The Victorians and I
I bonded with the Victorians a long time ago. Until I was six I lived in a house where there was no electricity, so I’ve experienced at first hand the ways in which family life arranges itself round a single source of light and heat. I went to a Victorian school which had gas lamps – one of the classrooms didn’t have any lights at all – and which was run by three moustachioed Victorian ladies who were hot on the Bible, long division ad not much else. It wasn’t all bad, though: I went to school on a steam train, and on winter evenings a friend and I were allowed to light the gas lamps on the station.
My grandparents, who lived opposite the Lotus shoe factory in Stafford, were true Victorians. From the time they moved into it in the early 1900s until the time my grandmother died in 1965, their house and its furnishings remained unchanged. There were mantelpieces full of Victorian knickknacks, an aspidistra in a brass pot – a cliché, I know, but there really was one – a painting of cattle coming home at sunset, a print of Noah’s ark, a set of horsehair-upholstered armchairs (complete with antimacassars) and rooms full of yellowing wallpaper whose paste had lost its grip, leaving the paper to roll itself up from the bottom. My grandfather used to shave with a cut-throat razor at the kitchen table, whilst my grandmother cooked on an iron range and did the washing with washtub and dolly peg, rolling it afterwards though an enormous finger-crushing mangle. Because Victorian houses were draughty, she would seal the house for the evening with little wads of folded newspaper inserted into the gaps round the ill-fitting outside doors and windows.
Of particular interest was my grandparents’ dressing table. As thrifty Victorians, they never threw anything away. Thus there were combs without teeth, hairbrushes without bristles – it’s a bruising experience having your hair brushed with the back of the brush – and scent bottles with perished rubber bulbs. There were also paper weights, two of them, their glass globes scratched and the pictures underneath faded. One picture was of the Royal Crescent in Buxton, the other of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Both must have been souvenirs. Buxton was a place Midlanders went on holiday, the Crystal Palace, in its original version, a place where people went to see the Great Exhibition of 1851.
I like to think that the Crystal Palace paperweight was brought back by my grandfather’s father, Joseph Burch, who, as a young man working for Bright and Co of Manchester, exhibited a carpet-printing machine in the Exhibition. I do hope so. In that way I feel I can reach out and touch someone – only two generations away – who was really present at the wonder of the age: the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, which was held in Hyde Park in that far-off, rainy summer of 1851.