Victorian Farm

· culture ·

Given my interest in the Victorian period, you can imagine that I'm really enjoying The Victorian Farm documentary on BBC 2. The series follows three historians/archeologists who are living in a Victorian farmhouse for a year, dressing, eating, working and living as Victorian farmers would have done. According to some interviews I read before the series started, they don't actually live there continuously for the year, but they are there for prolonged periods of time. In any case, this isn't a reality TV show: the participants are all knowledgeable about the period and genuinely interested in finding out about the past by actually getting their hands dirty.

They all seem to be quite excited to try things out, and despite the various privations of the life (the cold, the hard manual labour and so on), they remain cheerful. In this week's episode, Ruth Goodman spent four days each week just doing the laundry. When you see what laundry involved (treating stains, soaking clothes, boiling up huge tubs of water and 'dollying' the clothes to loosen dirt, mangling, drying, ironing, and so it goes on...) it makes you more grateful than ever for modern washing machines. It all looked incredibly hard work, and Victorian women must have had the upper body strength of Olympic wrestlers with all the dollying and mangling. If a housewife clipped you round the ear, you would have known about it, I think.

In fact, one of the most striking things about the programme is how physically active people must have been. I'm guessing that our own obesity problems are less about the number of calories we eat and more about our inactivity. Victorians probably ate the same number of calories (or perhaps more), but burned them up in a ceaseless round of tough, physical activity.

The farm is on an estate in Shropshire owned by the gloriously named Thomas Stackhouse Acton, who is a Victorian enthusiast. You get the sense when you see him in period dress that he feels very comfortable indeed in it. The farm buildings that they renovated for the programme included a room chock full of fascinating period tools. They had a couple of fantastic machines for preparing animal fodder. Imagine a huge, hand-cranked, cast iron version of a modern food processor, all lethal whirling blades and crushing rollers, and you get some idea of the magnificence of it. Throw a mangelwurzel into the hopper (from a safe distance) while someone cranks the huge iron wheel, and a bucket beneath rapidly fills with perfect magelwurzel chips. Another machine sliced straw into short lengths to add fibre to the animal fodder. You would not want to get your extremities anywhere near either of those.

One of the reasons that I find the period so fascinating is that it was right on the cusp of a social and technological revolution. The steam engine changed the distribution of people and goods and iron became the material of the age. And yet many of the machines of the time are ones which give humans a mechanical advantage, but which are still human (or animal) powered. That mangelwurzel chipper was so efficient that I can't really think of a good reason why making a plastic, electrically operated version is an advance. To misquote Archimedes, "Give me a good selection of gears, some lethal blades, and a place to turn the handle, and I can chip that bucket of spuds in no time."

I might add a safety guard or two, though.