Ada Chesterton

Ada Chesterton

Anna Elizabeth Jones, the daughter of Frederick John Jones and his wife, Ada Jones, was born on 30th June 1869 in Thurlow Park Road, Dulwich. Her father was a manufacturer of braces but also contributed articles to newspapers.

In 1885 she found work as a journalist in Fleet Street. She eventually establlished herself as a freelance journalist. Gilbert Chesterton described her as "perhaps the most brilliant" of the independent journalists who worked in journalism during the early twentieth century. Anna Jones joined the Fabian Society and got to know Edith Nesbit, Hubert Bland, Edward Pease, Havelock Ellis, Frank Podmore, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Sydney Olivier, Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb, William Clarke, Eleanor Marx, Edith Lees, Annie Besant, Graham Wallas and J. A. Hobson.

In 1900 she met the journalist, Cecil Chesterton. Although she was ten years older than Chesterton they became lovers. He was deeply influenced by her socialist beliefs. She also encouraged him to become a journalist. However, she refused to marry Chesterton. His biographer described him as "a short, pugnacious man, generally regarded as ugly; he was gregarious but aggressive, which made him a difficult companion."

Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc established the political weekly, the Eye-Witness. It attempted to promote Distributism, that was based upon the principles of Catholic social teaching, especially the teachings of Pope Leo XIII and was seen as a philosophy that was opposed to both socialism and capitalism. It has been claimed that it expressed similar ideas to the anarchism of Prince Peter Kropotkin. With contributors such as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Arthur Ransome, Maurice Baring and G. K. Chesterton, the journal sold over 100,000 copies a week.

In 1912 Cecil Chesterton, backed by money from his father, took over the paper. The name was changed to the New Witness and Ada Jones became assistant editor. It now concentrated on exposing examples of political corruption, including the sale of peerages. The journal also accused David Lloyd George, Herbert Samuel and Rufus Isaacs of corruption. It was suggested that the men had profited by buying shares based on knowledge of a government contract granted to the Marconi Company to build a chain of wireless stations.

In January 1913 a parliamentary inquiry was held into the claims made by Eye-Witness. It was discovered that Isaacs had purchased 10,000 £2 shares in Marconi and immediately resold 1,000 of these to Lloyd George. Although the parliamentary inquiry revealed that Lloyd George, Samuel and Isaacs had profited directly from the policies of the government, it was decided the men had not been guilty of corruption. Godfrey Isaacs, the financier who headed the company, sued Chesterton and after being found guilty was fined £100.

On the outbreak of the First World War Chesterton became fiercely patriotic. In 1916 Chesterton joined the British Army and served in the East Surrey Regiment. While on leave in 1917 Ada Jones eventually agreed to marry Chesterton. Her biographer, Mark Knight, pointed out: "After rejecting his marriage proposals for many years she eventually agreed to marry him when he was enlisted as a private during the First World War. They married on 9 June 1917 at two ceremonies, the first at a register office in London and the second at Corpus Christi Church in Maiden Lane, London."

After her husband's death, Ada Chesterton persuaded the Daily Express to commission her to write a series of articles about Poland. When she returned to England she used her contacts to establish the Eastern European News Service. In 1925 she interviewed homeless women in London. She decided to carry out an investigation into poverty in the capital by living on the streets for two weeks in 1925. According to her biographer: "The editor of the Sunday Express, who agreed to publish her experiences, bet that she would not last more than a couple of nights. It was a bet that he lost as she sold matches, begged in the street, and slept in a variety of shelters."

Ada's account of life on the streets was subsequently published as In Darkest London (1926). According to Kirsten Jarrett: "The book discusses the range of accommodation and subsistence support available to homeless women in 1925 London, not only emphasising the dearth of resources, but the lack of provision as compared to that available to men.... Considering the inadequate, expensive and oppressive alternatives, it is no wonder that the charitable shelters, primarily organised by Christian organisations, were overwhelmed by applicants."

Ada Chesterton used this publicity to raise funds for homeless women. In 1927 she used this money to build her first shelter for women. These shelters became known as Cecil Houses (named after her dead husband). Contributors to this charity included Gilbert Chesterton, John Galsworthy, George Bernard Shaw and Queen Mary. Ada continued her campaign by publishing Women of the Underworld (1928). She was the drama critic for G. K.'s Weekly and wrote a couple of plays with Ralph Neale.

During this period she also work as a foreign correspondent and published books such as My Russian Venture (1931) and Young China and New Japan (1933). She followed this with another account of poverty, I Lived in a Slum (1936). Her next book was The Chestertons (1941). During the Second World War she visited the Soviet Union and published Salute the Soviet (1942).

Throughout her life Ada Chesterton continued to pursue this philanthropic work. After the war she opened the Cecil Residential Club for Working Girls on Small Wages. This was followed in 1953 by the establishment of the Cecil Residential Club in Kensington for female pensioners.

Ada Chesterton died of cerebral thrombosis and cerebral arteriosclerosis, in a nursing home at 4 Birdhurst Road, Croydon, on 20th January 1962.

Primary Sources

(1) Kirsten Jarrett, In Darkest London: Investigating Destitution in the 1920s (23rd January, 2012)

Anne Turner was the pseudonym used by Ada Elizabeth Chesterton, the widow of G.K. Chesterston’s brother Cecil, herself a journalist and ‘social reformer’. It was under this name that, aged 56, she spent two weeks in February 1925 as an ‘outcast’ in London. The intention of this ‘experiment’ was to challenge the assumption that ‘for a woman who is willing to work, employment can always be found’, and to demonstrate the limited work opportunities for women ‘without reference or status of some sort’.

She wrote In Darkest London the following year to describe this somewhat ethically-dubious ‘adventure’, having previously written of her experiences in a Sunday Express column. The book discusses the range of accommodation and subsistence support available to homeless women in 1925 London, not only emphasising the dearth of resources, but the lack of provision as compared to that available to men. This she attributed to a fear on the part of the authorities ‘that an ex-service man should be discovered bedless and starving in the streets’ (p. 117). Considering the inadequate, expensive and oppressive alternatives, it is no wonder that the charitable shelters, primarily organised by Christian organisations, were overwhelmed by applicants.

In Darkest London describes such hostel facilities and their ‘inmates’ as well as outlining their other less obvious functions. For example, they effectively adopted the role of employment agency by sending residents to work as domestic servants and factory workers in response to outside enquiries, and in some cases served as a training centre for domestic work. Several had soup kitchens for non-residents, as at St Crispin’s shelter in Spitalfields (p. 238) Some hostels, such as the King’s Road shelter, were used for holidays and recreation (p. 249). While the Mare Street hostel provided a club house for the use of previous residents (pp. 36-7, 236 & 248).

Chesterton indicates that facilities in Christian Mission shelters were generally of good quality, but notes that the rules governing eligibility varied. She tells how the Church Army shelter on Great Porter Street turned her away, despite her ability to pay the requisite tenpence, after subjecting her to unnecessary ‘interrogation’ – owing, she suspected, to her disheveled state and having spent previous nights in the workhouse and a poor lodging house (pp. 161-6). Although desperate for shelter, this experience prevented her from approaching another Church Army shelter on Belvedere Road (pp. 167 & 190).

Salvation Army shelters receive higher praise, due to their limited personal intrusion and their willingness to accept ‘unmarried and expectant mothers’ – the most numerous category of female inhabitant, most of whom had previously worked in domestic service (pp. 247, 21-2 & 36). However, there were few shelters accessible to women. The centre at Mare Street in Hackney was ‘the only receiving station [or 'clearing house'] of its kind in London’ (pp. 22 & 37-8). The shelter for women in Whitechapel’s Hanbury Street was licesned by the London County Council as a commercial lodging house (p. 115). The hostel near Tottenham Court Road was only accessible to ‘women in regular situations, who could pay a reasonable sum’ (p. 15). Meanwhile, a small shelter on Chelsea’s King’s Road, primarily a hostel for discharged and remand prisoners, housed only a few homeless people who derived from elsewhere (pp. 247-9), Other, more ad hoc shelters for the homeless, such as the crypt of St Martin’s Church, are also noted (p. 182).

A whole chapter is dedicated to the Convent of Mercy’s St Crispin’s shelter at Providence Row in Spitalfields, described as ‘the largest and most kindly run’ of the hostels (p. 116). Its 112 box beds were open between November and May for free to both those women unable to pay and those in low-paid employment, with the attached school perhaps helping to enable some mothers to access casual work. According to Chesterton, it provided an exceptional level of security and stability, with the possibility of residency beyond the usual five nights on production of references from employers. The lack of intrusion into personal details was especially important for female residents, considering that most were accompanied by their children. By contrast, ‘official’ accommodation effectively incarcerated inmates and, on leaving the workhouse, women ran the risk not only of having their children permanently removed on the charge of neglect, but also of imprisonment if found dependent upon begging (pp. 151-2 & 233-6).