I am one of those people who puts on weight after reading a menu. I have always enjoyed my food and my first recollections of meals are those of my family round a large table. In the early thirties, there would have been nine of us. There was my maternal Grandfather, my mother, my father and five brothers. We lived in a terraced house in Tottenham in North London.
My grandfather was born in 1860 and he had been a bookbinder. He was my maternal grandfather whose father had been born in Perth, Scotland.
My mother was born in Tottenham and came to live in our house when she was two years old, that would have been in 1886.
My father was born in 1881 in Glasgow and had been a professional footballer, having once played for Tottenham Hotspur. My parents married in 1906.
They were all Victorians.
There was plenty of evidence of the Victorian Period in the house. The House itself had only gas lighting until 1944. Even the gas lighting was restricted to the ground floor. Upstairs it was always necessary, at night, to take a candle.
In the Scullery, we had a tea caddy that was obviously 18th century. It was in poor condition, but it had two compartments, a hinged lid and a lock. It probably got handed down from mother to daughter. My mother’s grandmother was born around 1820, so her mother could have been born in the 18th century. The caddy disappeared when my mother died in 1972. In the caddy was a silver perforated spoon which was used to transfer the tea from the caddy to the pot. It, too, disappeared in 1972. There were no tea-bags then.
In the corner of the Scullery was what was known as “The Copper”. This was a stout construction which filled a corner location. The front was rounded, a sort of wall, made of firebrick, going from the back wall to the side wall. It was about three feet high. At the bottom, there was a small fireplace where one could light an open fire. At the top, there was a hole in which a copper drum, with a rim, could be lowered. It was about two feet high and had a diameter of about two feet. This was the Copper in which clothes were deposited, the drum filled with water and soap, and the fire below would bring the water to the boil and wash the clothes therein.
This would have been the means of washing our clothes until the Council Wash-house opened in Bromley Road, Tottenham.
The toilet was in the back of the house with an outside door from the garden.
The cooking saucepans, used in the Scullery, were all cast iron and obviously pre-dated even my grandfather.
In the Kitchen, my mother would keep two flat irons on top of the kitchener. When she wanted to do the ironing, she would place the “irons” on the hottest part of the hob to get them hot enough for ironing. She would then take a stout wad of cloth, wrap it around the handle before she lifted it to iron clothes on the kitchen table. When the first iron cooled down, she would take up the second and put the first back on the hob. Eventually, the Kitchener was removed in favour of an open fire, when my mother was obliged to heat the irons on the gas stove.
Also in the Kitchen there was an old singer Sewing machine that had belonged to my grandmother. It had a foot treadle and my mother would spend hours repairing clothes for the whole family.
In the cupboard which was located to the right of the chimney breast, we kept food, sugar and condiments. Also in the cupboard was a china cheese dish. This was in the form of an oblong tray over which was a wedge-shaped cover with a small handle. It was made of china. This used to hold a sizeable wedge of cheddar, which, at that time, would have been comparatively cheap.
The table in the Kitchen had a draw in which all the cutlery was held. The cutlery in use was probably that which was obtained by my grandfather when he set up house in 1882.
In the Parlour, there was a sideboard that had been built by my maternal great-grandfather for his first home around 1850. It was in mahogany with a simple counter on the top with a full length mirror at the back. Below the counter were three perfectly fitting drawers. Below, at each end were cupboards that supported the top of the sideboard. The one on the left had three shelves, while the one on the right had a lead-lined drawer, behind a cupboard door, which was to hold bottles of wine. Above that was a shelf.
It was a fine piece of furniture.
Displayed on the top of the sideboard there were two quart beer glasses. These were fine cut glass with flutes all around. Etched into the top of the glasses were the words “Victor Emmanuel”. My maternal grandmother’s family had been publicans and the glasses would have come from one of their pubs. However, I have never been able to identify a location for the Victor Emmanuel. It was almost certainly in the London area. They had kept pubs in Poplar and Shoreditch. Eventually one after another, the glasses were broken by careless handling. They, too, were Victorian.
There was plenty of evidence of Victorian items of interest in the house.
We had a large dining table which, when pulled away from the wall, occupied almost half the space in the “Kitchen”. Against the wall, there was a bench on which four brothers sat, my grandfather, mother, father and one other brother sat opposite them on chairs. I sat at one end.
It was Table d’Hote (at the time none of us would have known what that meant). What was on the plate was all that there was, there was no choice, there were no seconds and there were no left-overs. Because of this, we developed a taste for almost every food. There were a few exceptions. One exception was marrow, which, to us, was tasteless. Second was tripe. I did not like its taste, its odour or its appearance.
If we were poor, we were not aware of it at the time, although it was probable that my mother had to manage the economy of the house with less than £3 a week. Of course, things were very much cheaper then. The rent for our three bedroom house was 37 and a half pence per week and it had remained at that figure for fifty years. Most vegetables were a penny or so a pound, an old penny that is. Meat was a shilling, or five pence, a pound.
I am told that as a young child, I would finish my dinner and then upend the empty plate of my head and say “All gone”. I think I have cleared my plate ever since.
Next chapter: Chapter 2: A Victorian House in the Thirties