Thursday, 15 December 2011

The 1900 House and The 1940s House - Time to Revisit History?

A question for you. Does anyone remember the two tv series, The 1900 House and The 1940s House, broadcast in the UK in 2000 and 2001 respectively?

I was 13-14 years old at the time, but remember them as if they were shown only yesterday. Basically, a family was chosen to 'travel' back in time, and live in a terraced house that had been converted back to the year 1900 (and 1940 for the second series) with every single detail as authentic as could possibly be to that of the middle class at the time. The family dressed in period clothing, ate the food of the time, the house was decorated and furnished to the period. When they went out they continued to wear their Victorian clothes, and a shop was fitted with a corner selling them only Victorian products. It really was as close to going back in time as you could possibly get.

Paul and Joyce Bowler, with Kathryn, then 16, twins Ruth and Hilary,11, and Joe, 9.
 The 1940s House (later nominated for a BAFTA) the next year made an interesting comparison, for though technology and comfort had moved on dramatically in forty years, the point of the series was that the Hymers family would live through the Second World War. Dictating the experience was a 'war cabinet' made up of historians, who helped with converting the house, and then took the family through the entire six years of war in the space of three months, sending out an air raid shelter kit, controlling the family's dietary options with rationing, removing Michael Hymers for 'war work' and sending Kirstie and her mother Lyn to help build planes and carry out volunteer work.

The Hymers Family. Mum Lyn, Dad Michael, Daughter Kirstie
 and grandchildren Ben (10 at the time) and Thomas (7)
 Both families inevitably struggled considerably during their experience, due to the hardships of the time compared to the mod cons of today, and in the 1940s series Lyn admitted that Michael's removal from the house to be in-keeping with the men's conscription into the armed forces during the war put a terrible strain on their relationship. Across both series the children bewailed the lack of a social life, modern toys and television. In The 1900 House 16 year old daughter Kathryn considered leaving the experiment, saying she found it too difficult to cope with not seeing friends or being able to wear make up.

Kirstie and Lyn try to work out how to cook in a 1940s oven.

In The 1940s House Kirstie almost removed her sons from the house after fearing they were not getting enough food on their meagre rations - she was appalled when she found out children at Thomas' school had been giving him sandwiches and crisps. All the women found that the sheer mountain of domestic duties to be completed each day, only to need doing again the next, was overwhelming, and meant many tears shed. They also felt that being forced to wear clothes of the period stripped them of their personalities and confidence. Lyn resorted to trying to use carrot and beetroot juice from the garden to cover her grey hair roots.

The Hymers had the added stress of simulated air raids. A siren, (placed inside the house so as not to disturb the neighbours!) would sound several times through the night, and the family would have to scramble out to the cold air raid shelter in the garden, where bombs and plane engines would disturb what little rest they could manage. The family became visibly stressed due to the sleep deprivation, which impacted on their work during the day.

Both families admitted to gaining an insight into the periods they occupied which they otherwise could never have truly understood. Not only was it the handling of the household items and wearing the clothes, it was getting into the mindset of the everyday people living through those times, and how they really felt. Joyce Bowler became genuinely passionate about the Suffragette movement, while Lyn Hymers later confessed that she suffered with depression after the experience, brought on by the realisation of the difficulties and terror people lived with in the second world war.

 I remember watching both families come closer together as I watched the series. The children helped one another more, as particularly Victorian children would have done. They made their own entertainment. The Bowler twins started a newspaper, and the Hymers brothers designed their own board games; past times both carried back with them to the modern day.
      Every participant lost weight and became healthier, as demonstrated by medical checks before and after the experiments. The Hymers admitted to a dependence on convenience food in the modern day and throwing out a lot of food each week when it went over its use by date, as well as little exercise. They developed a real appreciation for the food luxuries we enjoy in the modern day, and continued to eat more healthily.

The women had to work out how to make ends meet
 as their war cabinet became ever more strict.

Michael Hymers, who was such a 1940s enthusiast that he persuaded his family to apply to the programme, later said he had really known very little of the time through his research, and that living through it was the only way to truly understand. Wife Lyn, previously only tolerant of Michael's hobby, herself converted to many of the 1940s' ways; they bought a car from the time, and she started to take a basket to independent shops instead of using supermarkets. All agreed that there is far more emotional and intellectual pressure in the modern day than there has ever been.

Both series answered two questions for me.

1. Can we ever really know what an era was like by reading books and wearing vintage clothes? Of course not. Life in 1900 was like a different planet, and while the 1940s home more closely resembled ours today, the war carried life onto a different plane. The stress, sleep deprivation and hardships people must have felt are beyond comprehension for the majority of us. Children of the war often remember it as a happy time, some had wonderful evacuation experiences, for example. But for the adults it was a different story.

2. Would I ever really want to go back and experience another era for myself? Yes and no. I would love to take on either of the experiments of these two families, to test myself and see what I can really cope with, and to see the times as they did.

But no, I would not give up my modern life for that of the past. A love for history and vintage has the advantage of being able to enjoy the nostalgia and rose-tinted side of history without any of the hardships.

Would you step inside?
As you have probably guessed, I was enthralled by The 1900 House and The 1940s House. But as they were shown over a decade ago now (feeling old!) I think it might be time for another series. The experiments of 1900 and 1940 were designed to test how the families would cope without the conveniences of the modern day. But if they made another series now a family would have to go without far more addictive technology than in 2000. The internet didn't have the intrinsic role in our lives that it did then. No Facebook or Twitter, only basic Google and email (how many hours a day do we spend on those now?!) No Xbox, Wii or smartphones. Many in 2000 didn't have mobile phones of any description, especially not children. No HD TV, Sky + or Nintendo DS. Perhaps you would miss DB Digital Radio or your iPod or iPad. There is a lot more to miss today than there was a decade ago!

"Of course I miss you my darling.
 Bring me back Kasabian's new album from 2011 won't you?"
 Perhaps an experiment for a family stepping away from the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and London hosting the Olympics and back to a past era would be far more interesting now than in 2000. The Millennium was a good choice for the 1900 experience because we were at a milestone in our own time, and stepping out of the century we shared with the Victorians and into a techno, millennium bug-infested cyber future. But 2012 would see a family - perhaps consisting of step children and smaller gaps between generations, coming from a recession, a time of adversity into a time of heightened adversity. Would a modern family cope better in the 1940s, for example, for having less disposable income and greater hardships in our own time? Or would they find it more difficult because of our reliance and addiction to modern technology?

Perhaps the experiment would help us realise that even though many of us have never had it so hard, we still have so much more than at any time in the 20th century.

"So I'm the ghost of Christmas future. You want your GHDs in black or limited edition pink?" *

What do you think? Which decade would you choose to see re-enacted on tv today? Would you want to take part in the experience?

Happy musing,

*Image courtesy of

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