One of my retirement opportunities has been getting involved in the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, near Chichester, West Sussex. Celebrating its 50th anniversary last September, the collection of rescued and reconstructed “artisan” houses has grown significantly, as Lucy Hockley, the Cultural Engagement Manager, recently said to volunteers, “Covering 1000 years of history. These have been added to by archaeological reconstructions, such as the Saxon House.
The houses, in themselves, are products of their time and place, with locally available materials being used, often straight from the woodland or, later, the clay pit. They offer unique insights into life as it would have been lived during the earlier part of their history, having been interpreted and furnished in the style appropriate to the time. Furniture was made for many by the museum carpentry expert, Roger Champion, based on furniture in other museums or collections.
Gardens are created to the period and using the plants of that time.
Wills, probate records, letters, census, parish registers, rental contracts and other documents can be explored to find out some of the families who lived in specific houses, especially if they stayed for some time, or maybe held local office, such as bailiff or constable. Yeoman families are likely to have more records than, say, journeymen labourers or other lower status roles, like shoemender. So we know about the Wells, Clare and Tindall families, but not those in a lower status.
Artefacts have been collected and collated into the museum store, so they represent part of the historical record. In addition, the museum is very lucky to have connections with a range of historical “archaeologists”, such as Ruth Goodman, Ronald Hutton and Ian Mortimer, all of whom recently gave online talks to members and volunteers, on heating and cooking with wood to coal, festivals through the year and the Regency Period respectively. They add to the narrative that can be shared with visitors.
All of these combine to attempt to bring history to life, to show that history is as much about ordinary families and their lives as the rich and powerful, whose stories are often told to the exclusion of the majority of the population.
For example, one house on site, Poplar cottage, is a 16th century timber framed “wayside cottage”, which would have been rented by a low status family eking a living through a variety of enterprises, all depending on labour. The house has a thatched roof and a “smoke bay” instead of a chimney; a stone wall at the rear of the fire, with a wattle and daub “chimney” space to take smoke through a triangular hole in the thatch. Fire would have been a constant danger. It’s feasible to think of houses such as this being in and around Pudding Lane at the time of the Great Fire of London.
One thing that I would like to collate for the museum is a collection of historical fiction sources, using the collective expertise of Twitter. If there are books that you have used, especially read with children to link with historical periods, please append them into the reply box. I would be particularly interested in highly descriptive, short passages that might be read to children while they are actually within the houses, to link narrative with the evocative visuals and physical evidence.
There is regular evidence on Twitter of the wealth of literary expertise and experience. Every offering will be very much welcomed, with our thanks.