Smells of the Old Midlands

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When I was an infant in the 1950’s my grandmother regaled me with endless stories of her own childhood back in the ’90’s. So eager was I for these tales and so deeply I drank from the well of reminiscences that the sights and smells of late Victorian Leicester seem still just within my reach. What is lost, though, is the atmosphere of the 1840’s when my great grandparents were born. They seem to have sealed up their childhoods from their own young so I have no conception of working class Nottingham at the time of the Crimean War and the Great Exhibition.
My great grandfather’s elder brother Jack is supposed to have been stupefied with brandy before having a leg amputated at Scutari. He would then have been only in his early teens. His sisters (as well as his mother, Sophia) were all in the lace industry from a very young age, whether at home or in the factories: the census lists them as tighteners, straiteners and carders. Lace girls were said to be proud of their hands (whitened sometimes with arsenic washes) and came in for much stick from the moralists for blowing their earnings on cheap perfumed hair pomades, ribbons and skin lotions. Maybe we can still catch a whiff of crudely scented bear grease, perspiration and sebum from the little terraced house in St Mary’s. No doubt Sophia brewed up herbal tisanes to be offered with six penn’orth of laudanum to alleviate the pains in her son Jack’s stump when it throbbed in the damps from the Trent. Her husband was a cobbler from a long line of boot repairers so a reek of leather and twine hung in the air, mixed with the metallic tang of nails, oil and bodkin; the steam from the copper, the lines of wet laundry, the endless cooking.
My great grandfather Francis seems to have gone first into the army and then the police before finding his life’s work in public health. He moved to Leicester, married the spirited dressmaker Emma and fathered 11 children. Francis devoted much of his career to the eradication of smallpox epidemics, being all too familiar with the smell of rotting apples that was said to announce the presence of the disease. He reported unfit food & sour or watered milk in local shops, and worked until he died on the job aged 78. For relaxation he fished, and raised auriculas and profusely scented pheasant’s eye narcissi in the back garden .
My grandmother remembered her mother’s horror of monkeys: the arrival of a barrel organ in the road, with a fez’d marmoset aloft, sent Emma shrieking to her bedroom to bury her head in the pillows. There was a monkey next door too, prone to scorching its behind on the kitchen range. From further down the road came the tang of green apples and blood on that famous day when a neighbour severed her finger while making pies. There were favourite mint and dripping sandwiches for supper; and the whiffy gas lighting which turned everyone’s face a spectral greyish green after dark. Even in the early 1930’s my mother remembered the lamp-lighter coming down the streets through the dusk.
I was both tickled and impressed when I reread Beatrix Potter’s miniature novel of Gothic horror – The Tale of Mr Tod (1912) – to recognise my great grandfather’s anti-smallpox tactics in Tod’s policy to eradicate the stench of badger. Potter critics are always saying she got her facts wrong here: that badgers are famously clean creatures. So they may be, but they do have a distinctly piggy smell which has nothing to do with dirt. My father kept one some 50 years ago: she was a dear and used to run up the sitting room curtains, but she exuded a very pungent aroma, that’s for sure. Anyway, here is Mr Tod’s fumigation plan, almost identical to grandfather’s methods at exactly the same date:
‘ I will get soft soap, and monkey soap, and all sorts of soap; and soda and scrubbing brushes; and persian powder; and carbolic to remove the smell. I must have a disinfecting. Perhaps I may have to burn sulphur.’
Before you ask, we don’t stock monkey soap at Les Senteurs. But we can supply the smell of sulphur!
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