Last November BBC4 showed a 90-minute programme reminiscing about Tomorrow’s World, a programme which ran from 1965 to 2003, describing possible future developments in science and technology. I remember it well and was a great fan. Presenters included Raymond Baxter, an ex-Spitfire pilot, always smartly dressed and Judith Hann, elegant with dark hair, cool and academic and the erudite James Burke. Then gradually came the younger more “with it” set, Howard Stableford, Maggie Philbin, Peter Macann and Michael Rodd. I hope I have not forgotten anyone.
Items Tomorrow’s World introduced to us included the home computer, digital watches, personal stereos and even artificial grass. Also hover-trains, mobile phones, cars without a driver, tidal power, pocket calculators and so on. Many of these are now commonplace, although some have not yet arrived, such as paper clothing. It was a very entertaining programme to me, as I was a technology fan.
I enjoyed the recent programme, but one sudden shock was Judith Hann with white or grey hair, rather than her earlier dark hair. But I have aged too! All the expectation now is that we shall all be driving electric cars, perhaps not driving but being driven by a robot. Even so, I had the pleasure of briefly riding a prototype electric motorcycle about the time Tomorrow’s World was beginning. I was amazed at its acceleration, but unfortunately, the market and certainly the battery was not ready for it. Back before Tomorrow’s World arrived we had the “Sputnik” and I remember checking the newspaper for the times of its orbits and comparing notes with colleagues. I also remember discussing it with the lady who became my mother-in-law and saying we would send men to the Moon in our lifetime, which was met with an incredulous look. She was probably thinking “How has my daughter become involved with this idiot”, but years later admitted that the prediction was accurate.
Looking back, even in my own lifetime of “Yesterday’s World”, I am surprised at the changes. I started trying to collect car number plate details as cars passed along our Wiltshire village road. Cars were so infrequent that I gave up. Aircraft were also few and far between and as children in the playground we would all look up when a plane flew over. Later in the 1940s, we were looking up all the time, at Spitfires and Hurricanes and then gliders with white stripes on fuselage and wings. But looking back, cars were probably eclipsed by horses and carts. They were laden with hay, straw and manure at different times and it was not uncommon to see a cart in a field with a man distributing manure from it, shades of a song by “The Yetties” singing “fling it here, fling it there”. I believe our milkman originally had a horse and trap to deliver the milk. During a visit to my aunt in Edinburgh, we were surprised to be awakened by a horse “clip-clopping” along the city street. When we questioned my aunt she replied very seriously that it would have been St Cuthbert’s horse, which did not answer our query—was it a ghost of St Cuthbert? On further questions, the answer proved to be that it was only the daily milk delivery from St Cuthbert’s Co-operative store. Delivery by horsepower is now so rare that the Wiltshire brewery Wadworth’s of Devizes use shire horses as a marketing ploy to draw a dray around the town, delivering beer to hostelries.
The other common sight on our village road was a herd of cows being driven to and from the communal milking parlour by the farmer on his bicycle. Twice a year the nearest town held a fair selling sheep or cattle, together with a modern amusement fairground. I do not remember whether it was also a hiring fair as described by Thomas Hardy in his The Mayor of Casterbridge.
When I was small my village had no mains water supply, no sewage, no gas and no electricity. No doubt this was true of many Dorset villages also. I can remember when electricity was first brought into our house and I watched the electrician running cables upstairs. At first, we only had electric lights, no power sockets, but it was a great improvement over the “Aladdin’s Lamp” powered by paraffin, or candles. I think “The Wireless” preceded mains electricity at home, as it was battery powered, with a lead acid “accumulator” for the filaments of the valves. Once mains power arrived a “battery eliminator” appeared. Before the electricity had arrived, the church organ was blown by a man “pumping” the bellows in a small room next to the organ. If he drowsed off and had not realised the sermon had finished, the next hymn would commence with an awful disappearing chord, which usually awoke the man from his sleep.
Our drinking water came from a shared well with a windlass and bucket, which I much preferred to tap water when I later tried that. We saved rainwater from the garden shed roof for bath use. At one end of the village, a small stream passed by a cottage and it was alleged that its occupier threw all his dirty water and other items into the stream which then flowed past the other end of the village where perhaps they used it for drinking. Before mains water arrived most households had a small outhouse in the garden which contained a seat enclosing a bucket for one’s relief. At intervals, the householder would empty the bucket into a hole dug in the garden. If houses were in pairs quite often the facility would be shared with side by side holes in the seat. To ensure privacy it was usual to cough politely outside the outhouse to find if it was already in use. These rudimentary toilets were sometimes referred to as “Earth Closets”. However “Earth Closet” was more strictly used for the invention of the Rev Henry Moule of Fordington, Dorchester with his “dry earth system” of sanitation at the time of the cholera epidemic of about 1850. Moule’s invention was a container for dry earth which by operating a lever would deposit some earth over the contents of the bucket. In present day some people have introduced a “composting toilet” which uses earth, wood sawdust, etc., to update Moule’s model.
Some larger houses might have had their own electricity supply from a generator driven by an internal combustion engine, fuelled by paraffin and probably the generator charged batteries for lighting. A local man would be employed to start and switch off the generator at the appropriate time. There might also have been a large water tank in the roof space filled with water by a pump from a well. The same man often operated the pump. The water would not only be used for drinking and bathing but could also flush the toilet into a cesspit in the back garden. This would require emptying at intervals.
Another change over the years is in education. In my day the village had an infant’s school and a “top” school, both clearly labelled C of E and children left when they were 14 years old. The nearby town had a Secondary, later a Grammar School, which took children from all around a wide area. At about 11 years of age, we all sat the Secondary Entrance Examination, which preceded the “Eleven Plus”. The Secondary School charged a fee but awarded a number of “free seats”, based on the pupil’s exam paper and I believe low parental income. Two “free seats” were awarded to our village school in my year and my best friend and I were pleased to receive them. Before the results appeared many of our fellow pupils said: “we do not want to go, we would rather leave and start work”.
At that time many of jobs in the village were “on the land” and my grandfather originally worked on a farm, later becoming a jobbing gardener. He insisted that all his sons should take up apprenticeships. His father, my great grandfather, had farmed in a very small way, on seven acres, with the help of his eldest son.
So that was my “Yesterday’s World” and I think “Today’s World” is generally better. “Tomorrow’s World” remains to be seen, but I am an optimist!
Bridport History Society will meet as usual in the United Church Main Hall, East Street, Bridport on Tuesday 12th February at 2.30pm. All welcome, visitors entrance £3.
Cecil Amor, Hon President, Bridport History Society.