Winifred Relph (B.1912): Habits, Culture and Beliefs – Writing Lives

Winifred Relph (B.1912): Habits, Culture and Beliefs

'A Sunday Afternoon in a Picture Gallery' from "The Graphic"

During the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a huge rise in rational forms of recreation amongst the working classes. Education and knowledge were considered a means to power and self-respect, therefore, reading and writing became incredibly popular leisure activities. Julie-Marie Strange highlights how in the late 19th century, ‘inappropriate spending and alcohol were seen as key causes of social disharmony’ (2014, 200). Many working people wanted to use their limited free time and small disposable incomes usefully. Furthermore, it was widely accepted that an individual’s class status no longer limited their access to knowledge and, consequently, many working class people strived to better themselves and expand their understanding of the humanities and, particularly, politics.

Winifred Relph was no exception and, although she only had one day off work a week, these precious days were spent exploring the museums of London, sneaking into Shakespeare plays and researching the Labour Party and socialism. Winifred had a thirst for adventure and wanted to learn as much about the world as she possibly could. She recalls: ‘I made straight for the station to London and the bright lights. My chief amusement was finding my way about London. I would take a bus in any direction and then walk back’ (94). She was aware that her upbringing in the small village of Edenbridge, Kent was especially sheltered and felt that, now she had a whole day of freedom each week, she should spend it learning and exploring.

Illustration of Shakespeare's 'As you like it'

The excitement and sense of opportunity surrounding London drew Winifred in: ‘we discovered the Open Air Theatre and were fortunate enough to see part of “As you like it” performed one evening’ (95). Witnessing the performance of a Shakespeare play was an incredibly special experience for Winifred; she was finally able to participate in a popular cultural activity alongside people from across the classes.

A figure who I suggest greatly influenced Winifred’s choice in leisure activities was Mrs. Grimewood (her employer): ‘Mrs. Grimewood went off to play golf or just phoning her friends. One day a week was always spent in London, it was the habit then of all these middle class ladies to go up to town once a week, to shop, followed by a visit to the theatre for a matinee performance of any current play’ (63). By visiting London and the theatre at any opportunity she had, Winifred may have been mirroring her middle class employer’s habits in an attempt to gain respectability but, also, challenge the preconceptions people may have had of a working class domestic servant.

Photograph from London, 1930s

Winifred had ‘an awareness that there was a lot of unfairness in society’ (121) and thought that exploring her interest in politics would allow her to understand more fully and, perhaps, challenge this injustice. Strange highlights: ‘one of the ways people sought to express their identity was through leisure pursuits’ (2014, 197). Winifred felt very passionately about political issues and, therefore, joined the Left Book Club and ‘was soon drawn into other discussion groups and organisations such as “The Friends of the Soviet Union”, that were mushrooming everywhere’ (115). She thrived from being part of such an exciting movement and enjoyed being around people that shared her beliefs and ideals.

Paul Robeson speaking to crowd in Trafalgar Square, London

She remembers a particularly exciting time: ‘I attended large rallies in London addressed by Harry Pollitt and the venerable white haired Dean of Canterbury. Paul Robeson appeared at some of these meetings and sang his stirring songs of freedom, and then back home for me, sometimes by train and sometimes on the back of someone’s motor bike! I was really living’ (117). This was a truly thrilling and stimulating aspect of Winifred’s life which, I suggest, helped to shape and develop her personal identity, confidence and belief in herself.




Works Cited: 

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

Strange, Julie Marie; Carnevali, Francesca. 20th Century Britain: Economic, Cultural and Social Change. (London: Routledge, 2014)

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: 

‘A Sunday Afternoon in a Picture Gallery’ wood engraving from “The Graphic” 08/02/1879. National Gallery of Art Library, Department of Image Collections. accessed: 07/12/15

Illustration from Shakespeare’s play ‘As you like it’ from the Folger Shakespeare Library. accessed: 07/12/15

Photograph of ‘Entrance to Blackfriars Station’ by George Davison Reid, 1930 from BBC News London. accessed: 07/12/15

Photograph of ‘Paul Robeson speaking to crowd in Trafalgar Square, London 1959 to demonstrate against the H-bomb and nuclear weapons from ‘Flashbak’ accessed: 07/12/15



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