 20th century, women were often excluded and alienated from British politics. Clark writes: ‘Labour leaders totally ignored women’s special concerns and shut women out of the top echelons of the party’ (197). Due to the exclusive nature of the Labour Party, it was difficult for working-class women to be taken seriously in politics. Consequently, Winifred felt it was necessary to do her upmost to educate people about political issues: ‘I spent many a precious halfday knocking on backdoors and arguing for the “Cause”. I got a lot of agreement and promises, but very few members’ (86). Although Winifred did not succeed in organising the domestic workers into a union; her determination and confidence in her beliefs is admirable.

After Winifred realising this passion in politics, the tone of the memoir changes considerably. Not only did she want to keep the memory of her loved ones alive but she also wanted to educate her readers about labour politics and represent working-class women in the political sphere.


Works Cited: 

Clark, Anna. ‘International Labour and Working-Class History.’ No. 49, Identity Formation and Class (Spring, 1996): 197-198

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 3 (1987): 335-363

Relph, Winifred, in Burnett, John, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 3 vols (Brighton: Harvester, 1987) 2:657

2:657 Relph, Winifred, ‘Through Rough Ways’, TS, pp. 120 (c. 63,000 words). Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library

Images Cited: 

Image of ‘Working-Class Characters’ from Great Drawings and Illustrations from Punch July 1875. Accessed: 27/10/15.

Image of ‘Cartoon of Domestic Servant 1900s’ from BBC schools 20/01/14. Accessed: 27/10/16


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