Today is not someday August 2019. Today you have time traveled back to a pivotal event in world history: Sunday, September 3rd, 1939. You are sitting in your comfy armchair, your slippered feet propped up on a moquette covered footstool, and hearing these chilling words from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as you tune into your Bakelite wireless set; “This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by eleven o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
You forget your cup of tea that is now going cold. The birds tweeting outside in the bright sunshine seem faraway and dimmed. You dwell upon the pamphlets and newspapers that have been warning of the prospect of war and all the difficulties and horrors it brings… and now it has arrived.
This is not just an imagining of what it would be like to go back in time, rather, it is what a modern British family undertook when they volunteered to travel from April 15th, 2000 back to that fateful day in 1939 for Channel 4’s The 1940s House. Michael Hymers, his wife Lyn, their adult daughter Kirstie, and her two sons Ben (age ten) and Thomas (age seven) would endure nine weeks in a time capsule: No. 17 Braemar Gardens in West Wickham, Kent. The house was from the period and reset to its original 1930s elegance by Lia Cramer, historian and recreator of all décor, furnishings, and paraphernalia. They added an air-raid siren to the home so the family could experience the bombings, when it went off (which it would with increasing frequency as the war progressed); the family would have to enter their Air Raid shelter. A local delicatessen had agreed to serve as their go-to grocer that would let them know the daily rations and provide access to the infamous whole meal National Loaf. A War Cabinet consisting of historians and a nutritionist decided what the family would go through, whether to fine them for infractions and how difficult each stage would be.
Those nine weeks would cover the start of the war to Victory Europe Day. There would be no “modern” conveniences: no car, telephone, refrigerator or television set. The family applied for the challenge, for both Michael and Lyn enjoyed reminisces of the 1940s and Michael was in the words of the family, “obsessed” with that wartime experience. For Michael getting to go to the 1940s was a dream come true, though his work schedule as an executive in charge of production at a small firm that manufactured airplane parts meant he would miss four days a week of experience after the first two weeks of being on vacation. In the 1940s, he would not have been “called up” in the draft, as his position in an airplane factory meant they needed him on the “home front.” He was slightly less “enthused” when he discovered how hard it was to build his own Anderson bomb shelter in the back garden and get his blackout in place before the Air Raid Warden’s visit to inspect their preparedness.
For Lyn and Kirstie, it was the excitement of seeing Michael so happy, but also reliving the war-time house-wife experience that drew them to The 1940s House. What they did not fully expect was the daily grocery shopping, as the ice-box did not keep most items fresh for long, the cooking and baking meals grind, the cleaning, the mending, the volunteer work thrust upon them, the ration-book and points keeping, and the constant stress of simulated air raids. On top of that, Ben and Thomas needed taken to their new school each day. Every time the family left the house they had to carry their cardboard gas mask containers and tags identifying them. The boys adapted rather well to the period. Thomas and Ben argued less because there were fewer things to argue about. The boys had to share all their toys, games, puzzles and books and overall found the experience fun. The hardest burden for the family was the strict rationing that dictated no snacking. For Lyn and Kirstie, rationing meant fewer luxuries like cigarettes, sweets, tea, meat, and even things like tooth and washing powders.
Life in the 1940s was hard. But I think the most amazing part of the whole production was how the family rose to meet the challenges. Their original point of references for life were born from year 2000 everyday luxuries: takeaways, vacuum cleaners, cars, oodles of food, refrigerators, Gameboy, television, no fear of war and bombings and rationing. And instead of spending the whole time winging on about what they didn’t have (though there were a few times when they did), the Hymers overall showed true stalwart British fortitude. My heart went out to Kirstie when she was trying to remove unwanted leg hair with a pumice stone she left unsoaped because she couldn’t use her family’s ration of soap on her legs. A large welt was her reward, but she persevered!
It is not a perfect production, but its imperfections make it real and worth-revisiting from time to time. The Hymers are a joy to get to know and even when they return to their 2000 lives, the experience in the house has produced some, shall I say, smashing results! I highly recommend The 1940s House to anyone enthusiastic to learn about the British war-time home-front. I also urge you to seek out the accompanying book by War Cabinet member Juliet Gardiner, also called The 1940s House. Time travel may not seem possible but Channel 4 achieved something truly special and memorable with their attempt.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caitlin Horton is a 20-something reader, seamstress, and history buff. She lives a life blessed in the knowledge that she is God’s child, and her life has a purpose in the scope of His plan. She encourages her readers to remember, every day can be like Bilbo’s “adventure” if you’re willing to take the “ordinary” and add some “extra” in front of it!