Ada Nield was born in 1870 in North Staffordshire and was required to leave school at the age of 11 when the family moved to Worcestershire in search of work. By 1887 Ada was living in Crewe and after working in a variety of settings gained employment as a tailoress making uniforms for the armed services. Observing both discrimination and dubious financial practice in the factory in 1894 she wrote a letter signed ‘Crewe factory girl’’ to the Crewe Chronicle. The letter ended with the comment that it was ‘not a ‘living wage!’ Ours is a lingering dying wage.’
The editor of the Crewe Chronicle commissioned further articles from ‘the factory girl’ and when Ada was eventually unmasked she resigned in order to prevent further sackings from amongst her supporters. Ada had proposed the unionisation of women workers and her first public appearance was in September 1894 at a meeting held with Eleanor Marx under the auspices of the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers. Ada then became a member of the Independent Labour Party and was elected to the Nantwich Board of Guardians.
Ada was greatly in demand as a speaker and in 1896 spent several weeks touring the North East in a Clarion van, accompanied by George Chew whom she subsequently married in 1897. She spoke at a large number of public meetings and was a prolific writer in publications such as the Labour Leader and The Clarion. After the birth of their daughter Doris in 1898 Ada and George settled in Rochdale. In 1900 she took up a full-time post with the Women’s Trade Union League working alongside Mary Macarthur. She toured extensively, paying particular attention to the poor conditions for women workers in the Potteries, and made a successful return to Crewe to organise women workers.
Ada was a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and, as such, was a fierce critic of the policies of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Ada helped promote a local democratic structure for the National Union and saw the WSPU as being both anti-democratic and only interested in securing the vote for middle class women. For some months in 1904-05 Ada and Christabel Pankhurst exchanged their views in the columns of The Clarion. Ada saw the tactics of the WSPU as being strongly against the interests of the working class and wrote that she wanted a Bill that ‘would enable a man or woman to simply vote because they are man and woman, not because they are more fortunate financially than their fellow men and women.’
This reflected her insistence in linking the emancipation of women with that of the working class and from 1911 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which employed Ada as an organiser, pursued a policy of actively supporting Labour Party candidates. Ada toured the country speaking at by-elections and was in demand as an assertive but also witty speaker. Throughout this period she wrote extensively in Common Cause and The Labour Leader and for the local press in Rochdale, Bacup and Burnley.
Although Ada opposed the First World War her level of activism dropped as she concentrated upon running her own business. She still campaigned during the War, but concentrated upon the working conditions, diet and health of working class women.
She developed a successful mail order drapery business (Chew & Co.) which had premises in Chapel Street, Salford. She also for a time ran a health food store, an enterprise which developed out of her strong vegetarianism. As a successful businesswoman, Ada travelled extensively and went on a round the world tour in 1935. She died in Burnley in 1945.
The Working Class Movement Library has material for everyone to come in and read on Ada Nield Chew, her life and causes. Ada Nield Chew: the life and writings of a working woman by Doris Chew [Shelfmark E02] contains the letters of a ‘Crewe factory girl’ and other letters and sketches. The context of her life is well covered in One hand tied behind us by Jill Liddington and Jill Norris [A11] and in the Library's extensive collection of material relating to women’s suffrage. The Library also has copies of Clarion, Common Cause and The Labour Leader. There are papers relating to the NUWSS [Suffragette Movement – Box 1] and the Clarion vans – ‘What the Clarion vans are doing’ [Clarion – Box 2].