A personal insight into how the world has changed in the last 100 years
Ease of communication influences change: that and fundamental upheavals. It so happens that I have experienced almost from the beginning the crazy development of the internal combustion engine and have lived through two world wars. Change has been so rapid that, spiritually and psychologically it has become indigestible. Not only for me!
When I was a small child, before 1914 the countryside – and there was much more of it – seemed green and empty. White dusty or black muddy roads wound a leisurely way between carefully tended ditches and skillfully laid hedges. The occasional pony trap or horse drawn dray left a fog; of dust behind or splashed the unwary pedestrian with mud.
The few cars could seldom drive faster than 20 mph; in fact until the late twenties the speed limit for a lorry or bus was 15 mph.In Cambridge before 1914 horse drawn trams that ran on rails carried people to the railway station ~the statutory mile from the centre of the town) where immense shire horses shunted goods trucks from one train to another, The well-to do or those in a hurry could hire a hansom cab from the stand outside the Senate House in King’s Parade. There was no public transport between town and village, let alone between village and. village. There were no long distance coaches or indeed suitable roads for them to drive on. No cheap package tours for the Continent or further. Many country folk never saw London or the sea. Many had never stirred outside their own village, or at any rate no further than they could walk. Charabancs appeared after the war. “Perils,” we called them, because the first one we saw at Milford-on-Sea was yellow and. the newspapers were full of China and the “Yellow Peril? One of them knocked down old Mr. Jury from the Newsagents when he was delivering papers along the cliff road. He insisted on using the road as he always had and several weeks in hospital didn’t alter his intentions-”I’ve as good a right-” he announced and that was that. The more progressive villagers called them “Sharrers”, and loved them.
The roads were empty. The skies were empty. “No planes were flying overhead. There were no planes to fly” (with apologies to the Walrus and the Carpenter!). It was safe for small children, even in London, to walk to school crossing roads that now seethe with imminent death. It was hardly less safe to climb into the driving seat of a car – even as late as 1926 when 1 first learnt – and drive off with or without previous instruction. All one needed was a 5/- (25 pence) driving license.
But if the countryside seemed empty the houses of the well-to-do bustled with activity and the majority of the inhabitants were domestic servants.
When Granny and Granddaddy Siemens were on their own at Westover (Westover is now a private luxury hotel) they would have in attendance a ladies’ maid, a cook and scullery maid and two housemaids who could double as parlour maids, and in the latter capacity would lay the table, wait at table (that is to say, hand the food round? and clear away after the meal was over. And this was during the 1914 war when Granddaddy’s finances were beginning to crumble.. When they were not at Westover they occupied a spacious flat in London – Camden Hill Court – with, I suppose, a slightly reduced staff. They employed no men in the house, as some did; Granny maintained that they encouraged the girls to be idle. There were of course men in the garden. Viner, the head gardener, who wore a green baize apron, didn’t care for little girls and who kept the greenhouses locked; Johnny Dove whom we loved and his son George whom we didn’t. Viner and Mrs. Viner lived in the gardener’s cottage next the engine room where the electricity generator was kept. I don’t know where George lived. Johnny had his own room in the stable block. It had no window, only an ever open door. There was a large bed in one dark corner and maybe a chair. I doubt whether he possessed any clothes other than what he stood up in so he wouldn’t have needed a chest of drawers. There were certainly fleas. If we dared each other to dash into this grubby smelly little cave we always came out with one. Johnny looked after Fanny Pony, using her chiefly for mowing the tennis courts and croquet lawn. She pulled the machine and wore smart leather shoes so that she didn’t leave ugly foot prints on the lawn. Johnny swore “Goldurn” or “Codally”, he used to mutter if badly provoked. The latter was the more sinister. He also used gin traps – which was illegal – “for they liddle bunny rabberts”….If we found one we would drop it down the well at the end of the kitchen garden. We must have lead charmed lives; no one fell down the well, no one got caught in a trap. George cleaned shoes and knives; took orders from the cook as to what vegetables she needed for the day – sea-kale, globe artichokes, asparagus, peas, cabbage. They grew everything in the acre and a half of kitchen garden.
If the house were full of more exalted guests than Mrs. Bertie and her seven daughters Mrs. Saunders and her daughter came in daily from the village to help out. Even so the maids must not only work harder but add invisibility to their other skills The housemaids were responsible for cleaning and tidying the bedrooms, for making beds and putting away discarded clothing after making sure that the said clothes didn’t need cleaning or mending Florrie saw to all that. Not only did she do all sewing and mending, when Nanny no longer came to Westover Florrie kept an eye on all of us as well; the kindest eye possible. There were no fitted basins: and few W.C’s; hot water had to be carried twice a day for extensive washing before breakfast and again before dinner. And of course all bedrooms were provided with chamber pots – one under each bed. It would have been inconceivable to have been seen – in one’s night clothes! – going into or out of a W.C. Much more suitable that a little maid should carry away the heavy slop pails. But woe betide her if she were seen! She could face dismissal. When most village girls were brought up to go into domestic service maids were easily and cheaply replaceable. Though it was not so easy in towns. There one dealt through an agency.
As for the kitchen staff, it would be occupied all day from an early hour preparing four substantial meals; probably the kitchen maid – the “tweeny” – had to be up at five o’clock every morning to black the range before lighting it.
And that is another big change :only a minority uses a solid fuel cooker – gas or electric cookers – even Agas – don’t need daily lighting or cleaning. And the amount of food one ate! It took a second world war to make people realize that one felt the better for tightening one’s belt. Even into the twenties breakfast was a three course meal – porridge, meat or fish dish, toast, oatcakes, marmalade, honey. And always eggs – poached with kippers or smoke haddock, scrambled or fried with bacon, boiled to follow sausage and mash Mr. Henry Hatch delivered twelve dozen eggs every week.
Only one gong for breakfast; two with a quarter of an hour interval for luncheon (“Lunch” was what we now know as elevenses). At the sound of the first gong one dashed to “wash one’s hands.” It was not done to ask to leave the table during a meal; in fact, it was never done. W.C.s were unmentionable – didn’t exist (in most cottages this was true, and even the more humble dwellings in towns might share a communal pump and W.C. in the yard round which they were built.)I can still hear Mummy’s voice floating up from the drive at Testover when I was singing lustily to pass the time “not in there, Polly!”
The second gong at one o’clock summoned everyone to the hall to process according to strict protocol into the dining room, where one sat down to meat – occasionally fish, – two veg:, followed by a substantial pudding.
Tea, at four o’clock consisted of large brown scones with butter and jam, sandwiches, small cakes and large – everything home-made and fresh daily. Dinner was the most important meal. One changed into evening dress and we children – the privileged ones – at any rate were ready when the first gong sounded at 7.15 – second gong, 7.30. Annie the cook wrote out a. menu because Granddaddy liked to know what to expect. On one occasion she wrote out “curried remains”, which was not appreciated. The table glittered with silver, cut glass and damask table cloth. There were side plates shaped like crescent moons for salad, and bowls filled with water for rinsing ones hands at the end of the meal. Always four courses – soup meat or fish, pudding and savoury – asparagus perhaps, or artichokes. Cheese and usually home grown fruit (grapes, peaches, strawberries apricots) to follow. Granddaddy always drank a glass of hock, but the rest of the family were strictly teetotal.
One curious little custom lingered on into the war. Ladies – not gentlemen, I’m sure – collected all the choicest morsels on the edge of their plates to be eaten at the end of a course. It was called a. ”bonne bouche” and could cause untold anguish if one were dining out and one’s plate was whipped away too early. Only the most eccentric guest mould dare to protest.
On Sundays the mid-day meal (leg of mutton or sirloin of beef – never pork) was the most important since “supper” in the evening was always cold. This was supposed to benefit the maids.
Nursery meals were not so elaborate in fact I rather think the last one for children was tea, at four o’clock.
I have no reason to suppose that other wealthy middle class families differed in any marked degree. Nor do I doubt that other children when allowed to eat with the grownups sat mute, eating what was put in front of them – all of it – without comment.
It isn’t fanciful to suggest that the enormous exodus of domestic servants, hundreds and thousands of them, to factory, to the land or armed forces during the ’14 –‘18 war triggered off a more fundamental revolution than ever the suffragettes envisaged. Incidentally it is amusing to remember that the first time I went to Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks a terrifying model of Sylvia Pankhurst in the works in 1916 there was Chamber of Horrors.
Consider clothes. Fashions were just as tyrannical but with this difference – everything was constructed to a more professional patter. Though Mr. Punch didn’t agree with that . In one number there was a series of pathetic pictures of a young lady struggling into what was called “a time-saving frock”. Mr Punch also thought, with appropriate illustrations, that if flappers were able and willing to fight for their country, they were also capable of voting sensibly.
Ladies now looked after their own clothes so skirts no longer trailed in the mud; bustles went out and bras came in. For us children the change was equally dramatic.
Before the wav nursemaids dressed us, and even in summer one wore “liberty bodices”, knickers and knicker linings and a petticoat under a cotton dress and white pinafore. In winter, in addition Jaeger combinations and black woollen stockings. By the time these stockings had been handed down from the Big Ones to my sister and me they were turning green with age and washing. Everything went to the laundry and everything that could be was starched – knickers, petticoats, pinafores, even sunhats. Mummy had a theory about tight elastic causing varicose veins and our knickers and knickers linings buttoned on to our liberty bodices. It felt so draughty when a button came off and a flap dangled down one’s leg. When we went out for walks in the winter we wore leather gaiters, squirrel lined coats with muffs to match and beaver hats or fur bonnets: in summer straw hats or bonnets for “best”, trimmed with artificial flowers or fruit.
After the war, when the leg below the knee became sexier than the ankle skirts shortened accordingly. Sometimes they were wrap-over and, if one were fast, revealed on occasion that one wore pants that matched one’s shoes, hand bag and lipstick; though make up, beyond a discreet dusting of face powder, was slow to become popular. Actresses and prostitutes (“unfortunate females”) wore makeup.
As skirts shortened women became more athletic They discarded sidesaddles and rode astride to hounds; they competed – and won – in Show ,Jumping competitions. Tennis courts required a longer run-back. They wrote books under their own names; and even joined men in the outside world where they became doctors, lawyers, architects, stirring up prejudice nearly as violent as there is now against women priests,. For women musicians it was easier. Since Victorian times and earlier it was considered that singing or playing the harp and later the piano were elegant accomplishments for a well-bred woman. So, though Tommy Beecham might refuse to employ women in his orchestras Henry Wood welcomed them; much to the unconcealed amusement of our fellow musicians in Germany.
Besides dressing themselves ladies learnt to do their own hair. The Twenties ushered in the bob, the shingle, the Eton crop. Advertisements announced that Friday Night was Amami Night – that Eugene Ruled the Waves.
There were no more housemaids. The washstand with its matching basin jug and soap dish disappeared from the bedroom, together with the matching chamber pot under the bed. Architects designed the larger houses with more than one W.C. and with at least one bathroom; often running water in the bedrooms. There are few cottages now without the minimum of these amenities. The amount of water used per person must have more than doubled. Gone are the days when children were sown into their clothes for the winter. Gone are the days when the fug in a cottage was unbearable for a small child unused to it.
I remember our current nursemaid taking my sister and me to tea with her parents in a village outside Cambridge. It was an idyllic spot, frogs croaking in the pond, the song of larks spiraling up into the blue. Our host and hostess were the kindest and most considerate of people, but I turned faint and had to leave my sardine sandwich (oh alas!) and be taken outside. Certainly their privy was at the bottom of the garden; equally certainly it was no el-san. The man of the house emptied the bucket each day, probably on to the compost heap.
Maids of all work made a brief disagreeable appearance on the scene – (as the child wrote in a scripture examination – “Adam and Eve were perfectly happy till the servant came -“) – some grasping, some tyrannical (and who can blame them?). It was hard to find cooks. E.M. Delafield wrote poignantly about cooks in her “Provincial Lady” series. There were jokes in Punch – “She was a good cook as cooks go, and as cooks go she went”; by the beginning of the thirties they were almost gone. The first meal of the day lost importance. Children after dressing themselves hastily gobbled a bowl of cereal (“High o’er the Fence leaps Sunny Jim. Force is the Food that raises him!” Sunny Jim and his peers came over from the U.S.A. just after 1918) and dashed to catch the school bus. There might only be an adult and perhaps a baby for the midday meal, so supper or high tea became the main meal of the day – a simple affair except on special occasions.
As it became harder to find domestic help the mistress of the house had to buckle to and “Do It ‘Yourself”. Few people enjoy going down on hands and knees to scrub floors or brush carpets. Electricity had been harnessed the previous century. Now men – and women – invented electrically run labour saving devices; vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, washing machines and washing-up machines, electric mixers and electric cookers with self-cleaning ovens. There were sophisticated gas cookers even after electricity succeeded gas lighting in the house and in the streets. I was sad when our lamplighter no longer bicycled in slow motion up Adams Road down Sylvester Road and Herschel Road into Grange Road. He was so skilful he could light all the lamps without dismounting, simply by thrusting a long rod up into the little glass house at the top of the lamp post.
One great change is in the part men now play in the house. They cook wash up, change nappies, bath the babies, do the shopping. My husband, , liked to tell the story of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Fisher at that time who looked so sunburnt that a colleague asked whether he had been abroad. “No”, he replied. “The pantry sink faces south”. My husband incidentally was an old-fashioned male. He only once changed Alexander’s nappy. It took him half-an-hour, and they were both in tears in the end. At any rate, Alexander was. Occasionally the woman is the breadwinner, the man the housekeeper.
Perhaps the most profound revolution is in the attitude of grownups and children to each other. Children now, must shoulder responsibility for their conduct and careers at a much earlier age. Almost as soon as they leave primary school they have to specialize – will they be doctors? – teachers? – Go into computers? – The choice is enormous. And anybody with the ability and inclination can follow on from school to University or Technical College. Inevitably the result has been that the exaggerated veneration of sixty or seventy years ago that children had for parents and teachers has swung to the opposite extreme. Plenty of parents, even if they don’t venerate their children are afraid of them. What used to be a Matriarchy is now a Paidiarchy, which can be uncomfortable for those in nominal authority.
The present day attitude to the importance of material success isn’t changed from when I was a child – from when my great grandparents were children. The difference is that formerly one didn’t mention it, but thought about it a great deal. Nowadays one talks and thinks of it all the time.
As a certain Monsieur Alphonse Karr remarked 150 years ago – “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”
And there are still more pleasant than unpleasant people in the world