Ada Nield (Chew was her married name) came from a family of Cheshire yeomen. She was born in 1870 at White Hall Farm, Butt Lane in North Staffordshire. It was a large family (she was the second child in a family of 13) and at the age of eleven she left school to help her mother look after the family.
Around 1887 she moved to Crewe and worked in a Nantwich shop and also a Crewe factory (Comptons Clothing Factory on Bridle Road). In 1894 she wrote a series of letters, which were published in the Crewe Chronicle, exposing the exploitative conditions under which the girls and women worked. Her letters were signed anonymously, “A Crewe Factory Girl”. In these letters she complained about charges for workers for their tea breaks, the unfairness of piecework, the charges made by the employers to the workers for the tools they needed to do their work (they had to buy them from the factory but the same items were much cheaper in Crewe Market). The factory where she worked made uniforms for soldiers, police and railway workers. The 400 women in the factory were paid a fraction of what the 100 men were paid, and she noted that some jobs usually done by women were done by men when factory inspectors were present. She complains about the 10 hour working days and argues for a living wage rather than a “lingering, dying wage” for women. The letters to the Crewe Chronicle gained support from men’s unions as well as the local MP. As a result of these letters she had to leave Cromptons.
From 1894 to 1897 she became an Urban District Council/Trades Council representative on Nantwich Board of Guardians (administrators of the Poor Law). The responsibilities of the Nantwich Board of Guardians included administration of the workhouse, hospital and relief fund. Ada’s initiatives were not met with great enthusiasm. In 1895 she sought to persuade the Board to provide work for the unemployed, but a motion to appoint a committee to address this was lost. A year later she raised five issues to improve conditions in the workhouse. Only one succeeded: to abolish the rule forbidding conversation between inmates at meal times.
In 1897 she married George Chew a prominent member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) at Nantwich Registry Office. A year later they had Doris, who was their only child.
She joined the ILP, and travelled widely in their Clarion van promoting socialism. She would even take her daughter Doris out of school, to join her on her travels.
In 1905, as an organiser of the Women’s Trade Union League, she formed the Crewe branch of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors.
Ada believed women’s suffrage was an essential preliminary to the industrial and social progress of women. She objected to the Women’s Social and Political Union’s (WSPU) led by the Pankhursts, which she felt was less relevant to working women and too militant.
During World War 1 Ada became a member of the Women’s International League for Peace. After the war, and the achievement of women’s suffrage in 1918, she withdrew from any major involvement in politics, and concentrated on building up her mail-order drapery business.
Ada Nield Chew died in Burnley in 1945.
You can read the letters that Ada wrote here.
In 2018 Ada was featured at the Museum’s Empowerment of Women exhibition, which is available here.