Memories Of My Time Living In Edwardian Britain

It never gets any less amazing, the speed at which time flashes by, as you get older, and perhaps this is the main reason that I find it almost impossible to believe that it is now over 113 years since I was living in Edwardian Britain. I remember the day it ended like it was yesterday, us all watching The King’s coffin as it was carried through the streets of London prior to its transportation to Windsor by steam train. Everyone was there and if they weren’t, they had better have had a damn good reason not to be. It was said that so many people had travelled down for the occasion that every other place besides the capital was a ghost town, the only people left there being the terminally ill or those missing a minimum of three limbs. “Nothing will ever be the same now,” we all remarked as we gazed upon the King’s lifeless body, that once stylish vessel unwilling to succumb for so long but finally trounced by heart attacks, bronchitis, cancer and hiccups. And we were correct: it wasn’t the same. Just the next morning the difference was already palpable. The most noticeable initial sign was women’s skirts. Overnight, they had all been cut to less than a quarter of their previous length. And while that seemed briefly radical and interesting, it wasn’t long before all of us – not least the women themselves – missed those extremely long flowing skirts of the Edwardian era, all that lovely fabric and the magic memories that went with it, such as the many times when you’d see a lady abruptly stop walking on a street for no apparent reason then watch the confused look on her face dissolve into a smile as she realised that the cause of her hampered progress was someone in a meadow 200 yards to her rear who had stepped on her hem of her garment.

They made clothes ruddy well in the Edwardian era, I can tell you: not like your fast fashion of today. I knew of one village rector – an indoorsy chap, admittedly – who made a coat last an entire autumn. Of course, being poor, we had to be even better at looking after what we wore, and to this day I remain the proud owner of a hat I purchased in Mayfair in 1903. I even still wear it sometimes, on special occasions, for instance regattas, and nobody has ever said it looks “old” or made an insulting remark to my face about its mildewy odour, specifically, I think because the mildew is Edwardian, therefore more refined than other mildews. Sadly, the regattas are a little fewer and farther between now, as are the fairs, at least those worth dressing up for. I used to call the hat my “shiner hat” because if I was wearing it at a fair I felt cocksure I would find myself a shiner. This was the word we used for any girl you’d meet at a fair who’d let you buy her a plate of limpets then take her for a walk. Sometimes the walks were very long: 18 or 19 miles, through some extraordinarily treacherous landscape. It was lucky that young ladies were extremely good at map reading in those days because if it had been up to me, I’d have got us hopelessly lost. People’s romantic desires take a more one-dimensional form in their youth and I think ultimately that was what I was looking for when I was a young lad: a truly exceptional cartographer to have by my side, through thick and thin. Fortunately the shiner I finally chose as mine, Gladys, was that and so much more. Every evening, when I got home from a fourteen hour day working in the mine, she’d have the fire stoked, a full tub of water steaming in front of it for me, and a steak and kidney pie in the oven, which was all the more remarkable when you considered that during the day she had also been campaigning tirelessly as a suffragette, setting fire to civic buildings, enduring numerous prison sentences and chaining herself to the left shin of Edwin Lutyens while he designed some of his most celebrated Arts & Crafts buildings. To his closest friends, Lutyens later credited her as the “real brains” behind Castle Drogo and St Judes Church in Hampstead Garden Suburb. She was a truly remarkable individual and taught me many things, including to stop introducing her as “moi little ‘ere shiner” at parties.

But all that came much later. Parties? There wasn’t any time left for those what with the mining, the militant campaigning for suffrage and the overnight job I took as a ploughboy to keep us afloat. Ours was a typical rural existence of the time: no electric lights or fuel efficient pellet woodburner, an outside toilet and a general smell of horse permeating our clothes and skin which we never stopped to question or pinpoint as sexually offputting. Yes, there was the torching of the effigies and the banging of the scullery pans when a newcomer to the the village stepped out of line, but generally it was an agreeable and simple life, full of generosity and wonder. If you know of Centre Point, the 34 storey tower block at the corner of New Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road, you will have an idea of where our cottage was, with Mr Mackerel’s farm not more than a crow’s spitlength beyond it. In a way it was the perfect existence, being the best of both worlds: the thick deep forest only a hundred yards to our rear, with its ineffable fairylore and sorcery, and Bloomsbury, just eleven minutes’ walk to immediate north east, boasting a burgeoning community of self-obsessed artists and a fancy new sewer system. Being a young man, I yearned for the excitement and advanced drainage of the metropolis and soon secured a job in the serving quarters of a very grand house just off Russell Square. Here, my job was mostly to carry thank you notes from the owners to their acquaintances in streets nearby.

I can see you checking your Wikipedia pages here. “But wasn’t the telephone invented in 1878?” you ask. It was indeed, and the house I worked for was equipped with a very smart one, but it was considered extremely rude to actually use it, the exceptions being if you needed to inform an acquaintance that a close member of their family was deceased, or if you had a remarkable story about a horse. Thus there was a great culture of note passing and on an average day in central London the streets would be thronged with members of the underclass such as myself carrying thank you messages from our employers to their peers. First there’d be the thank you note itself, which out of decorum and respect always needed to be delivered within three days of the event or gift it was a thank you for, then there’d be the thank you note for the thank you note, which, the unspoken yet imperative rule stated, must be followed within 24 hours with the thank you note for the thank you note for the thank you note. There were also a few of us subcontracting ourselves, delivering thank you notes on behalf of members of the gentry we didn’t officially work for, although one could get in very deep trouble for this, if found out. What when you added all the portable vacuum cleaners which, having only been invented in 1907, had not really yet settled down to their ultimate function and could be often found whirring out of control, unattended, outside their owners’ houses, it all meant that getting through central London in a Hansom cab could be the most dreadful trial, resulting in some of history’s most frustrated horses. But that was just part of life, back then: quite unremarkable. Certainly nothing to inform anybody about via the telephone.

By now, we were starting to see some of the early motor cars on the street. It was hoped by our Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, that they would ultimately solve the capital’s chronic traffic problem, although most of them were fucking shit, and had to be reversed up hills in order for petrol to reach their engines. Very occasionally you’d see a faulty one being pulled by a horse and, all around it, people rushing to find telephones. Balfour might have had his faults, such as his transportation “insights” and spending much of the time he should have spent running the country chatting via mediums to the dead cousin he was in love with, but I will say this for him: he had the best middle parting I have ever seen. I modelled my own on it and my self esteem was never higher than when Gladys remarked that it was “Balfourish”. Later, when she and I were prosperous, eating limpets daily, and owned a horse of our very own, I parted its mane in precisely the same way. This would probably have been in about 1913, when we’d moved back to the village, me being tired of carrying messages for people who called me “boy” (I was 46 by now) and Gladys being in a period of convalescence after throwing herself in front of the King’s wire fox terrier. Not long after that came The Great War and the terrible day when all the horses, including ours, were led out of the village for enlistment. It was really only then that you realised how much of life revolved around horses and how much of it you’d taken for granted. We missed all our horses painfully, the ones who pulled our beer along the street and delivered our milk and ploughed our fields and brought our mail and helped to extinguish our housefires, but also the other horses who’d done quieter jobs that you hadn’t noticed so much at the time, such as the Admin Horse, and the Listening Horse, whose job it was to bear witness to your innermost troubles and interject every few minutes with a calming neigh.

By that point, the glory days had all been over for some time. Yes, we’d had our own war, briefly, too, fighting the Boers, but it wasn’t anywhere near as cataclysmic, and I don’t think I’m being delusionally defensive of my era when I say that something like World War One would never have been permitted to happen in Edwardian Britain. When the Titanic sunk, less than two years after the King’s death, they said it had hit an iceberg but we knew the truth: it slipped down into the dark deep water because it, like the rest of us, was sad that the Edwardian Age had ended. I will concede that there have been some semi-exciting periods of history since then. There was the Jazz Age, but attached to its towbar was the unbearable weight of the Great Depression, and nobody wanted that. The 1960s were quite cool, but a lot of that was just about people dressing up like a worse version of us, in hats with inferior stitching. I went to some of the early raves in the 1980s and they did have a certain freedom about them but nothing has had it all, in quite the way that the period from 1901 and 1910 had. I am still here now but ultimately I will always be it and it will always be me, and of that I will never be ashamed. So on those occasions when I’m walking down some crowded street, blighted by a very different traffic problem to the one I knew in my youth, and from my rear I hear the derogatory shout of “Edwardian!” from one of the ill-mannered young of today, I will slowly turn toward my accuser. Then, I will stand and face him, at my full height, only marginally spavined by the years behind me. “Indeed,” I will reply, proudly. “And what of it?”

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