Recently, our woodland cottage had a major electrical fault and we were without power for a week. This brought home to me exactly how reliant we have all become upon electricity being available whenever we want it.
We didn’t suffer too much because we have an oil-fired Aga and two wood-burning stoves. In my book, as long as I can keep warm and make tea, life is good! Living in the country, we are subject to fairly frequent power cuts so always keep a ready supply of candles to hand.
Our days were short and the nights long because by 4pm the house was in darkness and it wasn’t light until about eight in the morning. As we sat beside flickering firelight one evening I contemplated that, for most of its history, the inhabitants of our seventeenth century cottage would have lived exactly as we were now forced to do. Household chores take much longer without a washing machine and vacuum cleaner and while there was daylight, I foraged for kindling in the woods, swept the floors, mended clothing and prepared vegetables for dinner. Candles were primed and placed ready to light us up to bed in the evening.
In the seventeenth century, when our cottage was built as part of the Highclere estate, the occupiers would probably have used rush lights or tallow candles. The former were made by dipping a rush into hot mutton or bacon fat, allowing it to cool and then repeating the exercise several times. This was then placed in a special rush light holder and both ends would be lit. The smoky result lasted only about twenty minutes.
Tallow candles were more substantial and made by a similar process from sheep or cow fat. Pig fat was avoided if possible because the thick black smoke and the horrible stink they made was too awful. The wicks of tallow candles needed to be trimmed every few minutes to prevent smoking because the wax melted faster than the string burned. In the spring, houses would have been whitewashed to disguise the smoke stains.
The rich used beeswax candles and these were often set in candelabras or mirrored sconces to increase the light levels in smart Georgian drawing rooms.
Oil lamps began to replace candles in the late eighteenth century but they still smoked. The Victorians painted their houses in rich dark colours to conceal the sooty staining.
In the early 18oo’s, gas lighting was installed in some streets, factories and theatres. By the 1840’s, some homes in the cities had gas lighting.
Electric lighting arrived in the 1880’s but only for the very rich. A home generator was required and a light bulb cost as much as an average weeks’ wages. It wasn’t until the 1930’s when the National Grid was created, that electric lighting became available for the masses.
As an historical novelist, it was an interesting experience to live without electricity for a short while because it gave me a deeper understanding of that aspect of what everyday life might have been like for the characters in my books. I cheered, though, when the lights came on again and I was able to use the washing machine and hairdryer and, most of all, recharge my laptop.
I do wonder if modern society hasn’t lost something precious by being always ‘connected’. Sitting by firelight, reading and chatting with my husband instead of watching the television was a comforting and uplifting experience. Perhaps we’d all benefit from spending more time talking to each other?