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Chesterton [née Jones], Ada Elizabethlocked

(1869–1962)
  • Mark Knight

Chesterton [née Jones], Ada Elizabeth (1869–1962), journalist and philanthropist, was born at Oxford House, Thurlow Park Road, Dulwich, London, on 30 June 1869 (her name was registered as Ada Eliza), the daughter of Frederick John Jones, a manufacturer of braces, and his wife, Ada Charlotte, formerly McDonald née Sheridan. Born into a family for whom journalism was a way of life (her father and brother wrote for the press), Ada began life as a Fleet Street reporter when she was sixteen years old. Much of the material that she published was not signed with her birth name. Instead she preferred to use a range of pseudonyms, including Sheridan Jones, John Keith Prothero, and Margaret Hamilton, or, after her marriage, to refer to herself as Mrs Cecil Chesterton.

By 1900, when Ada Jones met the brothers Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Cecil Edward Chesterton (1879–1918), she was an established freelance journalist. Gilbert Chesterton described her as 'perhaps the most brilliant' of the independent journalists who worked in Fleet Street during the early twentieth century (G. K. Chesterton, 188). Her journalistic career included a stint as assistant editor for New Witness (formerly known as Eye-Witness), edited by Cecil Chesterton, and a period as the London representative for Everyman.

At the centre of Ada's relationship to the Chestertons was a long courtship with Cecil. 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. Cecil Chesterton survived the war only to be taken seriously ill with nephritis shortly after the armistice. Upon hearing the news of his illness Ada, with the help of Maurice Baring, managed to arrange transport to the military hospital in France where he was being treated. She arrived just before he died, in December 1918, and was the only member of his family present when he was buried.

Ada Chesterton decided that the best way to deal with her grief was to leave her familiar surroundings and go abroad. She persuaded the Daily Express to commission her to write a series of articles about Poland, to where she sailed on the American warship Westward Ho!, the first ship to cross the North Sea—still unswept of mines—after the war. When she returned to London she used her contacts to establish the Eastern European News Service. Her interest in reporting from overseas continued in the years that followed and resulted in My Russian Venture (1931), Young China and New Japan (1933), and Salute the Soviet (1942).

The investigative journalism that Ada Chesterton undertook at home was equally dynamic. Following a conversation about the plight of homeless women in London, she voluntarily took to the streets for two weeks in 1925. 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. Her account was subsequently published as In Darkest London (1926), in which she tried to convey the insight that she had gained: 'I had experienced actual physical privations which women of the middle class may weep over, but cannot comprehend' (p. 255). The book, which caused a sensation, called for social and political change, and was followed by further works highlighting the plight of the poor, such as Women of the Underworld (1928) and I Lived in a Slum (1936).

The impact of In Darkest London led to Ada Chesterton's involvement in raising money for houses to provide a refuge for homeless women. The first house opened in 1927 and the shelters became known as Cecil Houses. The council of reference for Cecil Houses included Gilbert Chesterton, Vincent McNabb, and H. G. Wells. Throughout her life Ada continued to pursue this philanthropic work. At the end of the Second World War she opened the Cecil Residential Club for Working Girls on Small Wages, and in 1953 she opened the Cecil Residential Club in Kensington for female pensioners.

Ada Chesterton's work with Cecil Houses is often seen as her greatest legacy but it is important to recognize her other contributions to the public sphere. While some of her 'preposterous' serial novels (The Chestertons, 258) were written largely to fund other activities (such as New Witness) her commitment to the arts was strong. She was the drama critic for G. K.'s Weekly and wrote two plays with Ralph Neale (one of which was a stage adaptation of The Man who was Thursday). Her many biographies included The Chestertons (1941). She always thought of herself as a journalist and enjoyed the respect of colleagues in that essentially male environment, as an intelligent, determined, and prolific writer.

Ada Chesterton was made an OBE in 1938. Formerly an agnostic, she was received into the Roman Catholic church in 1942. She died, of cerebral thrombosis and cerebral arteriosclerosis, in a nursing home at 4 Birdhurst Road, Croydon, on 20 January 1962.

Sources

  • The Times (23 Jan 1962)
  • S. J. Avens, ‘Mrs Cecil Chesterton, O.B.E.’, Chesterton Review, 7/4 (Nov 1981), 313–22
  • Mrs C. Chesterton, The Chestertons (1941)
  • G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography (1936)
  • A. Stone Dale, The outline of sanity: a biography of G. K. Chesterton (1982)
  • M. Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1944)
  • Mrs C. Chesterton, In darkest London (1926)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.

Likenesses

  • Lenare, photograph, repro. in Chesterton, The Chestertons

Wealth at Death

£637 18s.: probate, 29 Nov 1962, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]