Alice Chase is very detailed regarding all aspects of her life and her working life is no exception. Alice not only endeavours to explain her own working life but her family’s too. Notably, none of Alice’s family is ever described as entering the workhouse and they never shy away from hard work – Alice included! Some members are admittedly very poor but they manage to keep themselves above the poverty level and this is reflected in Alice’s tone, as it is obvious that she regards herself and her family to be upper working-class. I will concentrate on the various positions – voluntary and paid – that Alice has been involved in.
Just before her sixteenth birthday in 1896 Alice is apprenticed to dress making, probably wishing to shadow her mother and sister, as they too were tailors. Alice portrays the long hours, gruelling work and exploitive nature of dressmaking: ‘I had to get to work at 8.30am, work until one o’clock, and then had an hour for dinner. Work from two o’clock till five and then half an hour for tea, work from 5.30 till 8pm, and then went home very tired and low-spirited’ (p.32). On Wednesdays they were let off at 4pm instead of 8pm. Alice certainly worked hard – fifty-seven and a half hours a week – for which she received one shilling a week. Alice’s wage increased each year, until, she explains after ‘eight years solid slogging I reached the dizzy heights of eight shillings a week’ (p.32). However, it barely afforded an active social life: ‘many things happened during those years, but to girls like myself who were shut up in one room from 8.30am to 8pm, the world was just one long dreary round of tacking, stitching, pressing, oversewing, boning and trimming over and over again, being bullied and harried and insulted by overbearing and ill-tempered taskmistresses’ (p.32). Nevertheless, Alice notes ‘we had our fun at times and very many jokes’ – well, there had to be some perks to the job! (p.32)
The extensive hours Alice worked did not leave her with much time for courting. In 1898, Alice explains ‘I finished my apprenticeship and got a new job where I had got me a boyfriend; secretly’ but it was not to last (p.34). Alice does not say where her new job was, but it was obviously dealing in dressmaking and tailoring. June 22nd 1899, her family moved from Portsmouth to Gosport and it would appear that Alice remained in the same job as she notes; ‘I had formally said goodbye to my boyfriend as I could see the difficulty of meeting and walking out together when we lived so far apart’ (p.34-35). Alice rationalizes, ‘all my spare time would be spent getting home from work’ as she finished work at 8pm and had to be indoors for 9pm and the walk took three-quarters of an hour (p.35). She concludes, ‘I worked too hard and too long to feel anything but a longing for home and bed’ (p.35).
Alice remembers the sound of the nearby church bells tolling while at work one night in January 1901 and realising Queen Victoria must be dead. The queen’s death made her ‘heart sink’ (p.35) and meant she would have to work overtime for the next three weeks in order to prepare mourning clothes ‘we worked a 12-hour day for three solid weeks’ (p.35). They were given the day off from work on the day of Queen Victoria’s funeral.
Alice’s working life was exhausting. She notes of the years 1900-1901;
These years in my life were very dull years. I had been forced by circumstances to give up my interests in Chapel and Sunday School. I just could not keep it up and still go on walking miles to work, working long hours on sandwich food, and walking miles home at night in all weathers (p.37).
Giving up Chapel and Sunday School must have been Alice’s greatest setback as she ‘lived for Sundays’ (p.39).
In April 1904 Alice’s working life took a different route and she does not return to dressmaking or manual labour again. She explains of April 1904; ‘I was sacked from my work by a vicious forewoman who hated my innards’ (p.40) This may have been a blessing in disguise. Alice had planned to leave her time-consuming job anyway and was infuriated by the fact her forewoman handed her her notice before she could hand it in herself. It had been arranged that when Ruby – Alice’s older sister – married, Alice would take her place in the home helping their mother. Alice was not to be outdone by her forewoman though; ‘I rather deflated her ego when she said suddenly, “I want you to take a week’s notice, Miss Moody”, by answering, “I’ll do that with pleasure, Miss G.” She looked a bit surprised at my quick retort. She didn’t know her Alice’ (p.40). Alice’s years as a dressmaker were miserable. She had been forced to end her relationship with her boyfriend and leave her church. Work clearly became both a place of socialisation and labour for Alice.
Alice’s calling in life is undoubtedly her position as a Sunday School teacher. Alice never clarifies when she becomes one, but it appears to be later on in her life. Alice only appears to work during her teenage and young adult years. When she meets her husband, James, she does not speak of working; only her position as a Sunday School teacher later on. Possibly, the absence of work during the middle of her life is due to her responsibilities as a mother and housewife – Alice had to fulfil her domestic roles in the private sphere. She is clearly very proud of being a Sunday School teacher as she never speaks negatively about it. At the end of her memoir Alice describes what she has done over her lifetime – both paid and voluntary – and being a Sunday School teacher is first on the list.
I have done things, taught in Sunday School, run a girls’ Bible Class, sung to the sick and mentally sick in hospitals, worked for the Moral Welfare, which looks after the unmarried mother and her child, and cared for an orphaned niece. Written letters to a Mothers’ Union Branch for thirty years in Jamaica, and they have written to me (p.47).
Evidently, Alice opted for domesticity on marriage. It is no wonder that this was her preferred choice considering the long hours and low pay that Alice experienced as a dressmaker. However, this did not mean that she stopped working. In fact, she becomes a very active voluntary worker and this work is key to her identity. It is how she sees she has made her contribution.
Once again Alice concludes with meaningful advice regarding work and money; ‘the things that really matter are not good jobs, good money, good times, good clothes, good food, and plenty of fun and pleasure – these are alright in their way if you can have them without doing any one else down (p.47). Alice disagrees with those who make their fortune off the misfortune of others – and quite rightly too!
Image 1: Dressmakers –
Image 2: Queen Victoria’s Funeral Procession –
Image 3: 4 Forton Road, Gosport –