Lockdown in a different lifetime
A guest blog by volunteer and descendant of former residents of The Weaver’s House, Clare Chamberlain.
But how would it have felt 100 years ago if this situation had arisen? Just as now, there would be big differences in people’s normal situations and the wealthy families in 1920 would have had a far more varied social life than the poor and therefore felt a different impact, but my thoughts turned to my own family, in particular my ancestors who lived in The Weaver’s House.
Joseph O’ Neil in 1928 compared to the same view today.
In March 1920 my Grandad, Sid O’Neil, was a six-month-old baby, living with his working-class family at 122 Spon Street (now The Weaver’s House), Coventry. In the small house there was also his older half-sister, Winifred, his twenty-four-year-old mother, Rose, and his father Joseph, who was forty-three. Joseph worked from home as a boot and shoe repairer whilst Rose looked after the household duties and the children, and thirteen-year-old Winifred was nearing the end of her school education.
The family had been through some hard times. Four years of war saw two of Joseph’s brothers killed, his first wife had died in that time too, and his young son. The world had then been swept with an aggressive flu pandemic which had taken it toll on the population, hitting harder than the war itself.
Some towns did close their theatres, dancehalls and churches during 1918 to slow the spread of the virus, but quarantining and social distancing was not something that was enforced, or even advised, and a second wave of the virus broke out after people partied together to celebrate the end of WW1. Unlike previous flu strains the flu virus of 1918-19 hit the young adults, aged 20-30, unexpectedly hard.
Over 250 years earlier quarantine had been used to try and stop a different deadly disease. A village in Derbyshire, Eyam, went into strict lockdown with the agreement of the residents to try and stop the spread of the plague in 1665. Unfortunately other towns and villages did not follow their lead, and many people died in Britain and across Europe. They had no medicine to treat the ill but tried many herbal remedies, including Angelica, which is a plant that can be found growing in The Weaver’s House garden today.
In 1854 quarantine was also used in an attempt to stop the spread of cholera as it was thought that cholera spread through ‘bad air’. It was a discovery by John Snow, that it was the dirty water causing the spread, that saved many peoples lives.
So if another pandemic had hit in 1920 might the authorities have acted in a similar way as today? And, if so, how would our restrictions have affected my ancestors daily lives?
Closing theatres and dancehalls probably wouldn’t have impacted them as I doubt they had the money to entertain themselves that way, but the closure of churches, schools and non-essential businesses along with strict social distancing would certainly have made their lives difficult.
Joseph may have found that his business started to decline quite rapidly with people not being allowed to bring him boots to repair, the odd few may have found their way to be left on his doorstep, but he certainly would have had a much reduced income. I doubt the government of the day would have offered much in the way of financial support for men like Joseph.
Food, which was usually purchased several times a week, would have had to be made to last longer and go further. As the house had no electricity they didn’t have a fridge to keep things fresh, and tinned goods would probably have been increasingly hard to find, and expensive. Shopping just once or twice a week locally and remaining two metres away from other shoppers and the shopkeeper would have been a new challenge for Rose. I doubt she would have had access to face masks but a carefully placed scarf or shawl may have been useful. But as time went on would the food supply to the shops start to run low, and would the people with more money stock up on what was available?
With the family living in such close proximity to their neighbours, simple jobs like hanging out washing, or popping up the garden to the toilet could have been tricky. Maybe a rota for washday would have to be devised. And a ‘shout out’ for anyone heading to the toilet in order to avoid each other. The toilet itself, being shared by numerous people, would be a hazard. There was no wash basin to do your ’20 seconds water and soap and sing happy birthday twice’ routine.
With no social media or TV all the new would be delivered via the radio or newspapers. Getting the message out to people to ‘Stay at Home’ would have taken longer, but respect for rules may have been greater. I imagine the local ‘bobbies’ would have been cycling up and down the streets checking no-one was loitering.
There was no NHS to protect, and few local doctors, so the fear of becoming ill may well have had people self isolating without needing too much reinforcement. If any of my family had become ill their best hope for any treatment would have been the workhouse. Not an ideal place to be at the best of times: it would most likely be crowded at a time like this.
For us, as weeks roll into months and some of our wages, for now, are supported, food is well stocked in the shops and our NHS system is coping, most of us are able to accept our current situation and know that, sooner or later, our lives will gradually go back to some kind of ‘normal’. For Joseph, Rose, Win and Sid a number of months in lockdown could have brought a lot of suffering. They would have been unable to see their extended family, contact with neighbours reduced to a quick ‘Hello’ from as far apart as they could get, and many hours stuck inside with nothing to entertain them. The worry about lack of money and lack of food would be constant, and they may well have become ill, more through poverty than from the virus.
With crowded living, reduced washing facilities, shared toilets, poorer diets and most likely poorer overall health, a virus such as Covid-19 and the necessary lockdown measures to tackle it would have had a devastating impact on my family, and many others like it.
We hope all our volunteers and visitors are stay safe and well at this difficult time.