Ada Marion Jefferis (1884-1981): War and Memory – Writing Lives

Ada Marion Jefferis (1884-1981): War and Memory

“In 1919 the usual celebrations took place all over the country. Sports, fetes, and parties were the order of the day.” (14)

Ada narrates within the background of the interwar period and makes references to the Boer War and WW1. These references help navigate where we are in Ada’s life by calculating how old she is against the dates of the war. Ada uses these dates to shape her life and these timestamped events provide context to her husband’s occupation and them moving to a new house from Sutton Courtenay to Bozedown House. However, “the moment [the autobiographers] focus shifts from [their personal experiences] to a general history of the period, their autobiography suffers” (Gagnier, 1987, 336).

Ada’s uncles uniform

The Boer War that broke out in 1899 “was not such a happy event” (6), as Ada’s cousins and uncle were drafted out to South Africa. She accounts her uncle coming home to say goodbye to his family and remembers “how smart he looked in his blue and red uniform” (6). David Vincent believes that these autobiographers in Burnett’s archive of the working-class lived in a world where “their closest emotional relationships were always threatened by the unpredictable and often unannounced visitation of death” (1980, 242). Therefore, Ada only provides a brief nod to death and gives no room for her feelings, almost like she expects death to happen: “They were both killed but uncle returned at the end of the war” (7). 

The South African War “did not affect us to any very great extent until we heard of some of the victories” (7). Celebrations commenced when the news of the relief of Mafeking came through and “London went nearly mad” (7). It’s remarkable that Ada remembers being on Brixton Road when the men came home from war which shows that this was a significant time in her life. Of course, “there was great rejoicing” (7). Just like any celebratory event that occurs in Ada’s memoir, “bunting and flags were hanging from every available corner” (7), and there was “dancing in the streets” (8). Ada’s consistent addition of the celebratory event after a significant date shows how proud she is to be part of a community that celebrates togetherness and triumph. Likewise, she does the same for the opposite. Soon after the Boer War, Queen Victoria died, and the country was “plunged into mourning.” This time, the streets were “festooned with purple, mauve and black” (8) and now there was a “sombre atmosphere” (8).

Celebrating the end of the Boer War

In 1914 the First World War broke out it completely “changed the village” (11). However, whilst dictating these stories there is a sense of excitement in a way that Ada marvels the concept of war. Sutton Courtenay was “no longer a sleepy old village in the backwater” (12) but now was the home to “various military camps” (12), and a “testing tower [where] practically every wooden propeller that was used in the war was tested there” (12).

A labour camp was established nearby which consisted of Chinese sailors. These sailors were employed in road making and general navvying but appeared to be highly discriminated against. They caused “quite a lot of concern in the surrounding villages, and also to the shopkeepers in Abingdon” (12). This was mainly because they could not speak a word of English and neither did they understand the currency. Ada refers to them as “Chinamen” which shows the disrespect towards them. However, it is quite amusing to imagine these sailors who all “seemed to buy bikes” (12), try to navigate their way through the town “with no road sense whatsoever” (12) and “would wobble through the village in convoy scattering people in all directions” (12). Ada later states how the American soldiers who had a camp at Milton integrated “much more easily” (12), because there was no language barrier. 

At the same time the World War broke out, “aeroplanes were growing much more common place” (12). Ada is astonished by these planes all the way through her memoir and goes into great depth about the invention of these flying ships. Ada admits that “we still ran outside to see one when it passed over” (12). From time to time, one would land in the village and “the boys would be overjoyed, no matter what they were doing they would down tools and rush off to the landing site” (12), which became “quite an embarrassment to the pilots” (12). The last couple of paragraphs of her memoir, during Ada’s reflection on the life she has lived, she names the “journeys made by the Wright brothers, Bleriot, Alcock and Brown, and later Lindberg, and Amy Johnson” (19), and how she saw both the “R 100 and R 101 pass over Whitchurch” (19). However, “these great ships of the sky proved to be very unreliable” (19), as the R 101 “crashed with a great loss of life” (19). Ada’s admiration over these aeroplanes was, perhaps, because she had grew up with this invention in comparison to the telephone or wireless that was completely confusing to her at 96.

WW1 aeroplane

WW1 seemed to have affected Ada’s life in a significant way as the village she lived in at the time, Sutton Courtenay, was taken over by the Army and Air Force personal. However, she believes that this “helped to alter the character of the village” (13). Travelling by train became harder as they were often overcrowded by large detachment troops. Her husband’s job was made more difficult because “the gardens of the big houses were mostly turned into market gardens” and his job as a head gardener for Sutton Courtenay House was jeopardised after the owners put it up for sale. But, Ada and her family ended up moving to Bozedown House which had been “well looked after” (14). Despite the roar from the testing tower that was “constant from morn till night” (12), Ada’s interpretation of the wars that have been in the background of her whole life is surprisingly a positive one.

As the war progressed, so the lifestyle and occupations changed. Before the war, “most girls left school and went into domestic service training to be cooks, housemaids, or nurses for the children of the upper classes” (13). But now, “they were working on the land, going into factories, or to the local army depots” (13). When the war ended in 1918, the news was spread by the men from the depot shouting from their bicycles that the war was over because there was “no wireless or television to give us the news” (13): “What a relief this was to everyone” (14). The usual celebrations commenced where “sports, fetes, and parties were the order for the day” (14). However, the women “having had a taste of better working conditions, were reluctant to return to service, with its hated, now old-fashioned starched cap and apron” (Cox, 2012).

Armistice Day 1918

The memories of the war were fading: “in 1960 no one under twenty could properly remember it and by 1970 an entire generation had grown up and started families in peacetime” (Todd, 2014). Although fragmented, Ada’s ability to remember events in chronological order whilst engaging a storytelling voice is wonderful. She briefly sketches events such as the “Spanish Flu” which was brought home from the trenches which killed many thousands of people. This has similarities to Covid-19 which has had the same effects on England today. Ada’s memoir provides hope that this world we are living in now will become just a small insignificant sentence within a 19-page memoir of our life.

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:

  • Cox, P. (2012). Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Gagnier, R. (1987). Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender. Victorian Studies, 30:3, pp. 335-363.\
  • Todd, S. (2014). The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010. London: John Murray.
  • Vincent, D. (1980). Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class. Social History, 5:2, pp. 223-247.


  • Featured Image – Armistice Day. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 1 – Anglo-Boer War Uniform. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 2 – Young Street crowd celebrating the end of the Boer War. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 3 – WW1 Aeroplane. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].
  • Image 4 – Armistice Day. Retrieved from: [Accessed 29 April 2021].

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