Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 23 Tips for English Women and not the Booker Prize

E W D M coverToday’s advent offering sits on my bookshelves but is not actually a book. If that sounds like a Christmas riddle, I will explain. It is a bound volume of the twelve issues of The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine from 1854. It was given to me many years ago by a family history friend (thank you Peggy) and is a real gem. There is no better way to investigate social history than through contemporary writing. There are some second hand copies being offered for sale and some issues are available online. It was published, from 1852-1879, by Mr Beeton. His wife’s famous book of Household Management developed out of the supplements that she wrote for the magazine. There is much that the reader of modern women’s magazines would recognise: short stories, recipes, fashion advice, household hints, book reviews, competitions, readers’ letters and the ubiquitous problem page. In the pages of the English Woman’s Domestic Magazine you can discover how to cook shank jelly, how to deal with rats (discharging a pistol near their holes), how to cure stammering (talk between clenched teeth for two to three hours a day) and how to deal with a man who wants to be ‘more than a friend’. The reply to the latter plea to ‘Cupid’s Post Bag’ recommends a different solution depending on the hair colour of the lady so troubled. This magazine was, of course, aimed at more comfortably off, literate ladies but it is nonetheless an interesting insight into life at the time.

Capture25551880_1790284211264807_8636543761465579878_nA few weeks ago, I responded to the challenge, issued by a Devon library, to write a fifty word crime story. I am usually accused of using at least four words where one will do, so this was well out of my comfort zone. I do enjoy reading crime novels, primarily those that are set in the past but it is not something I would consider writing. Barefoot on the Cobbles does involve a crime but I refer to that as a why-done-it not a who-done-it. I summoned all my O level summary writing skills that have been lurking in my subconscious for forty five years. I wrote something. I left it for a few days and tweaked it a bit. I sent it to ace beta reader Martha. I emailed it to the library, in a suitably spooky font and then forgot about it. Yesterday came the news that I had won! Ok, so it isn’t exactly the Booker Prize but it is the first time I have consciously laid bare anything that I have written in a competitive arena. I did wonder if only I and the library cat had submitted entries but no, it turns out there were others. I was invited to collect my prize from library, which is thirty miles and a good hour’s drive away. I debated whether this was worth it and decided that it was. Though my shed-lifting damaged back did not agree. Nonetheless, I am now the proud owner (temporarily) of a bottle of whisky and hot toddy making kit and a warm glow – and that’s before we open the bottle. Thank you Crediton Library.



Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 22 – The Blitz, Mass Observation and new Working Opportunities

We are moving closer to the present day with Tom Harrisson’s Living through the Blitz. This book is based on the contemporary diaries and returns that formed part of the Mass Observation Survey and goes behind the ‘stiff upper lip’ media propaganda. Here you will find unvarnished, hard-hitting stories of fear and panic; accounts that are very different from nostalgic reminiscences, written long after the time. Inevitably, a significant proportion of the book concentrates on London but there are also chapters on the Southern ports and the industrial north. I particularly like the individual, personal experiences that shine out from the pages of this book. If the Blitz is history for you, rather than memory, you may well find that your preconceived ideas of keeping calm and carrying on are overturned by reading Harrisson’s work. More information about the Mass Observation can be found here. The original records are held by the University of Sussex.

I am still suffering from post-shed moving related injuries. Aided by adrenalin, yesterday I managed to steady sides of a shed as my companion devised a method of rolling the panels along on random bits of pipe. At least it is now ‘job done’ and I have a perfect excuse for not scrubbing floors (or indeed moving) for the next few days. I also have confirmation that the job I must not mention will see me take on a different role next year. I have a sparkly new job title and am now, in theory, less unimportant. As a result, I will be immersing myself in the world of Restoration Britain, slightly later in the seventeenth century than my usual stomping ground but I am relishing the challenge. Did someone mention ‘slowing down’?

Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 14 – Farming Surveys

Another one for those interested in agricultural history today and it is a whole series of books, rather than just one. Most family historians I speak to have agricultural labourers hidden somewhere in the boughs of their family tree. What we need to realise is that these are not some amorphous group whose experiences were all very similar. Farming practices differ according to soil, terrain and climate. The Book of the Farm, that I mentioned earlier in the month, is a general account; you also need something more specific. To find out what life would have been like for a farm labourer in a particular part of the country you cannot do better than consult the appropriate volume of the General View of Agriculture. These county volumes were commissioned by the Board of Agriculture and were produced on the cusp of the agricultural revolution, in the 1790s, although some ran to more than one edition. I have a facsimile edition of Charles Vancouver’s General View of the Agriculture of Devon with observations on means of its improvement. Vancouver wrote the second edition for Devon and was also responsible for some other counties. I can only write about the Devon volume but I suspect that the others are similar, as they were part of a national survey.

The coverage is comprehensive and in the case of Devon, is broken down in to six regions, so the characteristics of a fairly small area can be discovered. The topics cover: soil, climate, crops, livestock, tools, terms of service for labourers, buildings, roads, markets and ways in which productivity could be improved. My edition had line drawings, a map and tables covering such things as parish by parish lists of population, amounts paid in poor relief, occupational structure, number of houses in the parish and other valuable goodies such as the menu for Exeter House of Industry (the forerunner of the workhouse) and the characteristics of different breeds of sheep. There are line drawings illustrating farm implements and livestock.

In short, if you only read one book to help you understanding the farming practices of your ancestors, or your locality in the past, then it should be the appropriate county volume of this series. The full list can be found here. If all this sounds a bit too good to be true, it is because there is a downside. Although some of volumes are available as internet downloads, others have to be purchased in hard copy and are not always cheap. My advice is to shop around because you and your agricultural labouring ancestors, need these books.

On the subject of agricultural labourers, for some strange reason, one of the most popular posts on my blog is one that I wrote about agricultural labourers. Every year there is a sudden spike in hits on this page via the site of an Australian University. I can’t see the actual page containing the link as it is in a ‘students only’ area but apparently they have been directed to me. I would have thought that there were far more in-depth accounts that they could go to but there it is.

Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 9 and a bit about me

Product DetailsA much more recently written offering behind today’s advent window: Rebecca Ridal’s 1666: plague, war and hellfire, which was published last year. This might be viewed as a history, rather than a social history but there is so much about everyday life in this volume, that I feel justified in including it. Although the title is 1666, the book starts with an account of the plague of the preceding year. Skillful use of contemporary sources introduces us to a turbulent eighteen months in London’s history and events that reverberated around the country. The account is presented from the viewpoint of key characters, the well-known and the less well-known. We meet Nell Gwynn, Samuel Pepys, Charles II, Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton, all names that evoke the atmosphere of the age. Others who walk across the pages of the book may not be household names, unless you have studied the history of the period. For example: Aphra Behn, playwright and spy; Cornelius Tromp, Dutch naval commander; Nathaniel Hodges, a physician and Thomas Vincent, who provides a Puritan perspective.

Most of us are familiar with plague and fire from our schooldays. The book also covers the Dutch Wars and the dawning of the scientific age. The fears of a still largely suspicious populous as they faced these disasters, disasters that most believed to be punishments from God, are portrayed well. The style is accessible and the book can be read as you would a novel. I could imagine myself walking through London’s streets as I read. Living as I do in the seventeenth century, I found this book fascinating. I wish this had been published when I was researching my own seventeenth century social history, Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs, as there is an extensive bibliography, together with the endnotes, providing plenty of leads to follow up. There are also some attractive coloured plates and three maps in the printed version.

Yesterday I spent a slightly chilly day, with other authors, attempting to sell books to the local populace. I did duck out for fifteen minutes to take a look at an early twentieth century Magistrate’s Court record that was written in the most appalling handwriting I have seen – think the stereotypical prescription scrawl. If I say that it made my handwriting seem legible you may get the idea. Sadly the case I was looking for for Barefoot on the Cobbles was not recorded at all. Very strange, considering that it was heavily reported in the press. Today I have my non-conformist history hat on as I am off to address the Exeter group of Devon Family History Society about ‘Toleration or Turmoil?: English non-conformity and our ancestors’. This may not be quite what the audience are expecting but I hope they enjoy it. I am told there will be posh biscuits in honour of the festive season – great!