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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