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Old 03-02-24, 10:15
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Default What was it really like?

There are lots of forums on Facebook, full of old (usually colourised) photos. And everyone bemoans the loss of that past where you could leave your front door unlocked and kids played on the street all day. All those wonderful buildings knocked down and replaced by modern tat. Landlords, of course, were rich and rapacious, even then.

My grandfather, being a policeman between the wars, got moved around Surrey. Given a choice between modern council housing (with plumbing, an inside loo and an oven) and the pretty, rambling old cottage in Thursley (with a well, a cesspit and an open range) Granny plumped for modernity every time and although I don't know the views of my grandfather, he was the one who had to bring in the water and deal with the cesspit. That cottage wasn't knocked down and today, of course, is worth millions.

A distant aunt owned a couple of cottages in Norfolk. She was in her seventies, the properties were ruinous, and gave her a pittance to live on. She would have had neither energy, nor the funds to improve them.

Family history is so much more interesting when we have some sort of back story to our ancestors, but how do we prevent our own prejudices colouring it?
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Old 03-02-24, 12:13
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I remember reading about the slum clearances in London. At the time, most women rhapsodisedabout their brand new tower block flat with plumbing, central heating, running hot water etc, so easy to keep clean. Familiarity always breeds contempt of course, but it took some time for the drawbacks to dawn, such as nowhere to play, nowhere to hang out the washing or plant a few daffs. And other people's insanitary habits had followed you, they still used the staircases as toilets, other people's dogs messed on your doorstep and so on. The developers were long gone of course and there was an official attitude that tenants should be grateful for what they had got.

Contrast that with a friend's parents mansion flat in Finchley. Built grandly in the 1920s it was very spacious with elegant proportions and the block had a live in janitor which made people mind their manners. The rent was about the same as a council flat because they were sitting tenants.

As a child I always lived in either new or modern houses yet my mother's life was consumed by housework. She did neither less nor more than my old aunties, who all lived in unmodern properties. Although my mum had a primitive washing machine, the laundry took all day. Today we just bung it in and go away and do something else.

I am guilty of the "good old days" fantasy though. One set of 3 x ggps lived in what appears to have been an idyllic farmhouse where the family had lived for 300 years at least. Yet in the mid 1800s they upped sticks and moved into a slummy area of Manchester. I thought the move must have broken their hearts, but of course I don't know how hard their life was as farmers.

I have seen many a family history fantasy on the internet. Huge unfounded assumptions about their ancestors status, always favourable of course. The man whose wife died of tb while he was busy making another woman pregnant had done so, according to his descendent, because the wife had someone else and thrown him out, poor man.

Some things were better in the past. Some things were worse. We need to remember that we shouldn't look at yesterday with today's eyes.

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Old 03-02-24, 12:37
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If I can get hold of it, the In-laws' view is always informative. Mum couldn't believe that her youngest uncle, who taught her to ride, beat up his wife.
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Old 03-02-24, 13:36
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Oh yes, in-laws.

My first mil came from very humble stock. Her father was an ag lab. She was one of 8 children. Her mother fell down the rotten staircase in their one up one down cottage, broke her neck and died. Her father married the widow next door (yes) who already had five children and they went on to have more. Mils elder sister got a job aged 12 with an elderly lady in the village and my mil soon followed her, aged 10. I raved about the immorality of taking two girls to be virtual slaves. My mil said scornfully, you don't know what you are talking about. For the first time in our lives, we slept in a bed, were taught to wash ourselves and our clothes, to eat good food, to have someone take an interest in our well-being and all we had to do in exchange was dust a few pretty ornaments.

This certainly changed my (received) view of domestic service into one of refuge rather than slavery.

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Last edited by Olde Crone; 03-02-24 at 13:37. Reason: Sp
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Old 05-02-24, 10:08
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I've heard young female historians saying how shocking servants' wages were. When they had a roof over their head, food, and even if they had to pay for or make their own uniforms, the rest of their wages could be spent in enjoying themselves, or saved against a rainy day.
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Old 05-02-24, 10:16
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As much as I hate housework, if it were a choice between that or working in the fields in the pouring rain with a sack over me, I know which I would choose!

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Old 05-02-24, 10:25
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Me too OC! Also, doing housework as a job is a lot more structured than doing your own, so a different mindset, so in some ways not so awful and at least someone else cooked your meals if you were in a large household. The worst indoor servant job would potentially be in the home of a family who only had the one jack-of-all-trades servant.
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Old 12-02-24, 11:02
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I think I'd rather live now, with antibiotics and painkillers and central heating etc. But I have the advantage of growing up in a house without central heating or a dishwasher so I really really appreciate them now!

Unless our ancestors left records, we don't really know how they felt about their lot. My family were mainly ag labs or servants. But I often feel for better off women before they were allowed to work. They must have been bored out of their minds and wearing tight corsets would have made them feel ghastly.

As for modern tower blocks where people use the stairways as loos and let their dogs mess, I don't see how that is the planners' fault. On the estate where I live - a mix of privately owned housing, social housing and council housing, there are people who have beautiful gardens and well maintained houses and others who use their front lawn as a rubbish dump.
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Old 12-02-24, 16:15
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Nell, yes, that was my point really, people who live like pigs will live like pigs wherever they live. It was no more naive of the postwar planners than it was of the Victorian planners to think that all you needed to do to improve people's habits was to give them somewhere better to live.

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Old 13-02-24, 12:11
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Yes even when people lived in council housing they took pride in their surroundings - now it seems nobody does, even privately owned estates can look like tips.
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