A Passion for the Past

Josephine Roberts examines the human fascination with yesteryear and her own passion for the past
By Josephine Roberts
December 2012
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My parents in the very early 1950s on a Standard Fordson tractor, the first tractor to come to my grandfather’s hill farm here in North Wales. My grandfather refused to use it, preferring his faithful horses.
Photo Courtesy Josephine Roberts
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In the details at the end of my articles in Farm Collector I’m described as “having a passion for all things vintage” – and that’s certainly true – but what’s behind such a fascination, I wonder? Why do so many of us have this fondness for old objects? “Vintage” is everywhere: clothes, cars and kitchenware. It seems that “vintage” and her wealthier older brother “antique” are big business these days, with many people prepared to pay a premium to get their hands on their own little slice of the past.

Aside from their monetary value, relics often have a special quality, as though they had absorbed the essence of past owners. A very old pair of opera glasses hangs by my fireplace. I bought them at a sale for the price of a bottle of beer. I’ve no idea who they belonged to back in the day, but when I handle them I’m aware that I’m holding something from another era, a time so different that it seems almost fairy tale-like. These glasses are a little remnant from a past time, never to be again. They may be all that remains of a person who lived, loved and was lost back in that strange place of mystery and romance that we call “the past.”

The good old days were no bed of roses

“The past”: What a place that is! Each individual’s knowledge, experience and beliefs about the past are different. I tend to think that the past was somehow a better place. To counterbalance that, I frequently have to remind myself that the good old days of 150 years ago weren’t all a bed of roses, especially if you happened to be female. I recall telling my father that I wished I’d lived in the era before the motorcar was invented. I envisaged happy horses pulling handsome carts and trotting merrily around some unspoilt rural idyll.

My father tried to put me straight. He told me of his youth on a remote hill farm in the mountains, when he’d see the horse from the village bringing coal up the steep little lane that went on for more than a mile. The little horse was sweating and puffing and lathered in foam, hardly able to stand by the time it reached the farm. “It would have broken your heart,” he told me, knowing that I, as a young horse fanatic, would have hated to see the cruelty that without doubt existed in a time when horses were just transport, and not everyone who kept them did their best by them.

He told a far worse story about a young girl on a hill farm in the snow. She was kicked in the belly by a cow and slowly bled to death by the fire in front of her family, as there was no way to get her down the hillside to a doctor in the blizzard. Grinding poverty, lack of medical expertise, high rates of infant mortality and poor life expectancy made “the past” a hard place for a lot of people.

Rose-colored glasses?

Read any Thomas Hardy novel and you will see that the 1880s were scary times for poor folk. Hunger, cold, death and disease were never far away, and a woman’s best hope was to marry someone who wasn’t too cruel. Yet when I read of pastoral settings in Hardy’s The Woodlanders, it seems as though that is how life should be. Hardy describes a time when people lived simply, making use of the resources around them, and pulled together for the greater good. He describes the scenes factually, but to my eyes the picture painted is one of haunting beauty. Surely there can be no doubt that the past certainly looked better even if it really wasn’t.

Imagine a rural Britain made up of thatched cottages, wildflowers, woodlands, meadows, hedgerows, carts laden with hay moving steadily along oak-lined lanes and harvests made with no sounds but the snorts of a horse, the tinkle of chains and the chatter of country-folk going about their work. It’s hard not to think of that as being better than what we have today.

The place where I live is quiet and pretty, and some might say it hasn’t changed much over the years. But even here the modern world is evident in cars and computers. Imagine a world without cars and phones, concrete and plastic. It certainly sounds gentle on the soul and easy on the eye, but perhaps I’m looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles, hopelessly nostalgic for a time that I never even witnessed. “Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days,” observes Doug Larson, an English gold medalist at the 1924 Olympic games. “It’s never safe to be nostalgic about something,” notes writer Bill Vaughan, “until you’re absolutely certain there’s no chance of it coming back.”

Keep the best, lose the rest

So if I’m honest, I’m well aware that the past was a mixed bag – some things were better; some things were worse. All the same, I feel that life was better when it was simpler. We did less harm to the planet, we had a better sense of community, and we all had to get off our backsides and use our skills in order to stay alive.

If you believe in living the simple life, it’s hard not to believe that we are all “going to hell in a handcart,” on some kind of inevitable downward spiral. But how gloomy to live with the belief that the best times have already been! If one looks back into history, mankind has always thought it was on the precipice of moral, social or environmental disaster. I think it’s important not to let a fascination with yesteryear slide into beliefs about the hopelessness of the present day. We should take that which was great from the past with us into the future, and leave that which wasn’t so good well behind us.

All the same, I often think of the past with a twinge of sadness. When I see the photograph of my grandfather at the reins of his plough horses, how can I not feel sadness at never knowing him? A look at the plough’s handles reminds me that this was once a locally made tool. When I think of the skills we once had as a nation, how can I not think it a shame that Britain no longer manufactures even half of what she once did?

I have my grandfather’s long-handled sickle in the shed and I still use it, partly because you can’t seem to buy things of that quality anymore. When I use it I think of him, and that’s a nice connection to have. We mere mortals might eventually turn to dust, but our tools and our everyday belongings – whether they are billhooks, tractors or teapots – frequently outlive us. That’s why I love vintage items: They tell an almost forgotten tale, set a scene and bring the past alive.

Collection tells a story of bygone era

A friend of mine, Norman Frost, is a cart restorer and wheelwright. Through his work repairing and rebuilding horse-drawn vehicles, he is frequently immersed in the past. When he has the opportunity, Norman buys old carts. Sometimes the cart is so rotten or damaged that all he is really buying is the skeleton and the pattern. Working on carts that are often at least 150 years of age, Norman can’t help but think of the men who built and used them. What stories those old vehicles could tell!

What makes Norman’s collection all the more interesting is that it is a very broad selection of vehicles. Some of the carts he’s restored certainly belonged to landed gentry, like the dainty little phaeton that someone’s fashionable daughter would have used when she wanted to go to town. But others, remnants of everyday life, are a reminder that the past was not all kid gloves, lace bonnets and high tea.

Horse-drawn hearse and other vehicles preserved

This past summer, Norman was part-way through restoration of an unusual and rarely preserved vehicle, namely a night soil van (or human muck cart). In the days before sanitary sewer systems existed, vehicles that collected and carried our waste (or “night soil,” as it was delicately referred to) were essential. It can’t have been the nicest job in the world, but it was important work all the same.

Waste was tipped in through a hole in the top of the box-like cart. Later, a gate-type arrangement at the back of the cart was opened to allow waste to be spread upon the fields. In many ways this rather unsavory vehicle tells us far more about the past than any fancy carriage. Norman has also restored a horse-drawn hearse and a slaughterman’s cart (also known as a knackerman’s cart). “My granddad was a knackerman,” Norman explains, “and he had a cart just like this one – it’s a ‘live and dead stock cart’.”

This extremely sturdy little cart was designed with an unusually low floor (because of its cranked axle), high sides and a ramp, so livestock could walk into the cart for the journey to the slaughterhouse. Should the slaughterman need to pick up a dead or dying cow, pony or pig, he’d use a winch incorporated into the cart’s design.

The cart was usually pulled by a pair of horses harnessed one in front of the other. The slaughterman would reverse the cart up to the dead animal and attach a rope to it. The rope could then be taken into the cart and out through a hatch in the front. One horse would be left in the shafts, holding the vehicle still, while the horse in front was disconnected from the vehicle and led forward with the rope from the dead animal attached to it. As it moved forward, the horse pulled the dead animal up into the cart.

Some knackerman’s carts were used only for deadstock. These can be easily spotted because, unlike Norman’s cart, they have low sides. The high sides on Norman’s cart prevented live animals from escaping.

When Norman found his knackerman’s cart, the entire back section had rotted away and very little remained of it, but you could still see the rings used for tying live animals at the very front of the cart. As soon as he saw it, Norman knew exactly what it was. Because they are not exactly glamorous reminders of our past, very few of these vehicles have been preserved, which is exactly why he wanted to restore it.

“There are plenty of people out there restoring the pretty pieces,” he says. “Few people want to preserve the memory of vehicles like this, but these carts were part of our everyday life and they are just as historically important as the phaetons and the governess carts.”

A link to the past

How true. In our desire to think of the past as some romantic place, we like to concentrate on the beauty of bygone days, rather like Jane Austen, who set her novels among the aristocracy and those who spent their lives being ferried around in carriages and phaetons. The reality was probably more like the past that Thomas Hardy describes, a world that featured fancy carriages as well as night soil vans, pauper’s hearses, slaughterman’s carts and overloaded hay wagons. The past was, after all, much like the present: a mix of the good, the bad, the beautiful and the tragic. No wonder so many of us are fascinated by collectibles and antiques, those wonderful relics that link us instantly to a bygone era.

The best treasures are those passed down to us through family or friends. They might not be worth much financially, but they link us intrinsically to the past and our own family history. I’m thinking of my grandfather’s old notebook, which showed the drawings of every sheep earmark in this area, his own included. In between some of the sketches are snippets of poetry, written in Welsh of course.

This simple item is of huge significance to my brother Andrew who keeps sheep on those same hills. Today, plastic tags have replaced the notches traditionally cut into sheep’s ears as a form of identification, and most of the tiny holdings that once farmed sheep in this area have long since disappeared or been swallowed up by larger farms. As a piece of local agricultural history, this booklet is of interest. To us as a family, it’s priceless. FC

Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at pheenie@talktalk.net.


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