What did we all do before television? Well, one man has the answer to that.
Peter Brears, 68, has written a rather insightful book chronicling the life of his grandfather, Charles, who went from collier to shopkeeper and in the process set his family on a path which did not involve the toil and drudgery associated with the mining industry.
The book also proves to be an interesting commentary on the social behaviour of the day.
Peter was head of museum services for the cities of York (1975-1979) and Leeds (1979-1994) and was responsible for promoting the collection, study and presentation of much of the region’s social and industrial history.
Since 1994 he has been a consultant to Historic Royal Palaces, English Heritage, Cadw (the Welsh Assembly Government) and The National Trust.
His other published works include A Taste of Leeds (1998), All the King’s Cooks: The Tudor Kitchens of King Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace (2011), Jellies and Their Moulds (2010) and Cooking and Dining in Medieval England (2012).
He said: “I think it’s important we keep track of things like this because it makes us appreciate the aesthetics of the time and the quality of workmanship which went into things.”
Peter’s grandfather, Charles Brears, lived from 1854-1938 in South Leeds and his mother, Eliza Brears (1828-1918) was among the last of the Rothwell lace makers and Peter still has some of the things she made.
At first glance, lace making and coal mining, which were the two predominant industries in Leeds up to about the mid-1800s, after which machine-manufactured lace became more common, might not seem good bedfellows, however, Peter shows how they complemented one another.
“Coal mining and lace making appear an unlikely combination but in fact they both complemented one another. Mining was a constantly dangerous and crippling industry. When aged 20 a collier averaged 40 per cent more sickness than an agricultural worker, rising to 78 per cent by the time he was 40 – his life expectancy was only 27. In such circumstances and in the days of large families it was essential wives and mothers had a regular alternative income.
“Until the 1841 Act of Parliament women and children were still employed underground, working as hurriers, dragging carts of coal by chains attached to their legs.”
Eliza continued to produce lace right up to her dying day on May 13, 1918, aged 90, which earned her the title ‘last of the Rothwell lace makers’.
Her son Charles, one of seven children born of illiterate parents, would have gone down the pit and remained there all his life were it not for the opening in 1869 of the Rothwell Mechanics Institute, which opened for social and educational purposes. Charles threw himself into it and was even honorary librarian from his early twenties. He swathed himself in learning, subscribing to several periodicals and studying poetry and later still he learned to play the organ at Rothwell Holy Trinity Church. He married Mary Anne in 1888. By 1898 Charles had moved to Stourton and taken on a bakery and later sub-post office.
Children of the time played with wooden figurines from Noah’s Ark and learned needlework from their mother, producing samplers in which they stitched the date, their ages and the alphabet.
Peter said: “When I am asked when I grew up I always say the 1890s because many of the houses I saw were still of that era, they had not changed much since the late Victorian period.”
He remembers the cruel winter of 1947 and the snow six-foot-tall snow drifts which lasted for weeks and also the family Bible with its family tree and other heirlooms.
A Leeds Life (2013, Quack Books) is available online, priced £5.