Famous names from C&C’s past: Mrs Chesterton
With C&C residents and colleagues currently undertaking a month-long “Move for Care” step-challenge to raise funds for sensory gardens at each of our four care homes, and with the organisation recently having celebrated 95 years since its formation, we are rewinding the clock with a series of articles about C&C’s rich history. This week, Mrs Ada Chesterton, who made big visions a reality.
Without the vision of Mrs Ada Elizabeth Chesterton, there would be no C&C. 95 years ago, it was Mrs Chesterton who got the ball rolling by recognising, and acting upon, the need for social housing for women with nowhere else to stay. While there’s a short write-up of Mrs Chesterton’s involvement on our history page, we’re taking the opportunity of our recent 95th anniversary commemorations to tell her story in full.
Ada Elizabeth Jones was born on 30 June 1869 in Thurlow Park Road, Dulwich, to Frederick John Jones and his wife Ada. Frederick was a brace manufacturer, but also regularly wrote newspaper articles.
At the age of 16, Ada followed in her father’s footsteps and began working as a journalist in Fleet Street. She went on to have a highly successful career in writing, often using pseudonyms such as John Keith Prothero. Described as “perhaps the most brilliant” freelance journalist of the early twentieth century by her future brother-in-law GK Chesterton, Ada was acquainted with many of the best writers of the time through her membership of the Fabian Society. This included George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, and Edith Nesbit.
Ada met Cecil Chesterton in 1900. Despite their 10 year age gap, they remained together for the rest of Cecil’s life. Ada encouraged Cecil to become a journalist, and in 1912 he took over the failing weekly publication Eye-Witness, renamed it the New Witness, and brought Ada in as assistant editor.
After a long courtship, Ada finally agreed in 1916 to marry Cecil, shortly before he went to war with the Highland Light Infantry. GK Chesterton took over the New Witness while Cecil was away, with Ada assuming the role of secretary and business manager.
Ada and Cecil married in London during his leave period in June 1917. Sadly, Cecil was wounded three times fighting in France, finally becoming sick with nephritis. Ada rushed to his bedside just in time to see him before his death on 6 December 1918. She was the only relative to attend his funeral in Wimille, northern France.
Creating Cecil Homes
Following Cecil’s death, Ada spent time in Poland, writing a series of articles about the country for the Daily Express. She went on to establish the Eastern European News Service, taking advantage of the various contacts she had made in the media world.
In February 1925, Ada interviewed several homeless women living on the streets of London. She was suitably inspired to investigate their plight further, and accepted a bet from the editor of the Sunday Express to join them in poverty on the basis that the newspaper would then publish her experience. He believed Ada wouldn’t last more than a couple of nights. In fact, she lasted a fortnight, sleeping in a variety of shelters, begging in the streets, and selling matches to provide some form of income.
Her experiences formed the basis of her first book, In Darkest London, published in 1926 under the pseudonym Anne Turner. The book was well received as a critique of the lack of accommodation options and subsistence support available to homeless women as compared to men. While Ada praised the support offered by charitable shelters, primarily organised by Christian organisations, she noted that they were overwhelmed by applicants.
The book’s publicity, along with a public meeting in October 1926 discussing the refusal from the authorities to run women’s public lodging houses, enabled Ada to raise £5,000 in order to take action. She set up Cecil Houses, named after her late husband, for women with nowhere to live.
In March 1927, the first Cecil House opened its doors at 34 Devonshire Street, Holborn, with 44 women and 2 babies becoming its first occupants. Ten months later, a second house opened in Kings Cross, providing refuge to 58 women and 12 babies. A third house in North Kensington followed in March 1929 for 60 women and 18 babies. Then a fourth opened its doors in November 1930 on Harrow Road, housing another 60 women and 18 babies. The fifth property, opened in March 1934 for 49 women and 2 babies, is today recognised as C&C’s central office in Waterloo.
By this point, Cecil Houses had received widespread acclamation as a refuge for women in London who needed shelter, providing clean beds and washing facilities without any questions asked. Lodging cost just a shilling per night, and the absence of interrogation gave women the ability to share their trouble with Matrons if needed.
Donations for the Houses flooded in from around the world, with famous contributors including GK Chesterton, Queen Mary, George Bernard Shaw, and John Galsworthy. Further publicity for Cecil Houses was achieved through Ada’s second book Women of the Underworld, published in 1928.
And Ada continued to keep herself occupied with writing in a variety of forms. She became drama critic for GK Chesteron’s journal G.K.’s Weekly, and wrote a couple of plays with Ralph Neale. She also worked as a foreign correspondent, which led to her book My Russian Venture, published in 1931, and Young China and New Japan in 1933.
Ada’s later life
A copy of the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) Ada Chesterton received in the New Year Honours List of 1938, awarded for her founding the Cecil Public Lodging Houses for homeless women. This document now resides at Cecil Court care home in Kew, London
Ada wrote a further account of life in poverty in her 1936 book I Lived in a Slum, driving more publicity and funds in the direction of Cecil Homes. She wrote a biography about the family she had entered into, The Chestertons, in 1941, before a trip to the Soviet Union inspired her next book Salute the Soviets, published the following year.
Alongside her writing, Ada Chesterton’s philanthropy was also evident for the remainder of her life. After the war, she opened the Cecil Residential Club for Working Girls on Small Wages. She then focused her attention towards older women for the first time, opening the Cecil Residential Club in Kensington, aimed at female pensioners.
Ada Chesterton died at the age of 92 of cerebral thrombosis, on 20 January 1962 at a nursing home in Croydon. But the work at her homes, and the inspiration she set, continues to this day.
Cecil Houses continued to grow through mergers with social housing charities and care providers for the elderly, becoming a Housing Association in 1974. A further merger in 1993 incorporated Cecil Houses into C&C, who offer affordable housing services including sheltered and care accommodation for the over-55s.
C&C is currently hosting a “Move for Care” month-long step challenge, to be followed by a fortnight’s Dance-a-thon. The aim is to raise £25,000 to build sensory gardens at each of our four care homes. To support these fundraising efforts, or to get involved yourself, please visit ccht.org.uk/our-care-homes/move-for-care/. Thank you for your support.