Mrs RM Downer (b.1884): Home and Family – Writing Lives

Mrs RM Downer (b.1884): Home and Family

As RM Downer’s memoir begins when she started work at 17, she gives little description of her childhood and upbringing. When her parents lives are mentioned, it is almost as an afterthought and her past is not described until the later parts of her memoir. She was the daughter of James and Charlotte Hackett, and had an older sister, also named Charlotte. She tells us ‘I was the second child of my parents who were married late in life. My Father was over 50 and my Mother was 40 when I was born’ (p22). Her mother did not work and her father was a coach driver.

Goodwood Estate racetack, where RM Downer’s father rode in the steeplechase

The brief description of RM Downer’s childhood is a happy one. She says, ‘I spent much of my early life playing in stables, harness room and loft where my Father was working, and we had a nice cottage’ (p31). However, this could not last, as her family faced financial pressure when her father ‘lost his work and we had to move to a rented house where I knew I had to work to support this’ (p31). RM Downer blames her father’s unemployment on progress and technology. He had worked with horses and was a coach driver, so he lost his job cars became more common. Previous to this he had also ‘often ridden in the Steeplechasing at Goodwood’ (p22). From her tone, RM Downer is clearly very proud of her father and his working background, and so his unemployment was a great loss both financially and emotionally to the whole family.

Many of RM Downer’s family members lived abroad, including her sister, who ‘went to Canada to be married’ (p20). RM Downer describes her visits to England fondly, saying one one occasion, ‘My sister returned home about this time and that was a great pleasure and help to me’ (p24). Due to her sister’s emigration, the pressure of supporting her parents falls to RM Downer, and she reflects that ‘It became necessary for me to earn more money as my parents were practically dependent on me’ (p14). Later on in her memoir, RM Downer reveals that she also has relatives living in the United States, and when she is 75, she ‘had an unexpected legacy from a cousin in the U.S.A.’ (p28). Interestingly, despite her sister, aunt and uncle living in Canada, and having cousins in the US, RM Downer never travels far from her home town, and spends her whole life living in Sussex.

A Group of English Immigrants in Quebec, Canada in 1908 (John Woodruff /Library and Archives Canada)

As an adult, RM Downer’s family life is entangled in her work. As mentioned in my introductory post, Mrs Downer married the son of the woman with whom she was apprenticed as a dressmaker. Her relationship with her husband’s family was a positive one, and she says that ‘My future Mother-in-law was always very kind to me and I think I soon became useful to her’ (p23). When introducing her husband, RM Downer refers to him as her ‘girlhood sweetheart’ (p16) so it is unclear whether she owed the beginning of her career to her marriage or if it was the other way around.

RM Downer speaks about the difficulties of balancing domestic life and work. Her responsibilities as a wife and mother are often in competition with her commitments as a dressmaker. She recalls one incident where she took her son to London on a trip to visit fabric suppliers and says, ‘I can remember the determination of my little son pushing his pushchair up the busy Oxford Street in spite of the traffic’ (p20). Despite the humour she uses to describe the situation, it seems that she regrets how independent he had to be, due to her focus on work. Choosing between her son and her work is a frequent issue for RM Downer. When he is born, her ‘travelling was over for a while’ (p18), something that would have been disappointing to her as she describes it as the best part of her job. Later on however, as she ‘could leave my son in the care of my Mother I was able to go to Kent and take orders’ (p20).

The conflict between motherhood and work shows some of the sacrifices that RM Downer made for both work and family. When her mother-in-law becomes ill, she says, ‘My husband’s family ‘phoned us to ask if they could bring his Mother down to us… I was kept very busy as she needed a lot of attention and I was unable to do any dressmaking’ (p26), another example of her being forced to choose between her family and her dressmaking.

Mrs Downer speaks later in life of her son’s family and her descendants. ‘Towards the end of the War my little granddaughter was born… When she was two years old my grandson was born and these two children have given us a lot of pleasure’ (p27). By the 1970s, RM Downer has become a great-grandmother and has ‘the pleasure of hearing my Granddaughter’s husband on T.V., recording a Cantata that he has composed and conducted… This was a great success at the Dome at Brighton and two major publishers have started to take an interest in David Fellingham and his remarkable music.’ (p30). She is clearly very proud of her descendants and legacy and says of her granddaughter’s husband that ‘He has succeeded where more illustrious names have failed’ (p30).

Brighton Dome entrance, the venue of one of RM Downer’s grandson-in-law’s performances

Works cited
Downer, Mrs R., ‘A Bygone Age’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, West Sussex Record Office, 1:211, available at
‘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

Featured image: Map: R Wilkinson, The British Isles, 1812, showing Horsham and Chichester, the town and city where RM Downer grew up
Goodwood estate racetrack,
English Immigrants in Quebec, (John Woodruff /Library and Archives Canada)
Brighton Dome, 

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