One of the highlights of this year’s RNA Conference was definitely the historical author’s event at Blists Hill, the reconstructed Victorian town at Ironbridge, the birthplace of the industrial revolution. As you can see, I went as a suffragette (what else?).
There was a great atmosphere, being there in company with so many talented historical novelists and meeting the visitors coming through on their way to experience times gone by. In a brief lull in proceedings, I took myself off to visit my favourite cottage, the squatter’s cottage.
It’s so hard to remember, even in times of recession, the reality of life for the majority of people at a time that – in terms of human evolution – is only a breath away. The squatter’s cottage, at the edges of existence outside the Workhouse, in an age before the Welfare State, is a poignant reminder of just how little our forebears had. Ten people lived in this cottage. The beds crammed together, with more than one child to each. The single change of clothes hung up. The tiny kitchen and living area. No room (let alone light) to study for the chance to escape such poverty. No privacy. No running water and the outside toilet at the bottom of the garden next to the pig stye. And always just a broken leg or a lung infection away from losing any kind of income, and the shame of the Workhouse where families were split up and might never see each other again. And yet the cottage is warm and homely, as I’m sure it would have been, crammed to bursting with the family making the most of what they had. It was also the world that shocked the recruiters of soldiers for WW1 at the appalling state of health of so many of the inhabitants of one the richest nations in the world.
I’ve been here several times before, but this time I found myself part of the exhibits. Well, I was a bit hard to miss with my extravagant hat and my ‘votes for women’ sash. The policeman on his bike was a bit uncertain meeting an unscheduled suffragette, and despite the heat peddled off rather fast, and possibly hanging on to his hat. But next to the pig stye of the squatter’s cottage I had a lively discussion on universal suffrage with a 21st century gentleman entering into the spirit of the thing. It wasn’t exactly an argument, as we both, in the end, agreed. Because, of course, all that window smashing was not where the the suffragettes began, but with the long, peaceful struggle, in the face of appalling brutality, for universal suffrage to give a voice to both men and women – and eventually even to the inhabitants of the squatter’s cottage.
I shall be wearing my hat again – and with pride!
If you would like to learn more about the squatter’s cottage (which was inhabited until the 1970s), there is an excellent blog post here. And if you would like to know more about Blists Hill Victorian Town the website is here.