Ada Marion Jefferis (1884-1981): Habits, Culture and Recreation – Writing Lives

Ada Marion Jefferis (1884-1981): Habits, Culture and Recreation

Leisure and recreation is a key theme in ‘The Memories of Ada Marion Jefferis’, which you can read in full here, transcribed by myself. 

“There was not much in the way of entertainment in my young days, we had to make our own amusements.” (4)

As discussed in my Home and Family post, community is extremely important to Ada. Selina Todd suggests that “as neighbours got to know each other, some turned into friends.” (2014). Ada’s memoir of growing up in the market town Wokingham describes the amusements that regularly happened there. As Ada grew up, she was often isolated in the gardens of big estates that her father worked on so events that happened in the town were exciting. 

Entertainment was found in street festivities such as Hospital night that occurred once a year. The town would be “decorated, and illuminated with Chinese lanterns” (4), and there would be various competitions to take part in where all the proceeds of the night were given to Reading hospital. Ada distinctly remembers “the decorated prams, bicycles, and fire engines” (4) and there were also men on stilts about 10 foot tall that Ada was “terrified” (4) of after reading “stories about giants who always seemed to be wicked” (4). 

The Muffin Man

A German band would often perform in the town and the Muffin Man was “a familiar sight” (4), with his tray of muffins on his head and his jangling bell. Occasionally, “an old man with his dancing bear would pass by” but he never performed in Ada’s village and “would be on his way to one of the neighbouring towns” (4). The organ grinder with his barrel organ and performing monkey was a regular visitor. Until the invention of the radio in the mid 1890s, “the organ grinder brought the only music that many people heard” (Organ Grinder History). Therefore, it was common to see children and adults dancing around him and he was appreciated as a “desired commodity” (Organ Grinder History). 

The Organ Grinder

The children always “looked forward to May Day as that was a holiday from school” (4). The girls decorated their hoops with flowers and took them around the village “hoping to collect a few pennies” (4). Ada’s naivety throughout this discussion of Victorian life and the sense of community is shown in the absence of any aspect of poor conditions. At this time, poverty was so bad that many resorted to crime, but this is never spoken of in the memoir of Ada Marion Jefferis. Amongst the crowds at these events, there will have been pickpockets, but Ada’s focus is always on the festivities and positives. 

At this time (1880s), bicycles “were just becoming popular” (4). She remembers two old ladies who were known as “old geysers” that had a double bicycle and “sat side by side as they went perambulating through the village” (4). The bicycle appears to grow up with Ada and is something that forms part of her recreation as a married woman. Whilst living in Whitchurch, their nearest big town was Reading which was about 6 miles away. So, on Thursday’s which was “cheap day” (15), Ada and her husband Walter would get the train to the tram terminus and then take a tram into Reading, “leaving our bicycles at a little sweet shop for 2d” (15). In 1909, they bought a motor bike and side car. After being “keen cyclists” (16) for a long time “exploring places within a ten-mile radius” (16), they were now able to “get further afield” (16). Bicycles “extended women’s mobility outside the home” (Ostroff, 2018), and meant that they could “break Victorian conventions for behaviour and attire” (2018), which was encouraged by Ada’s husband Walter. 

When Ada was 12 years old, she went to London with her mother to see the first exhibition ever to be staged at Earls Court. The theme was India and Ceylon and “it was a very impressive sight” (6). A few years later, she went to a naval exhibition at Earls Court which was “very interesting” (6), but a trip on the big wheel “was the climax of the day” (6). On a visit to Crystal Palace, Ada was “enthralled by an organ recital”, perhaps the same way she enjoyed the organ grinder as a child. 

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1896 Exhibition at Earls Court London

London was Ada’s favourite haunt where she would often go shopping and sightseeing. She tells us the story of how in those days “it was possible to walk across the top of the Tower Bridge” (9) and there was “quite a hurrying and scurrying” when the bell rang warning everybody to come off the top. We get the sense that Ada, even at the age of 96 writing this memoir, loves the thrill and excitement. She explains how the boys used to have “great fun on the tram lines up Brixton Hill” (8), and when the policeman came on the scene “the boys would disappear very rapidly” (8).

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:

  • n.d. Organ Grinder History. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 28 April 2021].
  • Ostroff, H., 2018. How the 19th-century bicycle craze empowered women and changed fashion. [online] Smithsonian Institution. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 April 2021].
  • Todd, S. (2014). The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010. London: John Murray.


  • Featured Image – The Organ Grinder. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 1 – The Muffin Man. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 2 – An organ grinder with a monkey. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 3 – Official catalogue & guide of the India and Ceylon exhibition. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].

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