Posted in Archaeology, Bringing Alive The Past, Decorative Arts, Event, Exhibition, History, Museum

Exhibition – St. Barbe Museum, Lymington: ‘Out of Egypt’

Coffin mask that will feature in new exhibition, 'Out of Egypt' at St. Barbe Museum, Lymington, Hampshire. Image credit - Hampshire Cultural Trust.
Coffin mask which will feature in new exhibition, Out of Egypt, at St. Barbe Museum, Lymington, Hampshire. Image credit – Hampshire Cultural Trust.

An exciting new Egyptology exhibition opens at St. Barbe Museum, Lymington, Hampshire on Saturday 16th January. In Out of Egypt: exploring the passage from life to afterlife (sponsored by Thesis Asset Management), you can discover more about the religious beliefs and passage from life to the afterlife in ancient Egypt. The exhibition continues until 27th February, 2016.

St. Barbe Museum has had a recent history of producing some really terrific, unusual and cleverly curated exhibitions. I have covered quite a few of them here on Come Step Back in Time, have a browse through my article archive and see the range of fascinating  subjects the Museum has covered in its exhibition programming. The press pack I have received for Out of Egypt, certainly looks like 2016 could be St. Barbe Museum’s best year yet for stimulating exhibitions!

Displays for Out of Egypt will feature original artefacts from the Hampshire Cultural Trust and Bournemouth Natural Science Society collections including coffin masks, animal mummies, and canopic jars, which were used during the mummification process to store and preserve the viscera of their owner for the afterlife.

Overseer figure from the 6th Dynasty which will be on display at Out of Egypt exhibition at St. Barbe Museum, Lymington, Hampshire. Image credit - Bournemouth Natural Science Society.
Overseer figure from the 6th Dynasty which will be on display in Out of Egypt exhibition at St. Barbe Museum, Lymington, Hampshire. Image credit – Bournemouth Natural Science Society.

Also on show will be items that would have been placed in tombs such as amulets for protection from harm and danger; scarabs symbolising the holy beetle in ancient Egypt and Shabti figures, as well as a beautiful funerary boat.

The exhibition has been designed to appeal to school children and families through a host of activities, while still offering lots for adults to discover and enjoy. Themes include making a mummy, life after death, hieroglyphics, Egyptian numbers, gods and goddesses, Egyptomania – souvenirs and Egypt’s influence on British culture.

The timing of Out of Egypt, couldn’t be more on point. Interest in Egyptology with the general public is now at an all time high. This follows publication, in July 2015, by British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves, of a paper that claims Tutankhamun may not have been alone in his burial chamber. A series of ultra-high-resolution images of King Tut’s tomb (subsequently designated KV62) have revealed what is believed to be the outlines of two doorways, previously blocked and plastered over.

Reeves has suggested that behind these hidden doors there may be a lavish secret tomb belonging to the legendary Queen Nefertiti (the 14th century wife of Akhenaten, step-mother to Tutankhamun). Tutankhamun died at the age of 19, and it is thought that, due to his unexpected death, he may have been buried in a chamber of his step-mother’s tomb.

If Reeves theory is correct (although a number of academics and archaeologists dispute his claims!), this could potentially over-shadow Howard Carter’s (1874-1939) discovery of King Tut’s tomb in November 1922. Excavations to prove Reeves theory have not yet begun, indeed, there is a possibility they may never do so. Why? Well, Dr Zahi Hawasshas, Egypt’s former antiquities minister, not only disputes Reeves theory. He is also adamant that a hole is not to be made in the structure of KV62 in order to carry-out further investigations.

The main tomb is extremely fragile. Any further excavations could cause some of the priceless paintings to completely collapse not to mention potentially damaging the tomb itself. Archaeologists would need to find a way to enter the secret chamber, that has been hermetically sealed for 3,500 years, without causing any harm to the tomb’s infrastructure.

Debates, arguments and theories by Egyptologists will continue to grip the public’s attention over coming months. Keep any eye on global news reports, 2016 could still be the year when one of the greatest archaeological discoveries and  Egyptology’s greatest mysteries, is finally solved!

Out of Egypt Workshops

  • ‘Anthony and Cleopatra: Interactive Storytelling’ (February 17th). Join professional actors from Treehouse Theatre for an exciting and interactive storytelling session. Shakespeare’s passionate tale of Antony and Cleopatra is the inspiration for today’s story. There will be plenty of chance to dress up too! Performances are at 10.30am and 1.45pm. This is suitable for youngsters aged 4 – 11 years. £4 child, £3 adults. Advance booking required. Book online for the morning session here  Or afternoon session here ;
  • ‘Exploring Egypt: Family Explorer Day’ (February 18th). Discover life in Ancient Egypt and handle authentic objects from the time. This explorer day compliments our exhibition Out of Egypt. Youngsters will also get the chance to make decorative Egyptian cuffs, circlets and mini scarab beads. Usual admission charges apply.

Opening Times and Admission Prices

  • Out of Egypt at St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery will be open Monday-Saturday, 10am-4pm;
  • Tickets, which include entry into the museum, cost £6 for adults, £5 for senior citizens and students, £3 for children aged 5-15 years and £12 for a family of two adults and up to four children (including a voluntary gift aid donation); under fives are admitted free of charge;
  • For details visit or telephone 01590 676969.
Out of Egypt - Mummy board, 22nd Dynasty credit Bournemouth Natural Science Society
Mummy board from the 22nd Dynasty which will be display at Out of Egypt exhibition, St. Barbe Museum, Lymington. Image credit – Bournemouth Natural Science Society.


Posted in Uncategorized

St. Barbe Museum, Lymington, Hampshire: ‘English Idyll: Paintings & Prints by Leslie Moffat Ward’ – Exhibition

'Near Worbarrow Bay' by Leslie Moffat Ward. Image courtesy of Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth.
‘Near Worbarrow Bay’, Dorset (1930) by Leslie Moffat Ward. (Oil on canvas, 695 x 1010mm). Signed and dated. Image courtesy of Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth.

According to academic and writer, Robert Macfarlane, British popular culture is currently in the grip of an obsession with the eerie nature of the English countryside.  Writing in The Guardian (10.4.15), Macfarlane observes that :

Among the shared landmarks of this [cultural] terrain are ruins, fields, pits, fringes, relics, buried objects, hilltops, falcons, demons and deep pasts….. suppressed forces pulse and flicker beneath the ground and within the air (capital, oil, energy, violence, state power, surveillance), waiting to erupt or to condense.

In music, literature, art, film and photography, as well as in new and hybrid forms and media, the English eerie is on the rise. A loose but substantial body of work is emerging that explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of “dwelling” and “belonging”, and of the packagings of the past as “heritage”, and that locates itself within a spectred rather than a sceptred isle.

(‘The eeriness of the English countryside’, by Robert Macfarlane, The Guardian, 10.4.15)

'The Long Man on the Downs' Lithograph 1943 265 x 223mm Signed and dated 1943, numbered 13 Courtesy of private collector Stuart Southall
‘The Long Man on the Downs’ (1943) by Leslie Moffat Ward. (Lithograph, 265 x 223mm). Signed and dated 1943, numbered 13. Image courtesy of private collector Stuart Southall

Interpreting British landscape art ‘in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities’ is an interesting perspective and one that I shall bear in mind as I revisit works by the often overlooked landscape artist, Leslie Moffat Ward (1888-1978). Ward’s art is the subject of a new exhibition, English Idyll, opening on Saturday, 25th April, at St. Barbe Museum & Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire and continuing until Saturday, 6th June.

'On Ballard Down' (1914) by Leslie Moffat Ward. (Etching and aquatint, 200 x 275mm). Signed and dated 1919, numbered 20.  Image courtesy of private collector Stuart Southall.
‘On Ballard Down’ (1914) by Leslie Moffat Ward. (Etching and aquatint, 200 x 275mm). Signed and dated 1919, numbered 20.
Image courtesy of private collector Stuart Southall.

Given the renewed interest in British landscape art, this retrospective of Ward’s work could not be more timely. English Idyll features paintings and prints by Ward, an acknowledged master of British landscape art. The exhibition will reveal a vanished England of bustling wharfs and ramshackle buildings. Ward’s evocative etchings, lithographs, linocuts and wood engravings capture a disappearing world of tranquil countryside and bustling waterways.

Ward was also an accomplished painter in oils and watercolour, capturing the chalk cliffs, ruins and architectural oddities of an England that would have been familiar to Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) or Charles Dickens (1812-1870). His monochrome prints reveal a mastery of atmosphere, light and shade.

Views of Poole Harbour and the Isle of Purbeck reflect his love of the Dorset landscape, but he travelled widely in search of pastoral subjects and took delight in the decaying buildings of Britain’s historic towns. His passion for working boats and industrial architecture took him to the Thames, Medway and Humber. He is perhaps little known outside Dorset, but this exhibition confirms his position as one of England’s most significant 20th century painter-printmakers.

Ward began his art training by winning a scholarship to the Drummond Road Art school in Bournemouth, a town he spent most of his life in. He lived at 22 Grants Avenue, Springbourne area), and taught at the Municipal College of Art; he was also a leading member of the Bournemouth Arts Club. Probably best known as a very fine etcher, he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Painter Etchers (RE) in 1936 and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy.

Ward was a very tall austere character who often wore cloaks and flamboyant hats. He was also a good friend of artist Eustace Nash (1886-1969).  Both were often seen together in the Bournemouth and Poole area during the 1950’s and 60’s, between them they produced many drawings, paintings and etchings of the region.

English Idyll  will feature many rarely seen works on loan from private collections as well as paintings and prints from the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth. It will be a treat for devotees of fine prints and lovers of the English landscape. Works by Ward are held in the Russell Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth and public galleries in Hastings, EastbourneSouthampton, Oldham, Cheltenham, The Victoria and Albert and the British Museum. A fully illustrated catalogue is available, sponsored by private collector of Ward’s work, Stuart Southall.

Knowle Church, Dorset by Leslie Moffat Ward. (Colour linocut, 288 x 186mm). Signed. Image courtesy of private collector Stuart Southall.
‘Knowle Church’, Dorset by Leslie Moffat Ward. (Colour linocut, 288 x 186mm). Signed. Image courtesy of private collector Stuart Southall.


Posted in Activity, Bringing Alive The Past, Event, History, Literature, Museum, Rural Heritage, Vintage, World War Two

The Magic of Christmas Past – UK Events 2012

Carol singers at Blists Hill Victorian Town, Telford, Shropshire.
Carol singers at Blists Hill Victorian Town, Telford, Shropshire.

If you have been looking for a festive activity with a heritage twist, then search no more, I have done all the hard work for you.  Here are my recommendations for the best nostalgia events taking place, throughout the UK, over the next few weeks. All you have to do is choose an era then allow yourself to be transported back in time to celebrate the magic of Christmas past. There are events here to suit all ages and interests.

For information on each event, simply click on the relevant property address.


  • Caerphilly Medieval Christmas Fayre. Caerphilly town centre, South Wales. Saturday 8th December (10am-5pm) and Sunday 9th December (10am-4pm). Apart from fifty market stalls there will be a hog roast, mulled wine, Medieval magician, dragon puppeteers, Jack the jester, dragon stilt walker. Father Christmas will be arriving on a horse and cart and travelling through the town centre to Caerphilly Castle.  Free (town centre only).
  • The Medieval Christmas. Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens, Belsay, Nr Morpeth, Northumberland. Saturday 8th December and Sunday 9th December. Christmas gifts will be on sale and children can dress-up in Medieval costumes.  Re-enactors, Heuristics, will be giving lively presentations containing facts about Christmas during Medieval times. Presentations each day will take place at 11.15am, 12.30pm, 1.45 and 3pm. Charges apply but English Heritage members are free.


  • Elizabethan Christmas. Plas Mawr, Conwy, Wales. Saturday 8th December (11am- 4pm) and Sunday 9th December (11am-4pm). Plas Mawr is a stunning Elizabethan house built between 1576 and 1585 for wealthy merchant Robert Wynn.  There will be mince pies, mulled wine, music and a range of other activities, plus a visit from a green Father Christmas! Charges apply.


  • Jane Austen’s festive birthday. Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton, Alton, Hampshire. Come and celebrate Jane Austen’s birthday on Sunday 16th December (10.30am-4.30pm) in the pretty village of Chawton, rural Hampshire. Jane lived in Chawton, with her family, from 1809 until a shortly before her death in 1817. This atmospheric, 17th century house, is the perfect choice if you prefer a quieter slice of Christmas nostalgia.  On the day, visitors can enjoy a complimentary coffee and mince pie.  Free (for Sunday 16th December only).


  • Victorian Christmas Weekends. Blists Hill Victorian Town,  Legges Way, Madeley, Telford, Shropshire. Saturday 8th December (10am-4pm), Sunday 9th December (10am-4pm), Saturday 15th December (10am-4pm) and Sunday 16th December (10am-4pm). If, like myself, you were riveted by the BBC series Victorian Pharmacy (2010) or simply have a passion for the Victorian era, then you will thoroughly enjoy celebrating Christmas in the atmospheric surroundings of Blists Hill Victorian Town.
    Blists Hill Christmas Grocers.
    Blists Hill Victorian Town.  Christmas Grocers.

    Step back in time and be treated to an array of traditional celebrations from the 1800s, listen to stories of life more than one hundred years ago and do some Christmas present shopping. Gifts on offer around the town will include traditionally made cast-iron paperweights and doorstops, handmade plaster decorations and even rocking horses, all produced in the Gorge by skilled craftsmen and women. There will also be a huge range of unusual items in the museum gift shop.

    Victorian Christmas celebrations at Blists Hill. Duke of Sutherland Cottage.
    Victorian Christmas celebrations at Blists Hill Victorian Town. Duke of Sutherland Cottage.

    Mr Morton’s Christmas Celebrations will once again see the magnificent Iron Rolling Mill transformed into a place for a ‘workers Christmas party’. Here visitors will be able to enjoy festive food and a wide variety of seasonal entertainment, such as Christmas songs, Punch and Judy and even a magic show. You can also sing-a-long with carol singers and listen to brass bands around the town, which will be festooned with traditional Christmas decorations as the townsfolk prepare seasonal goodies and make traditional Victorian presents.Families will have the option of visiting Father Christmas (extra charge in addition to entrance fee). Across on The Green, they will also be able to see and pet Father Christmas’ reindeer before their mammoth journey around the world on Christmas Eve. Charges apply.

    Blists Hill Victorian Town. Pet a reindeer at this year's Victorian Christmas weekends.
    Blists Hill Victorian Town. Pet a reindeer at one of this year’s Victorian Christmas Weekends.
  • A Victorian Christmas. Apsley House, Hyde Park Corner, LondonSaturday 8th December (11am-4pm) and Sunday 9th December (11am-4pm). Home to the Duke of Wellington after his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, located near to Hyde Park and Wellington Arch. See how the dinner table would have been laid for a Victorian Christmas feast and get into the festive spirit with traditional music and dance from the period. Charges apply but English Heritage members are free.
  • A Very Victorian Christmas. Tudor House and Garden, Southampton, Hampshire. Saturday 15th December (10am-5pm) and Sunday 16th December (10am-5pm). On both days, in two separate sessions (10.30am-12.30pm and 1.30pm-3.30pm), there will be Christmas crafts family workshops where you can make a Victorian-inspired peg doll angel or a reindeer spoon puppet. You can also meet Father Christmas and his helpers in the grotto. Charges apply but if you download a special voucher one child (6-16) goes free when accompanied by a full paying adult.

    Osborne House, Isle of Wight.
    Osborne House, Isle of Wight.
  • Festive Guided Tours – Queen Victoria’s royal retreat. Osborne House, York Avenue, East Cowes, Isle of Wight. Osborne House will be beautifully decorated throughout the Christmas period and festive guided tours are available Wednesdays to Sundays (except 26th December) until Sunday 6th January 2013. The expert guide will tell you how Christmas was celebrated at Osborne when Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their nine children were in residence. It is essential to pre-book your place on the tour by calling 01983 200022 or their bookings mobile 0777 526 5278 (standard mobile rates apply). The House is open at 10am and closes at 4pm, the last tour is at 2.30pm.  Charges apply but English Heritage members are free. Even if you are an English Heritage member you must still book pre-book your place on a tour.


  • Evacuee Christmas Party. St. Barbe Museum, Lymington, Hampshire. Saturday 22nd December (10.30am-3.30pm). Experience Christmas through the eyes of an Evacuee. There will be free children’s activities and traditional music and games in a community air-raid shelter. After all that excitement there will be an afternoon tea of traditional party food. If you come dressed as an Evacuee you will get free entry to the museum otherwise, normal charges apply.


  • The Museum at ChristmasWeald & Downland Museum, Chichester, West Sussex. Wednesday 26th December until Tuesday 1st January 2013 (10.30am-4pm).  If you cannot decide on one particular era and have not got time to fit a heritage event in before Christmas Day, then this annual event at Weald & Downland Open Air Museum is the perfect choice.  Experience the traditions of Christmas past and discover how our forebears enjoyed the festive season. The Museum has fifty rescued buildings covering the time period, c.1300 to c.1910 all set in the beautiful Lavant Valley. Many of the houses will be traditionally decorated and have crackling log fires. Charges apply.
Father Christmas reading letters and Christmas lists at Milestones.
Father Christmas reading letters and Christmas lists at Milestones.


  • This year, Milestones, a Living History Museum near Basingstoke, Hampshire is bringing back the traditional Father Christmas experience. Not a hint of commercialisation, just lovely, old-fashioned charm where children can meet Farther Christmas in a magical setting.
    Father Christmas in his grotto at Milestones.
    Father Christmas in his grotto at Milestones.
    Following her visit to his grotton, a delighted little girl receives her gift from Father Christmas. Milestones.
    Following her visit to his grotto, a delighted little girl receives her gift from Father Christmas. Milestones.

    His grotto will be located in the heart of this superb Museum, surrounded by buildings and shops from the Victorian era through to the 1940s. After meeting Father Christmas, you can take a family stroll through the full size, cobbled streets and make a visit to the 1940s sweetshop where you can exchange your penny for 2 0zs of sweets, this was the weekly ration allowed during World War Two. The sweetshop is open from 1pm-3pm weekdays and 12noon-4pm at Weekends, Bank Holidays and during the school holidays. There are also friendly costumed interpreters who will delight and enchant you with tales of days gone by.

    Milestones. The 1940s living-room decorated for Christmas.
    Milestones. The 1940s living-room decorated for Christmas.
    Milestones Living History Museum, Basingstoke.
    Milestones Living History Museum, Basingstoke.

    Pre-booking to meet Father Christmas is essential – Telephone: 01256 477766. Each child will receive a gift from Father Christmas.  It costs £3 per child, aged 0-15, to visit Father Christmas plus the normal entry charges. He visits Milestones on the following dates:

Saturday 8 December
Sunday 9 December
Saturday 15 December
Sunday 16 December
Saturday 22 December
Sunday 23 December

Details of opening times at Milestones over the Christmas period can be found here.

Chesil Street Station decorated for Christmas. Milestones.
Chesil Street Station decorated for Christmas. Milestones Living History Museum.
I wonder who the Christmas parcels are for? Milestones Living History Museum.
I wonder who the Christmas parcels are for? Milestones Living History Museum.
Posted in Activity, Bringing Alive The Past, Event, Exhibition, History, Maritime History, Mrs Beeton, Museum, Rural Heritage, Vintage, World War One, World War Two

A Taste of History – St. Barbe Museum, Lymington.

‘A Taste of History Exhibition’, St. Barbe Museum, Lymington, Hampshire.

St. Barbe Museum‘s recent exhibition, ‘A Taste of History: Local Food and Farming’ (6th October-17th November 2012) took the visitor on a fascinating journey through the history of British food, from pre-historic times to the 1950s.  The exhibition is part of a year-long project organised by the museum’s staff and supported by a team of dedicated volunteers:

We may think that our obsession with celebrity chefs, new ingredients, food imports and diet are a very modern phenomenon, but food developments have been at the heart of our culture since the beginning of farming in the Stone Age.

A Taste of History, exhibition panel, 2012)

St. Barbe Museum is located in the historic town of Lymington, which nestles on the edge of The New Forest National Park and hugs the Solent shoreline.  The town’s unique dual location has meant that for many centuries its residents have enjoyed both a marine and carnivorous diet.  In 1079, William the Conqueror (c.1028-1087) established the New Forest as a royal hunting ground and the Domesday Book (1086) even had a separate section for it.  (A Taste of History exhibition, 2012).

One of the former salt houses, still standing today, located on the Salterns near Lymington. The salt boiling houses were last used in 1865. Salt would have been transported to the houses by barges which also brought coal for the salt pan fires.

Lymington once had a thriving salt industry. Before the refrigerator, salt was used to preserve food, particularly meat and the exhibition included a section on its uses.  I was interested to discover that as soon as man stopped hunting salt became an important part of our diet. Previously, meat that had been procured by hunting would normally have been roasted thus ensuring that any salt would automatically be retained in the flesh.  When meat was farmed rather than hunted, boiling became the preferred cooking method. Boiling extracts salt, rendering the meat bland, adding salt to meat improves its taste. The demand for salt began to increase.  Salt was also used in the leather industry for tanning hides and in the treatment of wounds.  Edwardians loved salt pork – cured hams hanging in the pantry were a common sight.

Lymington’s salt industry was well-established by the Stuart period in England (1603-1714).  According to historian Jude James:

A visit to Lymington by the indefatigable Celia Fiennes (1662-1741) in the 1690s provides us with a very detailed description of the salt making processes.  In her account she writes of Lymington as having a few small ships but “the greatest trade is by their salterns” and she gives details of the liquor being conveyed through pipes into iron or copper pans situated in buildings [salt houses] where it was evaporated by furnaces blazing beneath to keep them boiling rapidly.  She states that up to 60 quarters of salt could be made in a single pan beneath which the furnace was kept burning day and night.

(James, J., 2006 [1996], The Salt Industry of Lymington and the Solent Coast, published by Lymington Museum Trust)

By the middle of the eighteenth century there were one hundred and forty-nine active salt pans.  Wealthy local businessman Charles St. Barbe (1750-1826) owned fifteen salt works and forty-eight pans, after salt taxes had been paid, he made a profit of £25,000 (£2.2 million in today’s money).  Salt tax was first introduced in England in 1694 and just over one hundred years later had risen to ten shillings per bushel and in 1805 was fifteen shillings per bushel.  The salt industry in Lymington had declined by the mid nineteenth century and by 1865 the boiling houses on the Salterns were forced to close due to the high cost of coal and cheaper rock salt being produced around Liverpool.

‘A Taste of History’ exhibition panels were full of so many fascinating facts about the history of food and here are some of my favourites examples:

  • the first recipe book in Britain was introduced by the Romans in the 1st century AD, De Re Coquinaria by Apicius (I have found a translation of the cookbook on-line, CLICK HERE);
  • the Romans were the first to introduce Sumptuary Laws which limited the number of dishes allowable at a meal and banned the eating of stuffed dormice;
  • a popular Roman delicacy was boiled flamingo with thick sauce made from dates and spices;
  • Roman soldiers were paid some of their wages in salt – salt money or a ‘salarium’ from which the word ‘salary’ derives;
  • Romans brought to Britain carrots, cabbage, parsnips, turnips, endive, celery, lettuce, cucumbers, marrow, asparagus, onions, leeks, new varieties of plums, apples, damsons, cherries, herbs such as fennel, rocket, parsley, borage, dill, spearmint, aniseed, hyssop, rosemary, sage and sweet marjoram. That is quite an extraordinary list of food imports, we do have quite a lot to thank the Romans for in terms of improving our palate;
  • during the Middle Ages (1066-1485) the diet of a Lord included a number of foods that we would find strange today. Beavers were a popular delicacy and because they swam using their tails they were technically thought of as fish, therefore enabling the Lord to eat them but still not fall foul of the strict fasting rules;
  • John Bakere was thought to be the first butcher on Lymington High Street in 1391 and he operated from ‘shambles’ or wooden stallsin the market hall;

    Topps Butchers c1900, located at No. 20 High Street, Lymington. Topps were known for their pickled tongue. There was also a slaughterhouse behind the shop. The photograph is in the St. Barbe Museum Collection – 1994.78.
  • in Lymington in 1726 butchers were forbidden from throwing guts of slaughtered beasts onto the street on pain of a 3s 4d fine.  Such was the dirt and filfth on the unmade High Street (from general waste, mud, and live dead animals) that in the eighteenth century, ladies would wear pattens, special platformed over-shoes, to protect their shoes and clothing;

    Drawing (1784) by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) of the kitchen at the inn at Lymington on the road to Pilewell. Rowlandson visited Lymington in 1784. In the trade directory for that year, Lymington had 4 butchers, 1 fruiterer, 6 bakers, 6 grocers, 2 pastry cooks and a wine merchant. The drawing is in the St. Barbe Museum Collection – LMGLM 2012.31.8.
  • in the Medieval period a feast could have up to six thousand guests Peacocks were a feast favourite, they were plucked, cooked and sewn back into their feathers before serving.  Layered jellies were made, flowers such as violets and primroses were also used;
  • in the seventeenth century mushrooms and runner-beans were introduced from Central America and grown ornamentally, along with bananas from Bermuda and grapefruits (called shaddocks) from the West Indies;
  • in 1944, Sway (village close to Lymington) Women’s Institute reported that their Jam Centre that year they had made 193 lbs of A-Standard jam and jelly. Sway WI were obviously a most enterprising group and in 1944 The Rural Meat-Pie Scheme was set-up by one of their members. During its first year of existence Scheme records show that an incredible 28,318 pies were made and sold. This really is a remarkable feat considering food rationingwas in force;

    From the Dig for Victory display in the Wartime section of the exhibition.
  • after the Second World War farming began to decline. By the end of the 1950s, tractors outnumbered horses by a ratio of two to one and approximately sixty farm workers per day were leaving agricultural employment.
A reversible linen smock which is the same front and back, so it could be turned inside-out when one side became dirty. Smocks fell-out of fashion amongst agricultural workers from the 1850s onwards. This smock is in the St. Barbe Museum Collection.

Throughout this year the Museum organised a large number of educational activities, in particular historical food days, eras and topics included: The Romans; jams and chutney; bread; wartime and the Tudors.  If you regularly follow my blog, then you will have already read my articles on Prehistoric Cooking with Jacqui Wood and An Invitation to a Stuart Banquet. Both of this days were part of this programme of events.

The Victorian farmhouse kitchen exhibit.

I also attended their Victorian food history day.  I took along my great, great grandmother’s copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management as well as my china tea set from 1845, some Victorian table linen and a late nineteenth century copper jelly mould.

Victorian kitchenalia, including my tea-set, linen, copper jelly mould and copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
I loved this object, a ‘memory tickler’, which was part of the Victorian farmhouse display. I think that this old-fashioned style shopping list would still prove popular if it were reproduced today. I’d definitely buy it. I also note that blancmange powder was considered a store cupboard staple then, most interesting.

There were plenty of activities to participate in and a local cook, who specialises in baking historical food, made some very tasty cakes based on original Victorian recipes –  a fill belly cake and a pound cake (see below for recipes).

Costumed museum guide at St. Barbe Museum’s Victorian day.

There were costumed museum guides, lots of vintage recipe books to browse through and an opportunity to make chocolate bon bons as well as a little gift box to take them away in.

The chocolate bon bons and little gift box that I made.

One of the highlights was a reading, by local actor Bruce Clitherow, of extracts from William Charles Retford’s (1875-1970) Memoirs of Growing-up in Ashley.  Retford’s Memoirs provide a wonderful glimpse of rural life in late Victorian Ashley and Burley, two villages not too far from Lymington.  Retford moved to London in 1982 to take-up an apprenticeship as a bow-maker for cellos and violins:

All good things come to an end.  In 1892 Arthur Hill, the violin maker, spent the weekend at the Old House and offered me a job.  By the end of March I was in a third floor back in New Bond Street cleaning fiddles and fitting pegs.  Unhappy and hard up.  After the first week I was taught nothing more for a year. “Thereby hangs a tale,” written but quite unprintable.  Cleaning fiddles was kids play to me.

(For a transcript of Retford’s Memoirs together with a more detailed biography of his extraordinary life, CLICK HERE.)

Local actor Bruce Clitherow reading from William Retford’s Memoirs of Growing-up in Ashley.

To accompany A Taste of History a lovely little book has been produced by staff and volunteers at the museum.  It contains recipes and notes from the exhibition, here is one entry in particular that caught my eye, a recipe for Saffron Bread:

Saffron Bread (A pre-Reformation Lenten bread)

For 1 loaf:

3/4 cups of milk; 12.5mg saffron; 1 packet of dried yeast; 60 ml lukewarm water; 450g strong white bread flour; 10mg salt; 2 eggs, lightly beaten.

Scald the milk with the saffron.  Let it cool.  Dissolve yeast in water. Sift together 300g of flour with the salt, spoon in eggs, milk and yeast mixture and blend.  Add enough flour to prevent it becoming sticky.  Knead until dough is smooth and elastic, adding more flour as needed.  Put in a greased bowl in a warmish place, leave to rise until it has doubled in bulk.  Punch down, shape in a round loaf.  Place on a greased baking sheet, leave to rise until it has again doubled in size.  Bake at 170C (375F) for 25-30 mins. then cool on a rack.

(A Taste of History: Celebrating food and farming throughout the ages, 2012,  St. Barbe Museum & Art Gallery, Lymington)

At the Victorian food history day there were lots of historical recipes to take away and try for yourself which was such a lovely touch. Another nice idea was an opportunity for a recipe swap, you could pin your handwritten family recipes on a noticeboard for others to see. Here a few of my favourite recipes that I discovered:

Eggless Sponge

150g self-raising flour; 5ml baking powder; 65g margarine; 50g sugar; 15ml golden syrup; 125ml milk or milk and water; jam for filling.

Sift the flour and baking powder.  Mix the margarine, sugar and golden syrup until light and soft.  Add a little flour and then a little milk or milk and water and mix it in.  Continue adding the flour and liquid like this until the mixture is smooth.  Grease two 18cm cake tins and sprinkle them lightly with flour.  Divide the mixture between them and bake at 200C, for about 20 minutes or until firm to the touch.  Tip out the tins carefully and spread one cake with jam.  Cover with the other cake.

Fill Belly Cake

2lbs stale bread; 0.5 lbs shredded suet; 1 lb granulated or brown sugar; 1lb mixed dried fruit; 3 eggs; 2 0z butter or margarine; 1 teaspoon mixed spice.

Soak the bread in water then drain and squeeze-out the excess water.  Flake with a fork and add the remaining ingredients. Mix well together and spread the mixture into a greased baking tin.  Dot with butter and bake in a moderate oven for about 2 hours or until nicely browned.  A variation is to make a pastry base, spread it with jam and then cover with the bread pudding mixture.  Bake as before.

Victorian Pound Cake

10 eggs, separated (or 1lb in weight); 1lb sugar; 1lb flour; 1lb currants and candied peel; 1 glass of brandy (optional).

Cream the butter and sugar together.  Mix in the egg yolks. Stir in the egg whites lightly.  Add the currants and peel, then mix in the flour a little at a time and the brandy if you are using it.  Bake for about 2 hours (or one hour if using half quantities).

Vinegar Cake

6oz self-raising flour; 3oz margarine; 3oz sugar; 1/4pt milk; 1tbsp vinegar; 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda; 3-4oz mixed dried fruit.

Sift the flour. Cream the margarine and sugar.  Pour the milk into a large basin, add the vinegar and bicarbonate of soda; the mixture will rise and froth in the basin.  Blend the flour and vinegar liquid into the creamed margarine and sugar then add the dried fruit.  Put into a greased and flour 7″ tin, bake in a moderate oven for 1 hour.

Seed Cake

3/4 lb flour; 1  1/2 teaspoons baking powder; 2oz lard; 2 oz butter or margarine; 60z brown sugar; 1 egg; 10z candied peel; 1/2 oz caraway seeds; a little grated nutmeg; pinch of salt; about 1/4 pt milk.

Pass the flour and baking powder through a sieve, rub into it the butter and lard, and add all the dry ingredients.  Beat up the egg with the milk, pour this into the cake mixture and mix thoroughly.  Turn into a 6″ x 3″ tin lined with a greased paper (7  1/2″ x 3  1/2″ tin if making double quantities).  Bake for 1  1/2 hours at gas mark 4 (or 2 hrs  30 at gas mark 3 for a double quantity cake).

For more information about visiting St. Barbe Museum, CLICK HERE.

St. Barbe’s next exhibition is ‘Randolph Schwabe: A Life in Art’ which opens on 24th November and runs until 16th February 2013Randolph Schwabe (1885-1948) was employed as an official War Artist in both the First and Second World Wars.  He is known for his portrait series ‘Women on the Land’ depicting the Women’s Land Army at work during the First World War. During the Second World War he produced drawings of bomb damage. The exhibition, curated by Dr Gill Clarke MBE, contains a number of works by Schwabe previously unseen.  Schwabe was born in Barton Lancashire in 1885.  He entered the Royal Academy of Art aged fourteen and in 1900 went to Slade School of Fine Art.  He married Gwendolen Rosamund on 19th April 1913 and they had one daughter.

This was my favourite photograph from the exhibition, ladies inspecting one of the new, Creda, electric cookers in the 1920s. This photograph is in the St. Barbe Museum collection.
Posted in Activity, Bringing Alive The Past, Event, Exhibition, History, Mrs Beeton, Museum

An Invitation To A Stuart Banquet

Mike and Jasmine with the marchpane and leach they made for the Stuart Banquet.
A selection of delights from the Stuart Banquet, St. Barbe Museum, Lymington.

Last month I had the pleasure of attending a Stuart banquet hosted by St. Barbe Museum, Lymington.  The event was part of a programme of activities organised to compliment the Museum’s new exhibition on food history, ‘A Taste of History – Local Food and Farming’ (6th October-17th November).

An invitation to a Stuart Banquet at St. Barbe Museum, Lymington, Hampshire.

What a treat for a historian this event was. The costumed re-enactors were superb, their knowledge of the Stuart period (1603-1714) just incredible.  The banquet showcased a fantastic array of dishes that had been recreated, by some of the re-enactors, using recipes (receipts) from cookbooks published during the seventeenth century, including:

  • A Delightful Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen by John Murrell (1621) – the white gingerbread;

    Red and white gingerbread.
  • Delightes for Ladies by Sir Hugh Platt (1609) – the red gingerbread and lemon marmalade;

    Lemon marmalade.
  • Country Contentments, The English Huswife by Gervase Markham (1623) – the marchpane and leach;

  • The closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelm Digbie (1669) by Sir Kenelm Digby – the apricot sweetmeats and syllabub;

    Syllabub. Helen Horsfall writes: ‘Seventeenth century syllabubs are a confection of alcohol and cream, well sweetened and flavoured with lemons or spices. The simplest syllabubs were made by milking a cow straight into a bowl of sweet spiced cider or ale, drunk on the spot. Alternatively, the milk could be heated and then whisked into the alcohol mixture.’
  • Rebecca Price’s Receipt Book (1681) – the biscuits;
  • A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen (1636) – the Prince-Biskits;

    Prince-Biskets with bread and cheese. Helen Horsfall writes: ‘The word “bisket” or biscuit derives from the French word ‘bis’ meaning twice, and ‘cuit’ meaning cooked. Traditionally, biscuit dough was cooked first in a baking tin, then put back in the oven a second time to dry out, more literally “twice cooked”.’
  • The Court and Kitchen of Elizabeth Commonly called Joan Cromwell (1664) – the gooseberry cream;

    Gooseberry cream.
  • The Cook’s Guide or Rare Receipts for Cookery by Hannah Woolley (1664);
  • The Cooks and Confectioner’s Dictionary by John Nott (1725) – the jumbles.

    Jumbles. Helen Horsfall writes: ‘Jumbles were popular over a long period from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. They take their name from their shape, a circular knot like a twisted ring or pretzel “jumbles” is thought to derive from gemmel, meaning ring.’
Sugar-coated caraway and fennel seeds.

Here is Gervase Markham’s (1623) recipe for ‘White Leach’:


To make the best Leache, take Isingglasse and lay it two houres in water and shift it and boile it in faire water and let it coole: Then take Almonds and lay them in cold water till they will blaunch: And then stampe them and put to new milke, and straine them and put in whole mace and ginger slic’t, and boile them till it taste well of the spice; then put in your isingglasse and Sugar, and a little rose-water: And then let them runne through a strainer.

Marchpane made by Mike and Jasmine. The marchpane depicts Lymington’s Coat of Arms, a sailing vessel.

Historians Mike and Jasmine were responsible for many of the stunning examples of food on display. The marchpane was a particular favourite of mine. Marchpane is similar to marzipan.  In its simplest form it is made from blanched almonds that are ground finely and then mixed with refined sugar and good quality rose-water.  The combination of these ingredients produces a malleable paste that can be fashioned into all manner of exotic shapes. Natural dye extracts are added for colour and spices such as a cinnamon and ginger are sometimes added.  The banquet recreated at St. Barbe was typical of a spread that would have been found in a wealthy household.  I was told the total amount of sugar required to produce the dishes on display amounted to approximately 5lbs. The wealthy Stuarts certainly had a sweet tooth!

Mike making butter.

Mike and Jasmine also gave a butter making demonstration. A simple, if slightly labour intensive, process that I always enjoy watching.  I remember being taught how to make butter as a child, I haven’t made any since then but really should try to have another go.

Jasmine moulding the butter.
Straining excess liquid from the freshly made butter using a muslin cloth. All liquid must be removed otherwise the butter will be go rancid very quickly.

Historical interpreter Helen Horsfall gave a short talk ‘Invitation to a Stuart Banquet’, packed full of fascinating facts about food during the Stuart period.

John and Patricia Oakley.

Customs and practices associated with dining Stuart style were also demonstrated and historian John Oakley had written a selection of information panels to accompany the banquet. John and Patricia Oakley are members of The Sealed Knot’s Learning Team. Included in John’s text panels were a set of guidelines for the Stuart diner.  Here are a few of these observances:

  • Men kept their hats on and swords in their scabbard;
  • Servants helped the diner to wash their hands before sitting at the table to eat;
  • The lowest Social Class first. All came to servants to have water poured over their hands for washing then took linen cloth from servant to dry hands and return it;
  • After washing, the diner goes to designated table place and stands behind chair until the top person is ready;
  • All stay standing for grace, and then sit after top persons are seated;
  • Diner takes napkin from place setting and drapes it over left shoulder (women may use left arm);
  • The knife was always used in the right hand;
  • Food was taken with fingers with the left hand and transferred to individual plates;
  • Food was taken with fingers of left hand and transferred to own plate.  Food was then transferred to mouth with the right hand;
  • Spoons were used with the right hand. A fork (if they had one) was for holding food instead of with the fingers;
  • Knives are never put into mouths;
  • Do not leave your spoon on the serving dish;
  • If the diner wants salt he uses the tip of a clean knife;
  • Diners do not leave the table before the top person, and leave when they do even it still hungry.

Another unique experience was the re-enactment of a Court Leet.  This example of a session held by the Court Leet was set c1632 using real cases as a basis for the dramatisation. Where I live, in Hampshire, the Court Leet is still active. One session is held in Stockbridge and another in the City of Southampton.  Southampton’s Court Leet takes place annually on the 1st Tuesday after Michaelmas, this year that was Tuesday 2nd October.  Historically, this type of Court did not have any real powers to punish, although for petty crimes, fines or community based punishments were handed-out.  The Court would refer serious crimes to the Quarter Sessions or the Assizes. The Court was also responsible for overseeing the town/city’s trade regulations, particularly in relation to weights and measures.  The Town Clerk would act as Steward of the Court and the Sheriff as Foreman of the Grand jury.

Ray Costello presides over the Court Leet.

The audience was completely enthralled by this theatrical and historical extravaganza.

Giving evidence.
Giving evidence.
Giving evidence at the Court Leet.
A gentlewoman (Patricia Oakley) listening to evidence being given at the Court Leet.

The dramatisation was also interactive, we acted as the jury and helped decide the fate of:

  • A waggoner whose cart had been damaged by an uneven road surface;
A waggoner pleads his case.
  • A washerwoman (Mistress Pippin) wanting compensation from the owner of a pig who had eaten one of her customer’s neckerchiefs which had been left to dry outside, near to common grazing land;
Washerwoman, Mistress Pippin (Jane Cox), pleads her case.
  • Finally, a widow is accused by the Town Bailiff of growing illegal substances (tobacco) on her farm. She claims the tobacco is for medicinal purposes.
Farmer’s widow defends her tobacco-growing activities.

Well done to all involved in organising this highly successful event.  St. Barbe Museum’s next food history event takes place later on today (Saturday 20th October), ‘A Taste of History: Victorian Cooking’ (10-4pm).  If you are a fan of Mrs Beeton and/or want to learn more about Victorian cooking, then pop down to Lymington in the New Forest.  I will be there with my copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and a selection of lovely Victorian china.  There are lots of interesting activities happening throughout the day including: costumed guides; mini-theatrical performances based on oral history testimonies; examples of food from this period prepared by a historical food interpreter; Victorian kitchenalia; Victorian recipes and of course there will be an opportunity to visit the Museum’s new exhibition all about local food history.  For more information, CLICK HERE.

Sandra Costello and her excellent spinning demonstration at the Stuart Banquet event, St. Barbe Museum, Lymington, Hampshire.
Wool selection, all dyed by Sandra using plant/vegetable extracts.

Posted in Activity, Archaeology, Bringing Alive The Past, Event, Exhibition, History, Museum, TV Programme

Prehistoric Cooking With Jacqui Wood

Jacqui Wood and her son demonstrating prehistoric cooking techniques at Buckland Ring Iron Age hillfort, Lymington, Hampshire.

Earlier this summer I leapt at the chance to see Jacqui Wood demonstrating prehistoric cooking techniques at Buckland Rings Iron Age hillfort on the outskirts of Lymington, Hampshire.  The event was organised by St. Barbe Museum and is part of a programme of events and activities associated with a year-long project exploring the history of food and farming in and around Lymington.  The project will culminate in an exhibition at St. Barbe Museum, ‘A Taste of History – Local Food and Farming’ which opens on 6th October and continues until 17th November

This exhibition will examine the changes to our diet, eating and cooking habits as well as farming and shopping practices over the centuries in a feast of sensory pleasures. In particular food links us to the land around us and in the past, the majority of us would have had some role in the production of food, perhaps as labourers, smallholders or commoners.

(Extract from St. Barbe Museum Website)

Jacqui Wood is a food historian, researcher and Experimental Archaeologist whose work you may be familiar with if you are a fan of Time Team.   Jacqui also featured recently on the Channel 5 documentary,  ‘The Kings War on Witches’ about James I and the infamous late fifteenth century witch hunts. Jacqui owns the world-famous archaeological research settlement in Cornwall, Saveock Water Archaeology.

An artist’s impression of what Buckland Rings may have looked like during the Iron Age.

Buckland Rings was once open countryside but is now covered with trees.  During the Iron Age the inhabitants would have lived in roundhouses and cooked on a central hearth. According to historian Dr Joanna Close-Brooks, who is an expert on the history of Buckland Rings:

The houses were built of timber with thatched roofs and walls made of stakes and wattle covered with daub, or of planks. Inside there was usually a hearth over which food was cooked in a cauldron hanging from a beam, and sometimes a clay oven was constructed for baking bread.  The houses were from 20 to 30 feet (6-9 metres) in diameter, with plenty of room to accommodate a large family…..Iron Age people were farmers, keeping cows, sheep, pigs and some horses and raising crops on fields near their settlements.  The cattle yielded milk for drinking and making into butter and cheese; skin and sinew for leather and thongs; horn and bone for making into tools and ornament and, of course, meat to eat.  Sheep provided the same (like cows they can be milked), but were probably more important for their wool which was woven into cloth, sometimes chequered or patterned in some other design.

(Dr Joanna Close-Brooks, Buckland Rings and Ampress Camp, published by St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, 2000, pp. 3 & 4)

Jacqui’s son preparing some delicious prehistoric fayre.

The Celts lived at the settlement during the Iron Age and would have eaten a fairly simple diet consisting of meat, fish, bread, butter and cheese.  The main cooking implements around the central hearth would have been a cauldron and a fire-dog.  The fire-dog had a lower bar which supported the wooden logs in the hearth and an upper bar used for supporting the meat on the spits. The cauldron was suspended from an iron tripod and simple unglazed pottery vessels would have been used to cook with.

Jacqui, assisted by her son, cooked us from scratch a delicious smoked fish stew, sweet bean cakes, oat and barley bread which was accompanied by home-made butter. In prehistoric times a whisk, bowl, strainer, loose-weave cloth and two wooden spoons were needed to make butter.  If you want to make an authentic prehistoric butter whisk, Jacqui suggests:

…try to make the whisk first from some green hazel or willow sticks. To begin with strip the bark off the sticks…if this is done in the spring the bark will strip off in one piece as the sap is rising in the plant at that time of year – keep this bark for binding the whisk together. Then very carefully bend three of the sticks and secure them all at the cut end with the strips of bark or string.  You have now made a very effective balloon whisk with which to make butter.

(Wood, J., Prehistoric Cooking, 2011, p. 81)

Tasty smoked fish stew simmering in the cauldron.
Jacqui with a bowl of chopped chives ready for the fish stew.

The smoked fish stew was delicious.  It contained bacon, leeks, smoked fish, milk, cream, chives and salt. Simple to make but surprisingly hearty.

Sweet bean cake mix.
Sweet bean cake mix and oat and barley bread mix.

The sweet bean cakes had a more unusual taste, sweet, quite dense but very filling. They contained butter, whole wheat flour, processed beans, honey and chopped hazelnuts.

The oat and barley bread was made from medium oatmeal, barley flour, butter, sea salt and milk and cooked by wrapping the mixture around hot stones. A very clever and effective technique.

Hot stone ready for the bread mixture to be wrapped around.
Bread after having been cooked using the hot stone method.

I am an advocate of Experimental Archaeology even though it does raise a few eyebrows amongst traditional archaeologists.  Jacqui’s extensive understanding of prehistoric cooking techniques has developed out of her experimental practices, coupled with an in-depth, archaeological knowledge, of the period. Her writing is all the more rich for a combination of these two factors.  There is nothing like watching a recipe, from several thousands years ago, being brought back to life and enjoyed once more in the twenty-first century by an enthusiastic and appreciative audience.

I also picked-up, at the event, a signed copy of her cookery book, Prehistoric Cooking. It not only contains well-written chapters on life and society in prehistoric times but is jam-packed with easy-to-follow recipes, many of which produce dishes that would not look out-of-place on the modern dining-table.  Beautifully illustrated throughout, a must-have for all devotees of food history. Jacqui has also written another historical cookbook, Tasting The Past: Recipes From The Stone Age to the Present.

  • For more information about ‘A Taste of History – Local Food and Farming’ (6th October-17th November) at St. Barbe Museum, Lymington, CLICK HERE.

    The oldest pottery found in Britain, a Neolithic cooking pot, 6,000 years old. On display at the Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury.
Posted in Event, Exhibition, Fashion History, Museum, Vintage, Vintage Retail

1950s Britain – Part Three


Christian Dior’s salon launch of his revolutionary New Look took place on 12th February 1947. This date marked a watershed in the history of post-war fashion in Britain and the rest of Europe. The New Look style inspired a whole generation of fashion designers and helped kick-start a boom in couture and ready-to-wear clothing for women during the following decade. Women’s clothes became more light-hearted and feminine, shaking-off the austere aesthetic of utility clothing. Clothes rationing ended in March 1949.

Me wearing the 1948 New Look at the first Goodwood Revival meeting in 1998.

In September 1998, I was very lucky to be at the first Goodwood Revival event dressed in a Dior New Look outfit. The jacket was original but the skirt a later copy. The Goodwood Revival is still as popular today as it was fourteen years ago. This year’s event takes place at The Goodwood Estate, Chichester, West Sussex between 14th and 16th September inclusive. CLICK HERE. The perfect opportunity to wear your newly created fifties inspired vintage look.

At the beginning of the 1950’s, shoulders were more rounded and waists defined. Long narrow skirts or full circular skirts were worn, about 30cm off the ground. The full skirts made a statement; they celebrated the end of post-war clothing restrictions. Criticism was levied at designers for the excessive amount of fabric needed to realise their creations. The full skirts held their shape thanks to the many layers of frilled petticoats of stiffened nylon. Sometimes these petticoats contained upwards of twelve metres of nylon net. Previously, women had had to make do with just over a couple of metres of utility tweed.

The playsuit was a popular item of leisure wear and would traditionally be teamed with a wedgy pair of espadrilles. The playsuit has made a recent comeback. This time around it is often worn with a thick pair of tights and statement-making footwear. There were a number of European key designers and design houses producing high-end fashion in fifties. I list here the more well-known but this is by no means an exhaustive roll of honour: Balmain (fashion house); Balenciaga; Coco Chanel; Hardy Amies; Hubert de Givenchy; Norman Hartnell and Victor Stiebel. The last three of these designers were British. In 1958 The Fashion House Group of London was formed. This group of British designers created collections to be sold in high street stores. The designers were: Susan Small (mostly evening and party dresses); Horrockses; Peggy Allen; Jaeger; Dannimac; Polly Peck and Aquascutum.

French fashion magazine from my own collection, 1957.

In order to achieve the fashionable tiny waist of the fifties, a short corset of five or six inches deep, called a “waspie” would be worn. The waspie was often worn over the panti-girdle. A foundation garment controlled by stretch rather than boning.

1950s evening dress. Portsmouth City Museum.

Strapless, glamorous, evening dresses required another type of undergarment, the basque which had incorporated bra cups. Bras in the 1950’s were under wired and had spiral stitching, creating the conical-shaped bosoms synonymous with the film-inspired “Sweater Girl” look. Padded bras or inflatable inserts were a suitable alternative if nature had not blessed you in that department. In 1952, seamless stockings were introduced into Britain.

Ready-to-wear ranges emerged in the 1950’s that made good use of the new, man-made materials such as Nylon, Crimplene and Orlon. These materials meant that garments were easy-care and required little or no ironing. Crimplene revolutionised the colour palette of fifties fashion due to its colour fast properties. Ready-to-sew kits were also popular and made sewing accessible to a wider number of women.

Original shop sign for Liz Tilley Millinery, Lymington. St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.
An original Liz Tilley hat made from black pedal straw and trimmed with a white Cire Camelia. St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.
Liz Tilley hat box 1950s. St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.

St. Barbe Museum’s recent exhibition ‘1950’s – Having it so Good’ included a display featuring the work and career of society milliner, Liz Tilley.  Liz opened her haute couture millinery store on No. 1 High Street, Lymington in 1959.  She had trained with Aage Thaarup, the Mayfair based Danish designer. Thaarup is known for the hats he created for Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth.  Thaarup recognised Liz’s natural talent for millinery design and encourage her to move to Paris.  The aim of the move was to expose her to the houses of Dior, Chanel and Jacques Faith.  Liz lived with her sister in a tiny Parisian bedsitter in the Latin Quarter.  She borrowed a friend’s salon in Paris to display her designs but the hats themselves were created from the confines of her tiny bedsit. Liz’s shop in High Street, Lymington closed in the 1990s.  In the course of my research I did manage to find a couple of British Pathé films of Thaarup at work in his Mayfair salon:

  1. Easter  Bonnets (1954);
  2. Albert Hall Hat (1957).

Men in the fifties often wore dark, two or three-piece suits to the office and a tweed sports jacket and flannel trousers at weekends. Neatly laced brogues of either brown leather or suede (‘brothel creepers’) were often worn. English gentleman’s athletic clothing was also popular. Teaming an old college blazer with a cravat. The classic English city gent would wear a black bowler hat, three-piece suit or black jacket and waistcoat with pin-striped trousers worn with a white or finely striped shirt with semi-stiff detachable collar. To complete the ensemble, a pair of black Oxford shoes, coat in Crombie woolwith a black velvet collar and a rolled umbrella.

1950s wedding dress belonging to Barbara Clapham. On display at the recent 1950s exhibition at St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.

St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.
My mother as a bridesmaid at my Great Aunt’s wedding in February 1955.

I asked my mother and mother-in-law about fashion memories that they had of their teenage years in the fifties. My mother recalls:

fashions were very feminine, tightly fitted bodices, full skirts and lots of net petticoats. To starch my petticoats I would dip them in sugar-water and leave to dry. However, if it rained it was awful as you ended-up with sticky legs. I remember my petticoats had a channel in them and I had to pass a corset guide or flat stiffener – which you brought by the foot – through it to make the petticoats stand out. I had to be careful on the bus so that when I sat down the skirts wouldn’t flip-up and show my underwear. That was a big no, no. Girls in those days were trimmer than they are today. The waists were tiny and nipped in. I had an elasticated waspie. I also wore wide, about two inches wide, elasticated belts which had either a metal clip or a pretty buckle. On my feet I had flat ballet pumps and wore my hair either in a pony tail or had it curly. I didn’t wear that much make-up as I was very young. I do remember that a lot of girls wore quite thick eyeliner, Cleopatra style. You had to practice a lot to get your eyeliner straight but most girls became quite expert at doing their own make-up. I did have a block of mascara that I had to spit on to moisten and then would apply using a mascara wand. I wore light coloured lipsticks and always made sure my eyebrows were tidy. I also liked wearing a few bracelets, so too did my friends. Padded bras with circular stitching were popular. There were no tights. Instead you had stockings and suspender belts. The rubber bits on my suspender belts often perished and I would use a six pence penny piece to keep them up. It was quite breezy in the underwear department. There were no skimpy pants, thongs or g strings. I do remember some girls had seamless stockings but my nylons had seams up the back. I wore a lot of waist length cardigans with buttons up the front. Women of my mother’s generation always wore a hat but the young women did not wear hats as much. Gloves were also always worn.

I enjoyed making my own clothes. One of the first dresses that I made was in 1957 when I was thirteen. It was in a cotton fabric, which was sky blue with white spots and white bias binding trim. I sent for the fabric pieces from Honey magazine, which was a popular teenage magazine. It cost me about £4 and I was so proud of it. There was a choice of blue or pink and I preferred blue because I was fair-haired. It wasn’t a full skirt but a shift dress. It had a fabric tie in the middle. There was no paper pattern. All the pieces of fabric came ready cut and you just had to sew them together. My mum had a Singer sewing machine which she had waited three years for after the war and it was always in use at home. During the war they were not manufacturing sewing machines as the metal was needed for armaments. My mum was a very good needlewoman and came from the ‘make do and mend’ generation. She always brought her bras from Marks and Spencers in the 1950’s and 60s. She had a French figure. Big bust, nipped in waist and ample hips.

My mother-in-law grew-up in rural Northern Ireland in the fifties and her fashion choices reflected her musical interests at that time.  She recalls:

I loved rock n’ roll and jive dancing. I was a big fan of Elvis Presley too. I used to wear skirts that were plain but not fully flared. The skirts had a wide waistband or were gathered in at the waist. They were called Dirndl skirts I think and were mid-calf length. I think they were based on traditional maid’s style costumes worn in Germany. They did still have a lot of material in them though. My underskirts were bright colours. Layers of pink, yellow and white netting. I remember that I also had a black feather hat. The feathers were bunched on one side of my head and secured to the head. The feathers would then lay flat across the top of the head reaching to the other side. The hat did not last long. We came back from Mass one Sunday to discover that the family dog had shredded it to pieces. It looked like a blackbird had been massacred in our kitchen. I used to wear my ‘V’ necked jumpers back to front as well, with the ‘V’ at the back. We didn’t refer to suits as suits, they were costumes. I never wore red lipstick. I wore pan stick foundation, a little powder with a pink or peach coloured lipstick.

McCalls 1952 pattern no. 9028 from my collection.

Last year I purchased McCall’s blouse pattern no. 9028 at a vintage fair. It is from 1952 and I thought that it would be a good project to have a go at making one of blouses. I consider myself to be a fairly competent needlewoman but I am afraid I could not make head nor tail of the pattern instructions. I admitted defeat and passed the pattern to my mother who cheerfully took-up the challenge. I come from a long line of excellent dressmakers but know my limits. My mother has made a wide variety of clothes over the years: theatrical costumes; copious clothes for me; curtains; cushions and is also a dab hand at upholstery too. Definitely the right woman for the job.

When my mother was first married, my father worked in Southern Ireland at Raidió Teilifis Eireann in the latter part of the 1960s. Married women were not allowed to work for money in Southern Ireland at that time. However, my mum did not want to get stuck at home so managed to secure voluntary work at Ardmore Film Studios in the Wardrobe Department. She helped out with ironing, pressing and doing minor sewing alterations on a number of film productions including Sinful Davey (1969), directed by John Huston and starring John Hurt and Pamela Franklin.

View D, McCalls pattern no. 9028.

Anyway, those are my mother’s credentials and here is her advice on working with vintage patterns. She made view D from McCall’s 1952 pattern no. 9028:

First of all the pattern markings are a lot clearer to work with than modern patterns. However, the instructions are not easy to follow. There is a lot of reading and assembling to do before you begin and you really do need some prior needlework experience before working with a vintage pattern. I found it difficult to attach the collar and the tie was not as easy as it looks to make. A complete beginner would struggle with the pattern. In the fifties, sewing machines did not have automatic buttonhole options. But if you are using a modern sewing machine then this part of the construction would definitely be easier now. Interfacing is also important. Interfacing in the fifties was not sticky; it was a separate item, a separate piece of fabric. Make sure you choose the correct weight of interfacing for the fabric you are using. Ask in the fabric shop when you are buying supplies. The seam allowances are surprisingly generous. Although be aware that sizing is different today. A size 12 pattern, as this was, is about a size 8-10 today. Although, the generous seam allowances do help when adjusting a vintage pattern to fit a modern body shape. The bottom of the shirt appears to offer a generous fitting but remember that this was so that you could wear it over your full skirt.  Also check that the pattern you are buying is complete, luckily this one was but you may find some bits are missing. I used a modern sewing machine and just made sure I had the right needle for the fabric I was using but other than that I did not have to make any other adjustments on my machine.

Close-up view of neck detail on finished blouse.

The lovely blouse that my mother made went to a good home. Unfortunately, I have inherited my grandmother’s ‘French figure’, so the garment was no good for my body shape. However, my dear friend and retro goddess Carolyn Hair now has it in her large collection of vintage fashions.

Front view of finished blouse.
Back view of finished blouse.

1950s fashion is enjoying a huge revival at the moment. Original garments can be sourced from one of the many vintage fairs popping-up all over the country or for the more resourceful among you, why not try one making your own 50s clothing. Pattern companies such as Butterick, Simplicity and Vogue all have 50s inspired patterns or re-issues of originals from their own archives.

Butterick pattern from their ‘Retro’ range. Pattern No. B556, 1957. From my own collection of retro patterns.

If recreating your vintage look from an original pattern or wearing second-hand clothes is not your thing, then don’t panic.  If you want to dress to impress the vintage way, then high street fashion stores are currently full of garments that have a retro feel to them.  I recently visited Westfield shopping centre in White City, London to see the pop-up fashion display ‘Future Fashion’ (27th March-1stApril).  In all of the fashion trends on display I could identify trends from the 1930s right through to the 1980s.

Alongside each of the themed displays there were five digital 103” LCD touch-screens housed in Styling Cubes. The idea being that you chose the fashion items that had caught your eye, then you dragged and drop them into a personalised mood board to create your perfect wardrobe of outfits.  Once you had chosen your favourite items you simply entered your e-mail address and the images were sent directly to you.  There were also options to link to your Facebook page or share your finds on Twitter. Here are a couple of my favourite items from this event. A sixties-inspired dress and a fifties-inspired swimming costume.

Dandelion lace prom dress by Monsoon. £75.
River Island peach flower one piece swimsuit.

For information on 1940s and 1950s hair and make-up, please my article from September 2011.

Image from 1957 magazine showing eye-liner detail.
1950s HMV hairdryer. St. Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, Lymington, Hampshire.


I have listed below a few books and resources that should help to inspire your top-to-toe 1950’s look:

  • Victoria and Albert Museum, London – Ballgowns – British Glamour Since 1950 (19th May- 6th January 2013);
  • Victoria and Albert Museum, London – ‘Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age’ (31st March – 12th August 2012);
  • Royal Mail Mint Stamps – Great British Fashion: 1945 to 2010. I rushed out and purchased my pack at the local Post Office on the first day of issue. I brought the presentation pack priced £6.50. The presentation pack contains a stylish and well-written booklet, written by Professor Amy de la Haye, Rootstein Hopkins Chair, London College of Fashion. The booklet charts the history of British fashion from 1945 to the present day.
  • Ketteler, J., (2010) Sew Retro: A Stylish History of The Sewing Revolution published by Voyageur Press;
  • Brennan, E., (2005) Making Vintage Bags: 20 Original Patterns for Vintage Bags and Purses published by Guild of Master Craftsman;
  • Ours Drager, B., (2009) Hat Tactics: Instructions for Creating Early 1950’s Hats published by Bramcast Publications (although this book is a reprint of one produced in 1950);
  • Westmore Beauty Book – A Complete 1950’s Guide to Vintage Make-up, Hairstyling and Beauty Techniques (2009) published by Bramcast Publications. This is a fantastic book and was originally published in 1956;
  • What Katie Did, 26 Portobello Green Arcade, 281 Portobello Road, Londonfor all your vintage shapewear needs. If you are unable to visit their shop, they do have an on-line shopping facility for overseas customers. For the more daring and patriotic among you there is even a Diamond Jubilee inspired corset – the Union Flag Corset;
  • Here are a few fun and fascinating British Pathé fifties fashion clips:
  1. Kitchen Hats (1959);
  2. Italian Knitwear (1958);
  3. Spectacles (1955);
  4. She Walks in Beauty (1950);
  5. She Walks in Beauty (1951);
My family on the beach in Hythe, Kent. Inky the poodle can be seen in the bottom left-hand corner. 1956.

Poodles became the must-have fashion accessory of the 1950s. Friends of my aunt and mother had a poodle called ‘Inky’ who can be seen in the above photograph, on the left. I hasten to add here that Inky was not dressed in any of the fashion outfits worn by high society poodles of that time, neither was he dyed lurid pink, he was just a much-loved family pet.

The craze for poodles had an impact on mainstream fashion too. The ‘poodle skirt’, with its bright colours and breed motif appliquéd on the front, is one of the most memorable fashion trends from this decade. Even TV star Lucille Ball got herself a ‘poodle hair cut’ and who can forget Doris Day with her bevy of rainbow-coloured poodles in a fashion shoot from 1950. The poodle often featured in French fashion and beauty advertisements.  Here are a few examples of the fifties passion for poodles that may amuse you:

  1. Paris Hotel Boutique Journal Blog – Glamour Dogs;
  2. Poodle Fashion Show (1956);
  3. Dog Fashions Beware (1959).
Posted in Event, Exhibition, Fashion History, History, Motoring History, Museum, Review, Vintage

1950’s Britain – Part One

Coronation bobby pins from 1953 that I recently brought at a vintage fair.
Detail of 1953 coronation bobby pin.

In the last few months I have found myself attending a number of 1950s themed events and this has spurred me on to delve further into this incredible decade in British history. There has never been a better time to look again at 1950s Britain, a decade of choice, change and challenges. Interest in all aspects of fifties living is currently at an all time high. This is of course partly due to the fact that we are now only one week away from the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and a four-day weekend. If you are attending or organising any vintage events to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, then I hope you are able to gain inspiration from my four articles.  For more information on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, please CLICK HERE .

Another royal treat which may be of particular interest to those fascinated with the life (and loves!) of Queen Victoria are her private diaries which are now available, for the first time, on-line. The complete collection of journals are kept in the Royal Archives. Queen Victoria was the first British monarch to celebrate a Diamond Jubilee and the digitisation of her journals seems a most fitting tribute to this extraordinary Queen.  The journals cover her childhood to her Diamond Jubilee and beyond. The date range is 1832-1901. A truly absorbing read. CLICK HERE and start browsing.

Me wearing vintage at MShed Bristol 2012.

I recently attended a 50s and 60s Vintage Weekend (24th-25th March) at the recently opened Mshed Museum in Bristol.  Mshed Museum is located on Bristol’s historic dockside in a former 1950s transit shed. The Museum tells the story of the history of Bristol and the people who helped create this splendid city.  The inspiration for the Vintage Weekend came from an exhibition then on at the Museum, ‘An Eye For Fashion: An Exhibition of British Fashion Photography by Norman Parkinson 1954-1964’ (21st January – 15th April). The exhibition was made-up of sixty original Norman Parkinson photographs featuring British fashion designers from 1954-1964. The photographs were on loan from the Angela Williams Archive Designers of British Fashion portfolio and on display in Bristol for the very first time.  Angela worked as Parkinson’s assistant during the 1960s. To compliment the photographs there was also a really lovely exhibition, ‘Bristol Fashion’, featuring 50s and 60s costumes from the Museum’s permanent collection. There were loads of vintage trade stalls too. The weather behaved itself and a fantastic time had by all.  My friend and I created our own 50s inspired outfits which went down a storm.  We were also lucky to meet the delightful Angela Williams in person. Angela passed some very favourable comments about our vintage attire. My friend and I even made it into an on-line article written by Alice Roberton for the ultimate style bible of modern-day vintage lovers, Homes & Antiques magazine. A lovely mention too for Come Step Back in Time. For article, please CLICK HERE.

My friend and I took to the historic dockside in Bristol to do a mini-fashion shoot inspired by the Norman Parkinson exhibition. Mixing fashion with an industrial background is a theme that appears in a number of photographs by Parkinson from this period.
Me on the balcony at MShed Museum. Leopard prints were all the rage in the 1950s so I decided to base my outfit around this theme. To create the look, I took an old Marks and Spencers faux-fur hat, cut-off the brim and fashioned a pillbox style hat. The brim I attached to the neck of an old black, button-through cardigan to create a stylish collar. I removed the original buttons and replaced with pearl-look ones. I borrowed a pair of white 1950s gloves from my mother-in-law. The stockings I wore were period accurate, although they tended to lose their shape as there was no Lycra in them. I wore a 1950s style girdle brought from London-based vintage shapewear specialists What Katie Did. The handbag is an original on loan from my dear friend Carolyn Hair.

The topics I will be covering in my homage to 1950s Britain include: homes; interior design; fashion and beauty; leisure activities; food and cookery as well as some of the more unusual aspects of fifties Britain that are often overlooked in articles written on the decade. I have also interviewed various members of my family about their experiences of growing-up in Britain during the 1950s. I am thankful to them for being so open and honest with their replies to my endless questions.

My mother has been an absolute hero and agreed to tackle the construction of an original 1952 blouse pattern by way of an experiment by the modern dressmaker.  The challenge was not as easy as one might expect.  I bring you her do’s and don’ts for anyone wishing to take on this challenge for themselves in a later article.

I must also give special thanks to the wonderful curatorial team at St. Barbe Museum in Lymington, Hampshire. They have allowed me to share with you some really special 1950s items held in their collection, several of which were recently  put on display for their exhibition, ‘1950’s – Having it so Good’ (17th March-28th April).  A well-curated exhibition giving an insight into every aspect of life in 1950s Britain, topics included: Modern Society Comes of Age; At Home; Design in the Home; Car Ownership; Ceramics; Clothing and Fashion; Toys and Games; Music; The Festival of Britain; The Coronation; Immigration; Suez Crisis and The War. The exhibition also included material from the period donated by members of the public, a very nice touch indeed. The end result was an exhibition that was also a collaborative project with the local community in and around Lymington.

St. Barbe Museum are also holding a number of family friendly events to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, for further information on these, please CLICK HERE. There will also be an exhibition to accompany the events, showing how the people of Lymington have celebrated Coronations and Jubilees from Queen Victoria to the present day.  On display will be items not normally seen on display. The ‘Special Mini-Exhibition: A Royal Celebration’ opens on Saturday 2nd June and runs until Saturday 30thJune.

A selection of wartime ration books on display at Swanage Museum, Dorset.


1950s Britain was a decade of considerable change. The early years were pretty tough. Food rationing remained until 4th July 1954 and imported goods were very expensive. The average Briton could not afford any of life’s little luxuries. The supposed dawn of a new age precipitated a thirst for a better way of life and a new direction for Britain. The Nation’s increased optimism was to come extent, a little premature, as the threat of a Third World War loomed, instigated by the crisis in Korea. This dangerous political situation must have never been far from the minds of politicians and general public alike.

From the inside of my mother’s Royalty in Essex book. All schoolchildren in the UK received a special copy of a book to celebrate the Queen’s coronation in 1953.

On February 6th February 1952, King George VI died and his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, succeeded him to the throne. Although her coronation did not take place until 2nd June 1953. The new Queen and her husband offered the nation hope for a brighter future. The young couple was a breath of fresh air in the royal establishment. The new modern age needed a bright, young couple at its helm to steer the country into uncharted territories.  The nation came together in celebration of this momentous occasion and the coronation was the first major event to receive international television coverage.

My mother and aunt recalled that in 1953 all schoolchildren were presented with a souvenir book to mark the coronation.  The book’s contents varied from county to county but in each instance reflected that particular county’s royal connections as well its important historical landmarks. My mother and aunt were brought-up in Essex and they were given the book Royalty in Essex. After much rummaging in the attic, my mother managed to locate her copy.

Book given to all UK school children to mark the 1953 coronation. This book belongs to my mother.

By the end of the decade the average weekly wage had doubled and income tax rates fallen. Britons with disposable incomes burning a hole in their pockets were seduced by Americanisation and consumer culture. Mass consumption was born. Previously, every penny counted but now everyone could enjoy the benefits that came with greater financial freedom. Car ownership doubled during the decade and by 1959, one in three families owned a car. The road infrastructure underwent a major overhaul and Britain’s first motorway, the Preston By-Pass (now part of the M6 in Lancashire), opened in 1958.

My family and some of their friends on a beach in Hythe, Kent. 1956.

I asked my mother and aunt about what life was like growing-up in 1950’s Britain? My aunt recalls that for her it was: ‘..a very jolly, carefree time – which as children, all appeared to be, and we were indeed very happy. Our parents were very loving and caring and always endeavoured to protect us from the ‘outside world’ and we were very fortunate to have experienced a comfortable upbringing.’

Family outing to Wannock Tea Gardens, Polegate, Sussex. 1955.

The family photo albums from the period reflect this happy truth and include lots of snapshots taken on various days out. My mother and aunt were fortunate, my granddad owned a car which meant seaside holidays, picnics in parks and visits to places of interest were commonplace. In the early 1950’s, my granddad had a second-hand, dark, powder blue, Ford Consul MKI.

My aunt and uncle standing in front of granddad’s Ford Consul MKI. Galleywood Common. 1955.

Following receipt of a bonus from the company he worked for, in 1957 granddad purchased a new, grey Ford Consul 204E (MKII – 1956). Ford Zephyrs, Zodiacs and Consuls were very popular in Britain in the 1950’s, partly due to their American design influence. The Consul launched in February 1956 and for the next six years became popular with families, who were seeking a car with style, space and comfort. Consul’s had spacious interiors with six seats – created by the column interchange; there was also a large boot. The four-cylinder Consul had a cruising speed of 65 mph and the passenger comfort was good. All in all the Consul became the perfect classic, family car of the 1950s. Another popular car during the 50s was the British-made Morris Minor, marketed as a reasonably priced car for the masses, designed by Sir Alec Issigonis.

My granddad’s brand new Ford Consul 204E MKII. Brought in 1957.
My uncle beside the brand new family car in 1957.

The Consul proved to be a bit of an embarrassment to my aunt though. None of her classmates’ parents owned such a ‘flashy car’ and she hated being picked-up from Junior School in it. The embarrassment was so profound that she begged her parents to allow her to change schools so that she could travel back and forth on the school bus. Her parents ignored the pleadings.

Family picnic on Galleywood Common. 1957. My granddad’s pride and joy, the Ford Consul can be seen in the background. My grandma wearing her high heels for the occasion of a picnic always amuses my aunt.
My family at Pevensey Castle, East Sussex. 1955.


In 1951, the South Bank of the Thames underwent a massive programme of urban regeneration to make way for the forthcoming Festival of Britain. The Festival was in part intended as a nod to the Great Exhibition of 1851, a fact that was pretty much lost in all the hoopla surrounding the event. Between its opening in May and closure in September, 8.5 million people visited the Festival. The festival director, Gerald Barry, declared the event would be a “tonic to the nation”.

All over Britain, cities and towns held their own Festival of Britain celebrations. This is the programme produced by Southampton city and shows the Festival’s red, white and blue emblem designed by Abram Games. This object is on display at Tudor House and Gardens Museum in Southampton, Hampshire.

The patriotic colours red, white and blue shown in the Festival’s motif designed by Abram Games were with a mind to catch the Festival mood. It was supposed to represent the bright new mood of optimism of Britain in 1951. The nation was given a ‘face-lift’ and there was a general ‘tidying-up’ of towns, cities and villages. War damaged buildings were restored and rubble posthumously swept from the highways, byways and high streets. The government wanted to give the rest of the world the appearance of a whole nation pulling together and recovering from adversity.

The New Towns Act had been passed in 1948, resulting in the construction of some 2,500 schools and ten New Towns within the following decade. Some of these New Towns included Stevenage, Harlow, Basildon and Crawley. However, the Festival’s own Live Architecture Exhibition at the Lansbury Site was very poorly attended, one example of how the minds of the public were diverted to the jamboree on the South Bank.  Out of the 8.5 million Festival visitors, only 86,646 attended the Live Architecture Exhibition. All the exhibits at the Live Architecture Exhibition were constructed out of materials and layouts that were the result of scientific discoveries.

Post-war land space was scarce so architects designed Tower Blocks that were functional and of simple design. This hailed the start of the ‘New Brutalism’ architectural movement of the 1950’s.  The first New Brutalist building was the Secondary School at Hunstanton (1949-54). The movement was spearheaded by two, young architects, Peter and Alison Smithson.

The Festival offered an opportunity to showcase the best of British modern design. Robin and Lucienne Day, Sir Terence Conran and Ernest Race were a few of the high-profile designers involved in the event. Ernest Race’s Antelope chair, with its rust-proofed and stove-enamelled frame, plywood seat bent into shape by steam and pressure became a design icon of the Festival. The chair had ‘molecular’ style feet, picking-up the science theme evident right across all of the exhibits and room displays. Race’s chair was mass-produced in its thousands and seen by the public everywhere at the event.

Ernest Race’s Antelope Chair designed for The Festival of Britain. This chair was produced in 1950. It is on display at Portsmouth City Museum.

The concrete plant-pots seen all over the site were designed by Maria Shepherd and became very popular in the 1960s. The Royal Festival Hall, designed by Leslie Martin and her team, was built to replace the bombed Queen’s Hall. In the Homes and Gardens Pavilion, room-settings showed furniture with braced legs, cane work, aluminium lattices, Cotswold-type walling with picture windows, flying staircases, blonde wood and lily-of-the-valley splays of light bulbs.

Despite large visitor numbers to the South Bank, criticism was levied on the Labour government for organising such an extravagant event in tough economic times. Perhaps one of the many reasons why Labour lost the 1951 General Election. One of the most enduring symbols of the 1951 Festival of Britain was the Skylon. Designed by Hidalgo Moya, Philip Powell and Felix Samuely Bank.  The structure loomed large over the South Bank. Some commentators joked that it was like austerity Britain and had, “no visible means of support”.

Skylon’s post-Festival fate has long been subject to debate. However, after the Festival, the newly elected Conservative government thought the Labour commissioned structure to be a symbol of socialism. After a great deal of wrangling, Winston Churchill ordered it to be scrapped in 1952. It was not thrown into the Thames, which had been suggested by some but was turned into scrap metal and sold. A prudent measure, considering the shortage of these materials in Britain at the time.