Sunday, 18 January 2009

Cottage Living . . . Part 1

What was probably the reality of country living for many people in Victorian times. Cottage near Whitney-on-Wye.

The following poem "Old Cottages" was written by a neighbour of Helen Allingham (Myles Birket Foster). After firstly describing the romantic vision of picturesque cottages, he follows on with this:

All these I know, - know too, the plagues that prey
On those who dwell in these bepainted bowers:
The foul miasma of their crowded rooms,
The fever that each autumn deals its dooms
From the rank ditch that stagnates by the door;
And then I wish the picturesqueness less,
And welcome the utilitarian hand
That from such foulness plucks its masquing dress,
And bids the well-aired, well-drained cottage stand,
All bare of weather-stain, right angle true, -
By sketchers shunned, but shunned by fevers too."

If you look at the paintings by Helen Allingham, of beautiful thatched cottages with roses round the door, you could be led to believe that their occupants had an interior which looked as if it came from Country Living. Sadly this was far from the case, as it outlined in the lines above. It is ever brought to mind for me when I look at the tiny outline of a ruined cottage which might have house a family of anything up to 10 children and parents, and sometimes the aged grandparents too. At bedtime they must have been stacked like sardines. When my mum and her 4 brothers and sisters came to stay with their cousins in Aberbargoed, they would be toe to nose in the bed - four heads one end and 4 the other with the cousins!


You have only to look at the headstones in any country churchyard - take Haworth, where the Brontes lived, as an example, to see that the average life expectancy was only 25 years, because there were SO many childhood and infant deaths from disease. At Haworth, the water supply for the village ran through the churchyard and it was said that the lower down the hill you were, the less chance of reaching adulthood a child would have. Headstones saying "and 10 children lost in infancy" or individual child deaths with the little one just a toddler of 1 to 4 years old. In Devon, in the village of Littlehempston, my g. grandmother lost her three children to disease in just 6 days - two of them on the same day. She asked to be buried with them on her demise. It was eight years before my grandfather was born and I always wondered whether she turned from her husband's advances because she couldn't bear the thought of losing another child. Diptheria, Scarlet Fever, Measles, Whooping Cough, TB, even Cholera and Typhus, could wipe out a whole family.

When you think of these cottages, do you see flagstone floors? The reality was that they were mainly bare earth, easily swept out, but in winter, rain seeping under the doorway (for the floors were often lower than the threshold and outer level) would soon turn the floor to tacky mud near the doorway. We have dreadful draughts in this house, from ill-fitting doors and windows, but think how it must have been in some cottages, with window frames stuffed with rags to keep the piercing wind out, and holes in the rotting thatch letting in the rain.

Sanitary arrangements were less than satisfactory, and an outside privy might well be shared by two or three large families. The contents were collected by the night soil men. I remember staying with the aunt and uncle of my ex-husband back in the 1970s, and they still had no bathroom or running hot water in the house, and the cold water had to be pumped into the sink with an ancient cast iron contraption. The toilet was in a tin shed up the garden, and you shared it with various gardening tools and a rat trap!

In the 1890s, a report on housing in certain villages in Dorset, Essex, Kent, Somerset, Surrey, Wiltshire and Worcestershire recorded that the average 2 storied cottage would have, downstairs, a living room 12 foot square by 6 foot high, and a small back scullery or pantry. Upstairs would have one decent sized bedroom and a smaller one into which the staircase often led - in fact, the staircase was quite often just a ladder. (Think Stack Square here, and the Coal House families, where the arrangement was much the same.) The upper floorboards rarely benefitted from a ceiling beneath them, so any sweeping (or washing) of the upper room would result in dust or water dropping down into the room below. Windows were sometimes of a design which would not open, and this must have led to unbearable stuffiness on a hot summer night. The thatch was often home to small birds, and insects, and I can still recall my dad telling me about one lad in Bovey Tracey who lived in a thatched cottage with a Hornets' nest in the thatch above his bedroom window. My dad was naturally somewhat wary of going to play at his place!


In some village communities, there was a village baker who would allow villagers to bring bread or the occasional pie or cake to be baked in the residual heat of his oven, once the loaves had been removed. Here in Wales in pre-range times, the primary cooking was done over an open fire using a cast iron cauldron. We have a roomy one downstairs, and there was a broken one in the brambles at the ruins of a cottage near Colomendy recently - someone had taken a hammer to it and smashed it in half. There was a particular way of loading the cauldron, with vegetables and perhaps a steamed pudding being hung in nets above the stew - which was more root vegetables with a scrap of meat and fat in for flavour and with dumplings floating on the top to fill up the corners. Luckier families would have a bread-oven for baking in, but these were generally confined to the farmhouses.

I shall try and get part 2 written for tomorrow . . .

16 comments:

Aunt Amelia's Attic said...

Oh my!

Well, better to know the truth. The plain truth. Than to stay with those beautiful but false ideas... Which I admit, I've had.

Of the romantic vision of picturesque cottages, as you said.

But am I allowed a tiny sigh? :-) Just a tiny one, because of the death of a lovely vision. Swept away, by facts.

But then again, much of life is thus, isn't it?

Aunt Amelia
"A Snowflake is Winter's Butterfly."

Aunt Amelia's Attic said...

I hope you have Comment Verification. Otherwise, my comment just "went poof."

Aunt Amelia
"A Snowflake is Winter's Butterfly."

A Bite of Country Cupcakes said...

Is'nt it a great image of the baker allowing others to come and use the oven...

Morning's Minion said...

Oh dear, this is one of those tiny screens to type into. I looked for an e-mail adress but didn't see one. I've read the blog more times than I thought. Having decided to read older posts I was surprised to find I had to go back to September to find ones not already viewed. It has been a good evening read. I've spent the past several years doing census searches via Ancestry.com--having waited to do a family history until we have moved over 2000 miles from where my people had lived in New England since Revolutionary times.
You post a good deal that interests me--cats, quilting, walking, flowers and the exploration of old homeseites and farms.

Arlene Grimm said...

Jennie...it reminds me of my mother taking us on a drive to see the places she had lived as a child...the only thing left in most of the homeplaces was just a chimney. As a child I found that hard to comprehend! But the places she lived were just humble abodes not built for longevity. Thanks for sharing...I always learn a lot reading your blogs.

Jane Badger said...

Thanks - that's fascinating, and an excellent reminder that it was a hard life not so very long ago. My great-grandfather was one of 11, and they all lived in a tiny 2 up, 2 down in Bedfordshire. Next door to us was a row of cottages (now demolished). When it rained, all the front doors would be open, as the rain ran down the hill into the houses, and out again onto the High Street.

Bovey Belle said...

Jane - I've heard other people say that - mainly of places here in Wales, which are often built into a hillside. When it rains the water came in the back door along the hallway and out through the front. We are built into a slope the other way, and just have processions of froglets and toadlets along the hall, with the occasional newt!

Arlene - how sad, but many places were just always meant to be temporary homes. There are log cabins I remember from childhood - built with flat planking - which were homes built usually between the World Wars, and now have huge modern 4 bedroomed executive style houses in their footprint . . .

Minion - sorry about the small box to write in! I took out a month's temporary Ancestry membership before Christmas and have let it ride because there is still so much I'm determined to get to the bottom of before I give it up. Where is home for you now then?

Cupcakes - not entirely altruistic, as they usually had to pay the baker a penny or so for the privilege!

Amelia - I know - dreams ruined, sorry, but there was happiness too, and in many ways, I think it was still often a better life than the stresses and demands of life today as there was a true community then, who would help when things were bad.

Kim said...

And some people think they have it hard now!!! A lovely piece of writing, Jennie, thank you :)

Kim x

Sue Purveur said...

Hi. It was lovely to see a mention of Helen Allingham's cottage paintings in your blog. I thought that you might be interested to know that my grandmother was actually born in 1891 in one of the cottages that she painted - The Old Malt House, Brook, Surrey.
Remarkably, it's still standing and quite beautiful - the quintessential English country cottage.

Morning's Minion said...

Wyoming has been our residence since 1998--I'm not sure it is "home" in my heart.
In researching old families, I too have been grieved by the number of early deaths--children and young adults who disappear between one census and the next, a decade later. My head gets to bursting with the stories I have found in part. I feel as though these lives should not be forgotten. I've viewed the UK census a number of times, trying to discover the origin of g-g-grandparents to came to NY, USA in time for the 1850 census, listed as "basketmakers" from "England." They vanish from record until their son appears in the town from which my mother's family came. I can't imagine now why I didn't ask my grandfather--"what happened to your grandparents?"
With names like William and An Lewis--they could have been anywhere.

Greentwinsmummy said...

I adore Helen Allinghams paintings,yet as that brilliant poem says,the reality would be very different.Reading Larkrise to Candleford enlightens you on the state of most of the cottages as well. I often wonder at this little cottages past,I saw the names of folks who lived here in the 60s & 70s lol & I was trying to imagine it here if they had garish wallpaper up lol!!
We shiver & mutter now when its cold yet years ago...crikey we dont know our luck do we sometimes.I was watching LRTC on sunday where they were wading thru the mud,I gasped eeek its like that here but I have a washing machine!! & whilst not a huge stash of clothes I almost certainly & the smalls have far more clothes than folks back then would have had!
GTM xxx xx

Bovey Belle said...

GTM - things woz different then, but I suppose if that was all you were used to and it was the same for everyone in your village, you were all in the same boat together. Ah yes, the mud. I should imagine they just had to take a stiff brush to hems as you couldn't be washing heavy dresses like those regularly.

Minion - gosh, Wyoming. It sounds wide skies and cowboys to me here in rural Wales! There are some sad stories in our past, and many more untold I am sure. Have you found your British rellies on the passenger lists? Lewis is, I admit, a fairly common name and not one that is often tied to a discreet area, BUT basketmakers may be a more fruitful search topic, as like lacemaking, glove making etc, it could well have been tied to a specific few counties. Do American birth certificates give the maiden name of the mother? That might be another clue, or her maiden name might appear as a "middle" name for one of the elder children?

Hello Sue - how wonderful to have a romantic ancestor - or rather, one who lived in a romantic cottage - I should imagine it is worth a fortune now it has mains drainage!

Kim - yes indeed. Even when I was growing up, very few people had proper go-away holidays, and even fewer owned their own car, but everyone was in the same boat and didn't moan about it.

Bovey Belle said...

Sue - I've just visited a wonderful site which has ALL Helen Allingham's pictures on it, and I have now seen where your grandmother was born. What a lovely place - but a bit damp perhaps as below the road level? We have a window like that too - they raised the paddock level in the past so it looks out onto a now-excavated bank and ditch (bit like a moat!)

mokey said...

Happened upon your blog today and have been utterly facinated and entertained! As I swelter through my 40th Aussie summer, the British Isles heritage in me some 5 generations back yearns to accompany you on your census walks!

Morning's Minion said...

Wyoming does indeed have working cowboys complete in boots, Stetsons, tight jeans and neckerchiefs. They are as apt to be seen going about in snorting 4x4 diesel trucks as on horseback. History of the interior west is so recent in terms of "white man's" occupation--none of the historic houses, churches, village greens which I so enjoyed in New England.
You can't beleive [well, maybe you can] the hours that I spend on census entries, passenger lists, etc trying to locate William and Ann Lewis! In the 1850 NY census, it seems quite apparent that they are there as part of a family group--three families and a single man living door to door, with in common the designation of "basket maker" for the HOH. I think it safe to assume a relationship amongst them. I've tried searching all the names--John Spencer, Leonard Beard, Richard Clark--no leads! These families had moved into upstate NY near the Canadian border, into a region with a goodly number of French-speaking families. I have wondered if perhaps they moved again--into Canada, maybe the more "English" province of Ontario. I have toyed with the thought that they may have been Welsh, but Lewis is the only one of the surnames that I have thought might connect with that ancestry. Census enumerators could be less than specific in their record taking--but I think that if the country of origin had been Wales or Scotland, even the most casual enumerator would not have written "England." Even now, would one state, "I am from Great Britain" as opposed to designating "England" or "Wales?"
Thank you for sharing your interesting findings and commentary. Its a bit like reading LarkRise to Candleford.

Morning's Minion said...

An extremely quick search suggests that Somerset has an old tradition of basket making. I hadn't thought of this as an approach. If baskets were made of willow, then one assumes a supply of willow--which grows in wet places. [A lot more wet places in England or most anywhere as compared to Wyoming!] New England baskets were often made of split ash or oak--a different technique.
I've pin-pointed the arrival of my mentioned family as late 1840's judging by which children are listed with birthplace of England as opposed to the very youngest [less than one year to 2 or 3 years] born in NY.