My memories of teatimes and home life in a North East Working Class Family
At school I never enjoyed History. It was boring. It was about wars and stuff that had already gone so I found no interest in it. But as I’ve got older I really enjoy looking back on recent social history; things that are personal memories or from my parents and grandparents era. The BBC are excellent at making social historical documentary series and over the last few years I have relished watching Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, Wartime Farm, Victorian Christmas and Victorian Bakers. I was fascinated at how much times have changed in such a relatively short period of time.
I was surprised at how much I took an interest in these programmes, and welcomed the Back in Time series when it began with Back in Time for Dinner in 2015 when the Robshaw family saw how life, homes and meals changed from 1950 to the 1990’s and giving an insight into the taste of the future. This was captivating and I was gripped for the whole six episodes and the accompanying Christmas special.
The success of this series was followed up the next year with Back in Time for the Weekend when the Ashby-Hawkins family travelled through the sparse post-war years and rationing of the 1950’s to the decadent and materialistic 1990’s looking at how our homes, holidays and leisure activities had changed over the decades and what the future might hold for free time.
Now, on BBC2, we are approaching the last episode of the current series Back in Time for Tea, a hundred year history of a working-class Northern family, the Ellis’s. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a working-class family or because there’s a northern feel, but this series has really been a step-back in time for me.
Being brought up in a small, quite poor, very much working class town, in a working class family I do feel that I have been lucky to live through a wider range of experiences than maybe people of a similar age. My first home was in my Granda and uncles’ house, and it is in the same home I live now. So I really have gone full circle. My happiest memories are here. From there we moved into terraced, railway, close-knit community, where everyone knew everyone and most of the fathers, grandfathers and uncles worked at the Railway works, Shildon Shops. There was no bathroom, only an outside toilet next to the coalhouse. I hated the outside toilet! It was cold and dark and horrible on a night and in winter, and in the summer it was full of daddy-long legs! I got a bath in the pot sink and my mam and dad had a tin bath to bathe in front of the fire. Watching Back in Time for Tea sparked lots of memories for me and my mam and after watching the Ellis family receiving their first fridge at the end of the sixties, we worked out that we didn’t get a fridge until 1974 or 1975 when the council renovated our home. We had to move out, to a house across the road for about six months, and when we returned home we not only had a fridge, but a new cooker, an indoor toilet and a bathroom! Prior to this I can remember the huge walk in pantry with meat hooks hanging from the ceiling. Even after these renovations, I remember that when I went to my Granda’s toilet, who just lived a few doors away down the street, he only ever had squares of newspaper hung on a string to use instead of toilet paper. Why I didn’t run the few yards home for the luxury or having real toilet-paper I’ll never know!
Meals were always home-cooked, with the exception of visits to the chippy. I know my mam and dad followed the tradition of Fish-Shop Friday when me and my brother were in bed and my dad came in from the Club. We had fish and chips with curry sauce for our dinner on a Saturday at my uncles’ house. (It’s said that Northerners like wet chips.) These were always eaten from the newspaper, never a plate, covered in scraps. On the very rare occasions I get chip-shop chips now I still eat then in the paper. In the 70’s tea would be a dinner, shepherd’s pie, stew and dumplings or steak and chips: home-made chips, made in a chip pan with lard. I remember coming home from school one day and a fire-engine being parked half-way up the street near my house. It was at my house. My mam had left the chip-pan on when she’d gone to collect me and my brother from school. There was no damage done, just smoke, but she was in real trouble off my dad because of it! Unlike the teenage girls from the TV show, I never had a Chinese meal until I was about sixteen or seventeen, and then it was Chinese chips and gravy from the take-away, not a restaurant.
Even now nobody makes stew and dumplings as good as my mam’s. To make a good stock she got bones from the Butcher’s van that came round the streets a couple of times a week. I was sent to ask the butcher is he had any bones I could have for the dog, but these were first boiled to make flavoursome, salty stock, then much to my horror the rest of the family would eat all the meat straight from the bones! I could eat the meat but not bring myself to sit and chew directly from these bones! Our dog would get to eat the bones eventually! I know it’s no different than spare ribs now, but I’m not keen on that either. In fact I stopped eating meat for a lot of my teenage years, only eating it for my Christmas dinner. We also had the Pop Van that came round once a week, and this was the one and only bottle of fizzy pop we were allowed. Once it was gone it was gone. Each week we would choose a different, luminous colour to try. Sometimes we made this into ice-cream floats, which were a favourite of mine when we went to Rossi’s café in Bishop Auckland. I remember it had big leather booths to sit in. It’s funny how kids can hear an ice-cream van from miles away and I was no exception. I can remember buying a screwball for 2 ½p!
It wasn’t until the 80’s that I really had convenience foods. I remember tinned ravioli and beans with little sausages in, crispy pancakes and frozen pizzas becoming popular. Again, I don’t think I had a real pizza from a take-away until the later 80’s, when I had my own home. I never tasted a real Indian meal until much later than that. For a taste of the orient, an indulgent and new food experience was Batchelors Vesta boxed, dehydrated meals. Me and my mam had these as a treat, in my teens, on a Friday night. My dad must have been at work, as he wouldn’t have eaten such ‘muck’, my brother in bed, and we would eat paella or chicken chow mein with crispy noodles that you cooked in the deep-fat fryer while watching the Golden Girls on telly.
When I was young we spent a lot of time at my Granda’s and uncles’ house. We went on Tuesday and Thursday nights for tea, which was always a cooked dinner and pudding (or ‘afters’) of steamed sponge pudding and custard, and we visited on a Saturday and Sunday. For Sunday dinner we always had our Yorkshire pudding first, with lots of onion gravy, almost as a starter, and then our dinner and roast with any leftover Yorkshire puds. I learnt to bake at their house too. We made plate pies, top-hat and butterfly cakes, maids-of-honours and jam tarts. Pastry was rolled out with a milk bottle and cut out with a cup.
We always ate lots of fruit and vegetables, but not as exotic as now, and tangerines and pomegranates were only ever seen at Christmas. As kids we would go bramble picking, coming home with purple hands and faces and covered in thorn-scratches. These would be made into pies or crumbles, as would windfall apples we found in the autumn. Rhubarb was a real treat in the spring, dipping the stalks straight into a little bag of sugar; sweet and sour at the same time! Both Granda’s had gardens or allotments so veg was always in fresh supply. After the annual Leek Shows that took place in the local Working Men’s Club there was always an abundance of leeks so most families would be eating leek puddings steamed in a pressure cooker for what seemed like hours.
As a little side-note, on the TV show, they very quickly passed through the 90’s. I know it’s harder to focus on things that are closer to us, it doesn’t seem as though things have changed much. I loved when the teenage girls were introduced to Shaun Ryder as an experience of the 90’s! One of my memories of the 90’s is when I was expecting Jordan. David was five at the time and things were quite hard financially for us as a family. Most meals were toast or veg that I grew in my garden. Anyway at this time there were the EEC Food Mountains. Each week we could go and queue up for an allocation of butter, which was great; it was a super treat to have real butter on our toast! Also on offer were unmarked tins of either stewing steak or mince. You didn’t know which it was until you opened it. Being pregnant, I couldn’t bear to open the tins: it looked like dog-food! Once it was in the pan, (we didn’t own a microwave yet) and the gravy began to resemble real food, then I was ok to take over, and it really was delicious.
Memories of mealtimes bring a real-mixture of emotions to me, but there were many happier memories than I thought. I’m not a person who looks back with rose-tinted glasses, but watching Back in Time for Tea, as with the other BBC documentaries I mentioned have been so interesting and brought back so many things that I’d forgotten about. I’ve enjoyed reminiscing with my mam and sharing these memories with Jordan and writing about them here. I hope this post stirs lots of memories for you. I look forward to reading other peoples comments about their experiences.
Back in Time for Tea BBC2
Back in Time for Dinner – 2015
Back in Time for the Weekend – 2016