Source: The South Australian Genealogist

Next time you are washing your hands and complaining about the water temperature, take a few moments to ponder on the plight of folk in days gone by. Here are some facts (?) about living conditions in the 1500's in England.

Most people used to get married in June, because they took their yearly bath in May, and still smelled pretty good by June. However, as they were starting to smell, the brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide their body odour.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the sons and other men in the household, followed by the women, and finally the children, and last of all the babies. By then, the water was so dirty, you could actually lose someone in it - hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water".

Houses had thatched roofs made of thick straw, piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the dogs, cats and other small animals (mice, rats, bugs, fleas) lived in the roof. When it rained, it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof, hence the saying "it's raining cats and dogs".

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom, where bugs and other droppings could really mess up your nice clean bed (not to mention your love-life). Hence, a bed with big posts at each corner, and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That's how canopy beds (four poster beds) came into existence.

The floor was mostly dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying " dirt poor." The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh, until, when you opened the door it would start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance way - hence the term "walking over the thresh hold."

In those days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire, and every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. The diet consisted mostly vegetables and not much meat. Stew was eaten for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight, then starting over again the next day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while - hence the rhyme "peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old."

Sometimes they could obtain some pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, people would hang up their smoked bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth, that a man "could bring home the bacon." A little was cut off to share with guests, and they would all sit around and "chew the fat"

Those with money, had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach (attach) onto the food, causing lead poisoning and death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous. Most people did not have pewter plates, but had trenchers - a piece of wood, with the middle scooped out, like a bowl. Often trenchers were made from stale bread, which was so old and hard that they could be used for quite some time. Trenchers were never washed, and often worms and mould got into the wood and old bread. After eating off wormy, mouldy trenchers, one would get "trench mouth".

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or "upper crust."

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock the drinkers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. The "dead" were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days, and the family would gather around and eat and drink, and wait and see if they would wake up - hence the custom of holding a "wake."

England is old and small, and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up used coffins and would take the contents of bones to a "bone house" and reuse the grave. When re-opening these coffins, one out of twenty five coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside, and it was realized that people had been buried alive. The custom became to tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground, and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the "graveyard shift") to listen for the bell. Thus someone could be "saved by the bell" or was considered a "dead ringer."

Contributor: Lucy Neame
Editor: Martin Neame

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We are very grateful to Alan Neame (family historian and founding member of the Kent Genealogical Society) who for thirty years researched into our family history. He was ably assisted by the significant collaboration of Joyce Gibson nee Neame. It is really thanks to Alan that any of us are aware of the others' existence. Alan travelled the world meeting people and recording their data for the benefit of all of us.