Old-time Filth, or On steam train en famille

I wrote a while back about how smelly a place the past was. I spoke about horse manure in the streets, open sewers, pea-soup fogs and clothes infrequently laundered. I meant it when I said my eyes watered at the thought of a tannery next door, but the reality is that I live in nice suburban house, in a big suburban garden untouched by night soil. My neighbours, while occasionally letting their swimming pool turn green, are clean folk who have never slaughtered or skinned an animal in their yard.

I had no real concept of this dirty, dirty (and smelly) past until this past weekend. On Sunday, Charming Husband, Devious Daughter, Salubrious Son and 16 members of our immediate family (23Thorns’ family is not doing their bit to manage population growth) caught a steam train from Pretoria to Cullinan.

Cullinan is a small diamond mining town north of Pretoria named after the original mine owner, Thomas Cullinan. In 1905 a miner named Thomas Evan Powell brought to the surface the largest gemstone quality diamond in the world. It weighed in at over 3100 carats. It was named the Cullinan Diamond, cut into nine pieces and given to King Edward VII as a birthday present. The two largest stones were set into the Royal Sceptre and the British Imperial Crown. I’m not sure that I speak for all South Africans here, but I imagine we’d quite like to have them back. Our president is building himself a R200 million (that’s about 20m Sterling or 25m USD) palace in rural Kwazulu Natal and I dare say ‘The Great Star of Africa’ at 530 carats would make a particularly fetching door knocker.

We really want our diamonds back please, Ma Windsor.

We really want our diamonds back please, Ma Windsor.

(Oh dear! I am laughing so much at my own silly poster that I’m not sure I can get back on track here.)

So…us band of merry adults, wholly outnumbered by our children, gathered along the tracks on a beautiful summer’s morning for our 2 1/2 hour train journey to Cullinan. It was terribly exciting. Steam coughed from the engine scaring the children. Engineers fiddled with copper pipes and handles. We drank hot coffee from polystyrene cups and imagined ourselves in another time. A time when life was slower. A time when you didn’t need seatbelts but you did need a corset.

By the time we got going, it was working up to be a pretty warm day. Despite forecast rain, the temperature was quickly approaching 30 Celsius (I think that’s about 90 Fahrenheit). The 1950s passenger cars were not air-conditioned. This was authentic steam travel. How thrilling! How quaint! We opened the train windows to feel the wind in our hair and, to be honest, to blow dry the rivulets of sweat that were dripping down our noses. Almost immediately, however, I realised that it was not wind in our hair but granular, very black coal smoke from the engine. It got in our eyes and noses. We choked. We spluttered. We were covered in black dust which clung to our sweaty bodies. We were very dirty, very quickly.

Friends of the Rail steam train

It was a spectacular day though. Cullinan is wonderful: sandstone miner’s cottages with wooden floors and pressed steel ceilings, antique shops, people walking the streets, a children’s playground with rusted old mine equipment for the children to play on (!). Only one child fell ill on the journey and only one received a head-wound which required medical attention.

While we all loved every second of it, I don’t think I have ever felt dirtier than I did on Sunday evening. I was so excited to see my bathroom with its shampoos and bubble baths and body lotions and perfumes and soaps, I could almost have popped. I’ve gathered a few other modern comforts below. Even if I don’t take them entirely for granted, it is nice occasionally to be reminded that we really do live in the best of times despite all that is still wrong with the world.


In early modern times (looking at the period from 1500 to the French Revolution of 1769) most families worked, ate, and slept in one room of the house. Separate rooms for separate functions are relatively new.

In terms of furniture, beds of a sort were a given, although you shared them with brothers, sisters, grannies and sometimes goats. Chairs and tables though are new. Most peasant houses would have had a board stored up against a wall which could be balanced on boxes or trestles at mealtimes. Benches pushed up against the walls for the day could be moved into place for mealtimes. Basque tradition forbade women from eating at the table of the paterfamilias. In several other European countries, the women and children were also expected to stand for the meal while the men sat and got to choose their food and eat it first.

Cosy marriage bed with fleas and lice too.

Cosy marriage bed with fleas and lice too.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I am very grateful for sofas and dining room tables and chairs. My children have enough trouble not messing food and drink as it is. I cannot begin to imagine what a floor of rushes would look like after a standing meal with my lot. That being said, in the late 18th century crofters in the Outer Hebrides shared their homes with chickens, geese, goats and cows. The rush floor was only changed once a year! Once a year! We couldn’t compete.

Chicken for all

If you were poor or a single woman, you couldn’t eat chicken. In the early modern period, birds and fowl were considered suitable fare for the upper classes living as they did above ground. Turnips from underground were suitable for the lower classes. Poultry was thought to increase sexual excitement, so single women and widows were instructed to avoid it to preserve their chastity.

No tea and god forbid, no coffee

Tea only arrived in England in the beginning of the 17th century. Coffee houses only started appearing in England about 50 years after that although you could have popped over to Venice from the 1570s onwards and enjoyed a cup. A long way for my morning sanity!


To compensate for this deprivation, English families in the 17th century – both adults and children – drank about 3 litres of beer per day per person. Life without water must have given one a headache.

So there you have it. I am grateful for coffee. I am grateful for bathing daily. I am grateful that delousing my children doesn’t form part of my daily ritual. I am so grateful I do not smear them in grease and sew them into their vests at the beginning of winter. I’ll go on the steam train again though. I want to spend a night in Cullinan and I want to go down the mine. Next time though, I’ll take along waterless hand cleaners and more wipes.

For more on why we are blessed, read Family Life in Early Modern Times ed. David I. Kertzer and Mario Barbagli published by Yale University Press ISBN 0300089716

27 thoughts on “Old-time Filth, or On steam train en famille

  1. Forgot one other thing – until quite recently a long drop was considered positively effete, what was the field ( in the country) or the receptacle ( in town) for otherwise? Indoor in one place was simply too unhealthy for words.

  2. I do get sick of the stuff about people being drunk all the time due to lack of water. Most of what they drank was small beeer – about 2% which, with all their walking and heavy lifting – though not of course washing – they burnt it off pretty fast.

    • Indeed. Seriously drunk would have been disastrous what with all of the farm equipment about.

      What’s always bothered me is that beer needs water to be made, whereas cider doesn’t. Were apples more expensive? Beer tastier? Why was beer seen as the substitute for water when it is made from water?

  3. Tracy–I love your writing, but this time you have topped the mark! We should all have our kids read your article so that they are a little grateful and perhaps will not whine as much when their XBox or Wii is not working. It indeed was a smelly time back then. It is not surprising that the miasma theory of disease had such a strong hold on the minds of the public and public health professionals alike. Edwin Chadwick famously said, “All smell is disease.”

    • Thanks muchly! When your comment popped up on my screen, all I saw was “I love your writing but this time….”. I thought I was going to have to man up to some hate mail! I was so relieved to read the rest of your comment, I’m not sure that I can even begin to say something sensible about the miasma theories. So, just thank you.

  4. Once again you have combined excellent writing, history and entertainment all into an excellent post. Between you and 23Thorns I am learning about South Africa and the history of “the olden days”.
    How they could stand their own smelly company, let along others is still a mystery to me but I guess their sense of smell must have atrophied within days of being born. And understanding the levels of dirt and filth makes it much easier to understand throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    • Baby? Bath water? Are you kidding? The book mentioned babies who were swaddled insanely tightly whose swaddling clothes were changed twice a day! I don’t know about you but 23 and I were using 15 newborn nappies a day with our first born. Granted we hadn’t been to classes and didn’t really know what we were doing but we were working on 15 nappies per day and about six outfit changes.

      23 will also, no doubt, be writing about the train trip. He’ll fill in all the details – the blood from the head wound, the biker called Spike who drove our kids to town in a coffin – and he will also tell you that by the end of the day I had developed a nervous tic and was screaming like a banshee. I just wanted to get in there first to assure you all that I am generally quite sane.

      • Sanity is so relative. And sanity as a parent, well that’s relative again! I too reach banshee point (often) so I completely understand. And with a 4yo, 3yo and 19mo I really DO understand outings with kids. I look forward to the other point of view though. It’s guaranteed to be entertaining.

  5. This post immediately made me think of that show my kids love, Horrible Histories, so I am going to add a link to an appropriately dirty clip! 🙂
    Victorian child- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUBPqCa-tiE

    Yes, the world would have been a much dirtier and stinkier place in times gone past… We are very lucky we have smelly soaps, clean water and washing machines aren’t we? 😀

    It has been such a short time between entire families living in one room houses to now, when small families live in gigantic McMansions.
    I wonder if those humans blessed with such large real estate are living happier lives now that they live in a house big enough to be able to avoid other humans for days at a time rather than they would if they were all sleeping together right where they ate dinner? Doubtful.

    There is a well-known tourist train here called Puffing Billy. Previous experience has meant we now make sure everyone wears sunglasses before hanging out the window because of the smut blowing in the air. There we are, enjoying it (but getting dirty), while at least a few eager tourists who have never been before invariably get a piece in their eye and spend the rest of the trip with streaming eyes (and still getting dirty).

    PS: Your kids wouldn’t spill anywhere near the same amount of food as they do now. Back then they probably would have been eternally hungry and any dropped bits would probably have been quickly scooped back up and scoffed down! 😀

    • I am so sad we don’t get Horrible Histories here. The kids would love it. So would their parents!

      I was being a little bit dramatic about the dropped food. The truth is that it’s only there for a few minutes. The dogs, who are locked outside for meal times (I’ve really tried the Cesar Milan training), come back into the house like a raiding Mongol horde. Very little is beyond the clean-up abilities of a bloodhound and a Chinese-crested Powder Puff. They can even get yoghurt off the Afghan rug. You’d think they weren’t fed a vet-recommended balanced (and expensive) diet.

      • Horrible histories is wonderful. I have, at times, been forced to change my dinner-making times to fit in watching it with the kids 😀

        Our little Jack is on one of those expensive vet-recommended diet foods too. I think the expense is why they love scraps so much, they are just rubbing our noses in it!

  6. I could handle, indeed wear just about everything in this post but no tea?…NO TEA??!!!! What kind of cruel and inhumane society would deprive a woman of her tea!!! I have just come over all weak at the knees and am going to have a lie down now…

      • Yeh…I figured that…so I am making sure that the place I choose is close to the fridge, an electricity source a tap and my kettle…I should survive 🙂

      • All this tea talk is making me quite desperate for a cuppa. I’m going to give in but it is a mistake for me to have any caffeinated drinks after 8 these days. Something has changed, biologically-speaking obviously, since I was young and fresh and could have a strong coffee after dinner and then go to bed happy. On Sunday night, I had a cappuccino at 8 p.m and was still watching the Crime Chanel (it’s my insomnia go to; I don’t know why.) at 2:30 in the morning.

        Kettle’s just boiled…catch you at 2 a.m.

      • Lol…its 5.33am here in Tassie so I am well and truly into my cuppa ;). Crime channel you say? Why don’t mind if I do! 🙂

  7. Every time we get an ear/bladder/toe/eye infection in my house, I say a little thank you for Alex Fleming and wonder at the stupefying irritants people lived with all. the. time.
    I don’t doubt that eating poultry increased sexual excitement, at least for the lower classes. When you’re finally no longer hungry, you can focus on other things, like exchanging lice with that odoriferous fella across the way. Rawr. 🙂

    What a fun and engaging blog you write. I will be checking back!

    • Thanks for reading! Sorry for the late reply. I’ve been in a tropical paradise hiding away from the Internet.

      As for flea-infested lovers…communal sleeping arrangements combined with the lowing and blowing of the livestock in the room below might have demanded more than a full tummy to get me in the mood. I’m thinking mead. Lots of mead!

  8. Great post.

    While not his best work, “Home” by Bill Bryson also compared modern living to its pre-industrial counterpart.

    • The part of the book that stays with me (I actually mentioned somewhere, sometime on the blog) was a description of a dirty eccentric who refused to take off his vest for years. When it was eventually removed, it had to be cut from his body! There was all of the wonderful stuff about architecture and sleeping arrangement and ablution facilities, which I’ve all but forgotten but that filthy vest…shudders.

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