Ada Brown worked as a housemaid at Preston Manor appearing on the 1901 census with six other servants. She then disappeared from history and ordinarily her life would be forgotten.
However, the opening of the 1921 census in 2022 began a trail of clues that uncovered Ada’s secrets.
Ada’s birth, the mystery begins
Ada’s birth was registered in the January to April quarter of 1871. The census taken on 2nd April records Ada as two months old, putting her birth as early February 1871. The 1881 census of 4th April has Ada aged 11 or born 1870. Why the discrepancy? As today, parents had 42 days to legally register the birth of a child. If Ada’s parents missed the deadline a legally acceptable date may have been concocted to avoid censure.
Ada was the fifth daughter and youngest of seven children born to a poor family. Her arrival was unremarkable. Records show Ada never knew her birth date.
Ada’s humble beginnings
Ada’s story was not destined for the history books. She was born to a laundress mother and agricultural labourer father in Great Marlow Buckinghamshire. Girls like Ada could expect a basic education before a brief period working in domestic service then marriage as soon as possible. Ada’s older sisters, Margaret, Clara, Emily, and Laura married in the 1880s between the ages of 18 and 29. Emily’s husband Francis Cracknell will later feature in Ada’s secret life.
1891: A Cornish mystery
Aged 22, Ada is working as Second Housemaid at the grand Whiteway House at Chudleigh, Devon. A hundred miles away in the laundry block of a mansion called Trelissick House, Ada’s married sister Emily Cracknell is giving birth to her second child, daughter Alice. The birth is attended by Ada and Emily’s mother, Alice Brown who the child is named after. Emily and Alice are far from home employed as laundresses. Where is Emily’s husband Francis Cracknell?
1901: Ada lured by the bright lights of Brighton
Ada moves to the enticing seaside town of Brighton working as a housemaid for 76 year old widow, Mrs Eleanor Macdonald at Preston Manor. Mrs Macdonald dies in 1903 although servants stay on. A re-development project begins at the Manor with the construction of a new dining room, veranda corridor and West Wing bringing numerous workmen to the house and much interest to the domestic staff. In 1901 Ada’s mother dies, so too does Queen Victoria heralding a brighter more exciting time to be alive. Ada is tempted to live this new thrilling life to the full.
1905: consequences, an illegitimate child
On 14th February 1905 Ada gives birth to a baby girl registered on 25th March in Brighton. Brave resilient Ada names her baby girl Maggie Gordon. Is this a clue to Maggie’s father’s name? Maggie’s birth certificate shows a blank for father’s name and occupation. Ada gives her occupation as ‘housemaid (domestic)’ but she cannot work and care for her baby. In 1905 there is no state help for unmarried mothers. At the age of 34 and with no mother of her own and no chance of employment or respectable marriage, Ada’s position is precarious. She must give up her child for adoption or turn to family for support.
1907: A family tragedy strikes
Two years after Maggie’s birth Ada’s family is plunged into tragedy. Ada’s niece, born mysteriously in the laundry block at Trelissick, is now aged 15. Alice is her mother’s precious daughter, a healthy happy girl with four older brothers, Frank, Alexander, Leonard, and Jack. On 18th February 1907 Alice dies suddenly. Her death certificate records cause of death as “meningitis due to an infection by a pneumococcus” registered as “death by natural causes.” Meningitis is a serious and sudden-onset bacterial infection of the brain and spinal cord. Today preventable with vaccination and treatable with antibiotics, the illness was a death sentence in 1907. Alice was not taken to hospital because nothing could be done for her. The family live at the Birling Gap Hotel where Alice’s father, Francis Cracknell is hotel proprietor. It is here Alice dies. A more pitiful picture cannot be imagined of the dying girl surrounded by her grieving parents and brothers on the bleak winter cliffs.
Sister Emily’s mental health breaks down
Ada’s sister, Emily Cracknell had a history of mental health problems. Records on the UK Lunacy Patients Admission Register show her incarcerated in 1903, 1907 and 1911. Emily enters the Hellingly County Asylum in East Sussex on 24th October 1907 traumatised by her daughter’s death that year.
At this time in history women were often admitted into asylums for short periods to recover from what were termed ‘nervous breakdown’ – once rested they were sent on their way. However, Emily never left Hellingly for she died there on 4th November 1912 aged 46.
1911: A bigamous marriage?
Ada appears on official record on the 1911 register of UK Births, Marriages and Deaths revealing marriage to her brother-in-law of 23 years, Francis Ernest Cracknell at Eastbourne in the first quarter of the year.
Two historical secrets are uncovered: Ada’s husband’s first wife, her sister Emily, is still living, and Ada is pregnant again. No record of a divorce exists for Francis and Emily Cracknell. Without a divorce Ada and Francis are not free to marry. Yet they go ahead. Ada already carries the stigma of being an unmarried mother once in her life. She is to be spared the disgrace twice, even if her husband must break the law to do so. This series of events show that Ada took refuge with family after Maggie’s 1905 birth. Possibly she put her housemaid skills to work helping at the Birling Gap Hotel. Certainly, she and Francis gravitated together.
1911: the census begs more questions
The 1911 Kelly’s Directory lists E. Cracknell as ‘Proprietor of the Birling Gap Hotel’ and here the newly re-constructed family appear on the census taken on 2nd April. Ada, the former domestic servant, is now a respectable married woman employing a servant of her own, a 22 year old local girl called Edith Christmas. An extra hand is needed because of Ada’s pregnancy. Ada’s six-year-old daughter Maggie has been sent to live with her aunt Clara, living at Southall in Middlesex.
The 1911 census return shows Francis Ernest Cracknell and Ada Rose Brown as husband and wife ‘married for less than one year.’ The four boys are recorded as ‘by first wife’ but where is first wife, Emily? She won’t be admitted into the Hellingly Asylum until October.
1911: Another daughter for Ada
On 4th July 1911 Ada gives birth to her second daughter. Winnifred ‘Winnie’ Cracknell, a sister for Maggie born at the Birling Gap Hotel. Neither girl will marry nor leave a trace in history until their death registrations. Maggie died aged 80 at Eastbourne in 1985. Winnie died two days before her 93rd birthday at Worthing, West Sussex, in 2001.
1921: Complex family life 100 years ago
The 1921 census shows Ada and Francis Cracknell running the Red Lion Hotel at Stone Cross, Westham near Pevensey. Maggie is aged 16 and Winnie will soon turn 10. Three of Ada’s nephews, Francis’s adult sons, who are also Ada’s step-sons, live and help at the Red Lion. The family have a visitor staying, Ada’s widowed 58 year-old sister, Margaret who lives in Tooting. Her late husband William McKnight worked all his life as an asylum attendant. Perhaps it was he who helped the family admit Emily into the asylum system?
1939: History’s goodbye to Ada Rose Brown
Ada died in the first quarter of 1939 as Ada Rose Cracknell, aged 68 or 69. In September that year a national UK register was taken of the civilian population to be used for wartime purposes. Francis Ernest Cracknell, retired hotel keeper, is listed as living at a house called ‘Norfolk’ on the long Rattle Road, Pevensey. 34 year old Maggie lives with her step-father and works as a barmaid. Francis outlived Ada by twelve years, dying aged 91 on 4th March 1951 at his residence, ‘Norfolk.’ Probate records name Maggie Brown, spinster. Francis’s effects are worth £1,005 (equal in value to around £35,000 in 2022)
2022: Ada Brown lives on!
While Brighton’s museums were closed by Covid-19 pandemic Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust learning team re-developed the popular long-running Key Stage 2 school session ‘Victorian Role Play’ at Preston Manor. Characters from Preston Manor’s past were chosen from the 1901 census to demonstrate the work of Victorian servants and Ada Brown’s name was selected (along with butler, Benjamin Beesley). Today, visiting children dressed in Victorian costume arrive at Preston Manor and meet a housemaid called Ada Brown and spend time with her immersed in the work of a Victorian servant. The real Ada Brown would be astonished at her legacy.
Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer Preston Manor