Illness is not an issue discussed in the earlier pages of RM Downer’s memoir. However, when the topic is introduced in the final pages, it quickly becomes a prevalent theme. The majority of RM Downer’s experiences of health problems are of taking care of ill family members. This begins in the mid 1920s, when her mother falls ill. There was no National Health Service at this time, and it was not established until the National Health Service Act was passed in 1946 (Jones, p77). This means that RM Downer had no support in caring for her mother while she recovered and she had some difficulty in continuing her work as she looked after her. Downer writes that ‘People wondered how I did it and prepared the invalid food that my Mother required for so long’ (pp23-24). RM Downer experienced this same pressure when caring for her husband’s mother, and was forced to give up dressmaking for a while when she was staying in their home (p26).
Despite acknowledging the stress of the position she was in, RM Downer was happy to care for her family in times of illness. During her mother’s first period of illness, she writes that she ‘was a wonderful patient and in time was well enough for me to take her out in a Bath Chair’ (p24). RM Downer’s writing remains positive and practical, and she even remarks that the Bath chair was ‘helpful with the shopping’ (p24), saying that they enjoyed going out with it, despite her mother’s poor health. RM Downer’s positive outlook is a constant in her discussions of illness. When she writes about her mother’s death, she expresses sadness at the event, but moves on quickly to happier things. This is similar to the way she approaches her memories of the World Wars.
‘My Mother passed away 95 years old in the Spring of 1940. This left a blank in our lives as she had meant so much to us. The summer of that year was lovely and we had a very nice holiday.’ pp25-26
RM Downer’s family members were often dependent on her in times of illness, but they reciprocated the care she gave them when she herself fell ill. RM Downer writes about her ‘first hospital experience’ (p27), when she was admitted for an emergency operation at the age of 60. The fact that she had never been in hospital before could imply that she was a lucky and healthy person, or possibly that she had avoided medical care prior to this because she could not afford it. Being unable to work is RM Downer’s first concern when she writes about her recovery after this operation. She writes that ‘This held up my dressmaking for a time and I went to stay with my son and daughter-in-law in Surrey’ (p27).
However, once again, RM Downer remembers the positive parts of this event and says, ‘I liked being with the children and could always find something to make for my little granddaughter’ (p27). Even with help from her family during illness, RM Downer remained very independent. During one particularly unlucky period, RM Downer was helping her husband to recover after an operation when she had a fall that she says, ‘kept me in plaster for six months’ (p27). Despite this adversity, she writes ‘We managed to do for ourselves and I made puddings, etc. lying on the settee and my husband did quite a lot to help’ (p28).
During another period of illness, RM Downer was staying in a Convalescent Ward after being hospitalised. In this ward, she met a woman who she described as ‘evidently wealthy’ (p29). Despite being ill herself, RM Downer took the role of carer again and ‘used to help her with her walking-aid and to dress her’ (p27). While she was helping this woman, RM Downer discovered that they came from the same town, and that she also knew her employer, Mrs. X.
Coincidentally, another link to Downer’s past is revealed, when the woman left the hospital and ‘went to Craigwell Nursing Home for a while’ (p27). This is the same house where RM Downer worked in her 20s. I refer to her experience at this house in my Introduction. After some research, I have discovered that this is actually Craigweil House, an estate near Bognor Regis, on the coast of West Sussex. However, the house was demolished in 1938 and I have found no record of a nursing home being built there, although there were unsuccessful plans to do so in the 1960s (Bognor Regis Observer).
In the final pages of her memoir, RM Downer writes, ‘I am now nearly 88 years old and have lost my husband after 64 years of happy marriage’ (p30). From her memoir, it appears that both RM Downer and her husband lived relatively healthy and long lives, despite fairly frequent hospital visits in their later years. In her older age, RM Downer did not lose her passion or energy for her dressmaking, and even comments in the final paragraphs of her memoir that she continued to enjoy working.
‘I am so glad that my son brought my machine here, so I can still do some useful work’ (p31)
Downer, Mrs R., ‘A Bygone Age’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, West Sussex Record Office, 1:211, available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9516
‘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
Bognor Regis Observer, ‘How a visit by the King boosted town’s fortunes’, Sept 2013. Web. Accessed 23 April 2018.
Jones, David A. ‘A brief history of the National Health Service’, British Journal of Healthcare Management 21:2 (2015): 77-79
Featured image: Hospital ward in 1957 © Dorset County Museum,
Bath Chair, Royal Pump Room Museum, Harrogate.
Craigweil House in Aldwick,