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Ada's Letters

Ada Nield Chew sent a series of letters to the Crewe Chronicle, starting on the 5th May 1894. The letters are quite remarkable (considering she left school when she was just 11) and very brave (she eventually lost her job as a result of these letters). In the letters (which were originally sent anonymously under the pseudonym of “A Crewe Factory girl”) she outlines the appalling conditions in a Crewe clothing factory and points out the discrimination against the women workers there.

The letters were originally published in the Crewe Chronicle, and later included in a biography Ada Nield Chew: The Life and Writings of a Working Woman (now sadly out of print) which was written by her daughter Doris Chew. Arguably Ada did more to get equal rights for women than the Pankhursts (who Ada felt represented middle class women and were patronising).

Letter 1

This is the first letter that Ada Nield Chew sent to the Crewe Chronicle on the 5th May 1894. She introduces herself and starts her campaign for a living wage for factory girls at Crewe:

Sir, — Will you grant me space in your sensible and widely read paper to complain of a great grievance of the class — that of tailoresses in some of the Crewe factories — to which I belong? I have hoped against hope that some influential man (or woman) would take up our cause and put us in the right way to remedy — way to remedy for of course there is a way to remedy — for evils we are suffering from. But although one cannot open a newspaper without seeing what all sorts and conditions of men are constantly agitating for and slowly but surely obtaining — as in the miners’ eight hour bill — only very vague mention is ever made of the under-paid, over-worked ‘Factory Girl’. And I have come to the conclusion, sir, that as long as we are silent ourselves and apparently content with our lot, so long shall we be left in the enjoyment [?] of that lot.

The rates paid for the work done by us are so fearfully low as I had almost said keep body and to be totally inadequate to — I had almost said keep body and soul together. Well, sir, it is a fact which I could prove, if necessary, that we are compelled, not by our employers, but by stern necessity, in order to keep ourselves in independence, which self-respecting girls even in our class of life like to do, to work so many hours — I would rather not say how many — that life loses its savour, and our toil, which in moderation and at a fair rate of remuneration would be pleasurable, becomes drudgery of the most wearisome kind.

To take what may be considered a good week’s wage the work has to be so close and unremitting that we cannot be said to ‘live’ — we merely exist. We eat, we sleep, we work, endlessly, ceaselessly work, from Monday morning till Saturday night, without remission. Cultivation of the mind? HOW is it possible? Reading? Those of us who are determined to live like human beings and require food for mind as well as body are obliged to take time which is necessary for sleep to gratify this desire. As for recreation and enjoying the beauties of nature, the seasons come and go, and we have barely time to notice whether it is spring or summer.

Certainly we have Sundays: but Sunday is to many of us after our week of slavery, a day of exhaustion. It has frequently been so in my case, and I am not delicate. This, you will understand, sir, is when work is plentiful. Of course we have slack times, of which the present is one (otherwise I should not have time to write to you). It may be said that we should utilise the slack times for recruiting our bodies and cultivating our minds. Many of us do so, as far as is possible in the anxious state we are necessarily in, knowing that we are not earning our ‘keep’ , for it is not possible, absolutely not possible, for the average ordinary ‘hand to earn enough in busy seasons, even with the overtime I have mentioned, to make up for slack ones.

‘A living wage!’ Ours is a lingering, dying wage. Who reaps the benefit of our toil? I read sometimes of a different state of things in other factories, and if in others, why not those in Crewe? I have just read the report of the Royal Commission on Labour. Very good; but while Royal Commissions are enquiring and reporting and making suggestions, some of the workers are being hurried to their graves.

I am afraid I am trespassing a great deal on your space, sir, but my subject has such serious interest for me — I sometimes wax very warm as I sit stitching and thinking over our wrongs — that they, and the knowledge that your columns are always open to the needy, however humble, must be my excuse.

I am, sir, yours sincerely,


Crewe, 1 May 1894