Two Women in Their 90s Recall Their Teenage Years in Victorian 1890s London

Mud everywhere…and where there wasn’t mud, there was fog, and in between was us, enjoy­ing our­selves. — Berta Ruck

Berta Ruck and Frances ‘Effy’ Jones were teenagers in the 1890s, and while their rec­ol­lec­tions of their for­ma­tive years in mud­dy old Lon­don are hard­ly a por­trait of Jazz Age wild­ness, nei­ther are they in keep­ing with mod­ern notions of stuffy Vic­to­ri­an mores.

Inter­viewed for the BBC doc­u­men­tary series Yesterday’s Wit­ness in 1970, these nona­ge­nar­i­ans are for­mi­da­ble per­son­ages, sharp­er than prover­bial tacks, and unlike­ly to elic­it the sort of agist pity embod­ied in the lyrics of a pop­u­lar dit­ty Ruck remem­bers the Cock­neys singing in the gut­ter after the pubs had closed for the night.

“Do you think I might dare to sing [it] now?” Ruck, then 91, asks (rhetor­i­cal­ly):

She may have known bet­ter days

When she was in her prime

She may have known bet­ter days

Once upon a time…

(Raise your hand if you sus­pect those lyrics are describ­ing a washed up spin­ster in her late 20s or ear­ly 30s.)

The 94-year-old Jones reach­es back more than 7 decades to tell about her first job, when she was paid 8 shillings a week to sit in a store­front win­dow, demon­strat­ing a new machine known as a type­writer.

Some of her earn­ings went toward the pur­chase a bicy­cle, which she rode back and forth to work and overnight hol­i­days in Brighton, scan­dalous­ly clad in bloomers, or as Jones and her friends referred to them, “ratio­nal dress”.

Ruck, pegged by her head­mistress as an “indo­lent and feck­less girl”, went on to study at the Slade School of Art, before achiev­ing promi­nence as a best­selling romance nov­el­ist, whose 90 some titles include His Offi­cial Fiancée, Miss Million’s Maid and In Anoth­er Girl’s Shoes.

We do hope at least one of these fea­tures a hero­ine resent­ful­ly brush­ing a skirt mud­died up to the knees by pass­ing han­som cabs, an impo­si­tion Ruck refus­es to sweet­en with the nos­tal­gia.

As the British Film Institute’s Patrick Rus­sell writes in 100 British Doc­u­men­taries, the Yesterday’s Wit­ness series, and Jones and Ruck’s episode, in par­tic­u­lar, pop­u­lar­ized the oral his­to­ry approach to doc­u­men­tary, in which the direc­tor-inter­view­er is an invis­i­ble pres­ence, cre­at­ing the impres­sion that the sub­ject is speak­ing direct­ly to the audi­ence, unprompt­ed:

The series’ mak­ers suc­cess­ful­ly resist­ed any temp­ta­tions to patron­ize or edi­to­ri­al­ize, and aimed at sym­pa­thet­ic curios­i­ty rather than nos­tal­gia. The two women tell their sto­ries flu­ent­ly, humor­ous­ly, intel­li­gent­ly — offer­ing con­sid­ered ret­ro­spec­tive com­ment on their generation’s assump­tions, nei­ther sim­ply accept­ing nor reject­ing them…Unlike text­books, and oth­er types of doc­u­men­tary, films like Two Vic­to­ri­an Girls gave the youth access to the mod­ern past as pri­vate­ly expe­ri­enced. 

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (4)
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  • Kristy says:

    My grand­fa­ther was born in 1920 he is almost 103 years old and he was a teenag­er in the 1930s
    How are 90 year olds teenagers in the 1890s the 1880s is when my grand­fa­ther who is 102 years old par­ents were born
    This is ridicu­lous­ness

  • Scott says:

    Okay, should I tell her?

    As stat­ed in the clip AND the pro­gram descrip­tion, the inter­view was filmed in 1970. The delight­ful ladies were 90 years old at the time.…nice math, though.

  • Facepalm says:

    Look at the top of the video. It says 1970 right there. This was filmed in 1970 when these women were in their 90s. They have both passed on long ago.

  • Wero says:

    Love­ly ladies, it’s hard to imag­ine they are dead for so many years now.. :(

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