“Back In Time” is back on form! This was a great start to the new series, as we were shown just how hard Victorian shopkeeping families worked, especially the women who were responsible for turning out all the home-made produce. Being a customer looked rather enjoyable, though, if only you had the time for it – so much more pleasant than dashing into a shop in your dinner hour and looking frantically at your watch as a disembodied voice tells you that there’s an unexpected item in the bagging area, or staggering round the supermarket after a long day at work and then crawling through the traffic! It generated very little waste compared to modern food shopping, too. Take your own containers, and only buy as much or as little as you need. And buy it fresh on the day. If only we had the time for all this – as the elder son of the family ruefully pointed out, if people had to wait that long in a shop now, they’d just walk out. The other snag, in addition to the lack of time, was the lack of choice, but we saw how that changed in the early years of the 20th century, with different foodstuffs being brought in from abroad, and an increase in the availability of tinned food.
Then, as we moved on in time, we heard how it was partly a number of adulterated food scandals which pushed people towards buying pre-packaged, branded foods. That was a very interesting point: it’s easy to think that it was all about convenience, and it wasn’t. We also saw the problems which shopkeepers faced during the food shortages resulting from the First World War, and the important role they played in sending care packages to the troops. A circus elephant called Lizzie also featured. So did health tonics, of the sort beloved by matrons in school stories. So did Dame Kelly Holmes.
And we saw how corner shops became centres of the community, hosting parties for events such as the coronation of Edward VII, and being the focal point for “peace party” celebrations when the First World War finally ended. And that was where the first episode ended, as well, in 1919. But there are more to come!
We started off in 1897 – possibly because it was the year of the Diamond Jubilee, and the BBC had found a recipe for Jubilee Pudding. There was some basic background information about how corner shops developed to serve the needs of people living in the housing estates springing up on the edges of rapidly-growing towns and cities, in this case Sheffield. It was pointed out that opening a shop could be a very effective way for a working-class family to boost both their income and their social status. Maybe that’s how my great-grandparents, who opened a sweet shop in the early years of the 20th century, felt 🙂 . It was hard work, though! The mum and the daughter worked particularly hard, baking cakes, making jam and churning butter, whilst the dad and the sons did more of the work within the actual shop, weighing, measuring and pouring everything out, and putting the takings in the cash tin.
Being a customer in 1897 was great! Well, it was if you had plenty of time. You handed over your list, and sat down for a natter with one of the neighbours whilst the shopkeeper and their assistant got all your stuff ready. I kept thinking that this would be wonderful if you had the time. A lot less relaxing than rushing around and stressing. But, then again, I start feeling trapped and anxious if I have to wait around for ages, so maybe I’d have been better as one of the people who handed their order in and then got it delivered by handcart – or, later on, by horse and cart. Or maybe I wouldn’t get so stressed if I actually had the time to sit and wait! The time was the big issue, from a modern viewpoint – the family and the customer alike remarked on how long it all took. Self service certainly has the merit of being quicker. Having said which, my grandad used to say that the advent of self -service fruit and veg was one of the worst things that ever happened to him, because my grandma used to inspect every single item before choosing the ones that looked best!
It was also pretty good in that you only bought exactly the quantity you needed. There’s a brilliant scene in Father of the Bride in which Steve Martin’s character has a meltdown in the supermarket, because he wants to buy eight hot dog buns and they only come in packets of twelve. It’s even worse when you live on your own, believe me! None of that in 1897. No plastic packets, either. You took your own jug for the milk. Or for the beer – as the programme moved on, the shop got an alcohol licence, an excellent way of boosting takings! Most other stuff, if it didn’t go straight in your basket, went in brown paper … even the jam, which was rather interesting. A lot of what the programme showed was, whilst it was fascinating, nothing that a lot of viewers wouldn’t already have known, but I have to say that I’d never seen jam being served in twists of paper before.
Even in 1897, though, there were some pre-packaged items, and some brands – and most of these are now famous old names, such as Fry’s chocolate and Pears soap. Actually, those two’d already have been famous old names by then: they both date back to the 18th century 🙂 . Then, as we moved on into Edwardian times, we saw more and more tinned food on the shelves, much of it brought in from across the Empire, enabling people to try different kinds of fruit and vegetables, and meaning that not everything had to be bought fresh. The idea of buying everything fresh did sound very appealing in some ways, but, again, there was the time factor. And I get stressed if I don’t have food “in stock” – partly because my grandmas and great-aunts, who never got over rationing, always had food in stock, and partly because I panic in case something runs out and I can’t get to a shop!
The point about the connection between some shopkeepers adulterating food and the growth in the popularity of branded, pre-packaged food was very interesting. “Packaging” has become a dirty word in recent years, because of environmental concerns – which is fair enough, given the horrendous amount of non-biodegradable and often unnecessary plastic packaging around – and even “branding” has acquired negative connotations, associated with big corporations trying to rip people off. Maybe we sometimes forget how many brands, especially food and drink brands, are much-loved, trusted and well-respected, and have been for over a century, and that there were some very good reasons other than pure convenience for the move towards them in the first place.
But how did circus elephants, health tonics and Dame Kelly Holmes come into it? Well, health tonics were made up – of goodness knows what! – by shopkeepers, and generated vast amounts of revenue. Kelly Holmes was demonstrating Edwardian aerobics in the park! And film coverage from during the First World War showed Lizzie the circus elephant being pressed into service to help with haulage when the working horses (whom, we were told, incidentally, dumped four tonnes of manure per mile per day on the streets of Sheffield!) had been commandeered by the Army. This was with iron and steel rather than shop deliveries, but Lizzie is apparently quite a legend in Sheffield.
Quite a lot was said about the war years, and my one big historical criticism of this first episode is that it made it sound as if the authorities made no attempts at all to try to alleviate the food shortages during the First World War, when food imports, on which the UK had become dependent, were cut off by submarine warfare. That isn’t entirely true: rationing was brought in in 1917, and bread was subsidised. But there certainly wasn’t the large-scale rationing operation that there was during the Second World War, nor was there the Dig For Victory campaign that there was then. At least lessons were learnt. We’ll see that in the next episode.
In this one, we saw the family being forced to put up prices, and to make potato bread in place of ordinary bread. And, rather touchingly, we saw the dad getting quite emotional whilst putting together care packages for those serving in the Armed Forces, many of whom would have been a similar age to his own 20-year-old elder son. The whole family – mum, dad, two sons and daughter – came across very well.
So -in conclusion (sorry, I do waffle, don’t I?!), I’m pleased to say that, after the BBC spoilt Back in Time for School by politicising it, this series looks to be right back on form, and hopefully it’s going to be as good as Back in Time for Tea was. No politics or agenda-pushing at all. The programme doesn’t seem to have attracted a lot of attention, though, and I hope the last series hasn’t put people off, because this really was good. Looking forward to the episodes to come! I’ve got a feeling that it’s going to be rather rushed, because the 1920s, the Depression and the Second World War are all being shoehorned into one episode next week, but we’ll see. This was a good start, anyway.