Hairlooms, heirlooms, and those everyday snippets of history

Inspired by my mum handing me an envelope recently which contained a lock of hair from my very first haircut in about 1975 (a family hairloom, I suppose you could call it), I’ve been thinking about the little bits of history that surround me day to day. I didn’t know this lock of hair existed until a few weeks ago so to suddenly be presented with my hair (pale, gingery brown and wavy, entirely unlike my hair now) from 40 years ago was a slightly strange experience. Especially as I now have a one-year-old daughter myself and her hair is redder but much the same.

I can never quite understand those Cash in the Attic type programmes that zoom round someone’s house, gathering up armfuls of family heirlooms to sell at auction so they can put £400 towards going on a holiday that they were probably going on anyway. Firstly, the surprise that people emit from being presented with their own possessions, as if they knew nothing about them beforehand. I can only imagine most of these things were inherited by a largely disinterested family who shoved the house-clearanced bits in a cupboard and feel utterly unattached to them. Because, secondly, they are pretty happy to just get rid of this stuff for £10 a pop at an auction house.

Me, if I owned those antiquey odds and ends, I would know about it and I certainly wouldn’t flog them for buttons just so I could stand next to Angela Rippon (delightful as I’m sure she is) and get on daytime telly.

The programme of that ilk that I still think about, and which continues to annoy me, concerned some parents who wanted to sell their heirlooms in order to buy a new heirloom for their children. Which is a pretty strange thing to do in the first place, but hey ho. What was incomprehensible though, was that the heirlooms they sold were a large set of family silver cutlery pieces, with an incredible history. They came from some Jewish ancestors who had escaped Fascist Italy during World War Two with only these bits of silver, stashed all over their body. They were lovely old pieces, and I especially loved some long spoons used for ice cream floats, with a straw incorporated in the handle. Now, the family had three children, and you’d think this would be an ideal heirloom to share around fairly, what with there being lots of separate pieces. But no, they sold them to buy one (ONE) modern art painting that the parents obviously just wanted to buy anyway. I’m not a mega fan of a lot of modern art (unless it makes me laugh) so disregard my opinion…….but it was complete rubbish. Good luck kids, sharing that.

My heirlooms don’t need a team of people to uncover. I have my Grandad’s ephemera and Richard Dimbleby ring, as I wrote about here – http://skittishlibrary.co.uk/remembrance-week-grandad-richard-dimbleby-and-an-unknown-german-soldier/.

Grandma's ring

Grandma’s ring

I also have what is probably the most common 100-year-old-thing generally owned now – a brass Princess Mary tin given to the troops as a Christmas present in 1914. My Grandad carried it in World War Two to keep his tobacco and spare uniform patches in, so he probably got it from his step-dad, who’d been in the First World War. Household tip – some brown sauce polishes old brass up a treat.

Princess Mary's brass tin

Princess Mary’s brass tin

Some various wartime ephemera – a handkerchief sent to my Grandma, uniform patches and badges:

This made me realise that there must have been a brand new industry in wartime France – manufacturing souvenirs and tokens for the soldiers stationed there to send home. Although possibly only for a short time during the phony war period, I presume.

Oh, and what appears to be a live bullet Grandad brought back with him at the end of the war. Not too sure what to do with that. Or if I’m even allowed to own it.

What’s great is finding things in your house, though. Not in a Cash in the Attic way, I mean things actually as part of your house. Like when we found a newspaper from 1986 lining the shower base when we redid the bathroom. Or the general oddness of discovering a still-unexplained small bone in the plaster of the bedroom wall. And best of all, taking off some wallpaper to discover the previous, previous owners the Doyle family had written their family tree on the wall, and scribbled “The Doyles are the best!” in big letters before covering it up like a living room time capsule. This was especially great as I was captivated by a similar thing in Hancock’s Half Hour when I first saw it as a kid, when he “finds” poems by Lord Byron on his walls in East Cheam:

What’s fascinating is that there’s so much stuff hidden away, things that may be of great importance, just unknown, in people’s houses. What do you have passed from the past?

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4 Responses

  1. David Bishop says:

    Great post. We’ve had some of those WW1 tins on display in the Library, as part of an exhibition. They contained all sorts of goodies – but what tickled me was that the soldiers stopped asking for socks, many of which were home-made and a bit… ropey. ‘Send us more chocolate and cigarettes instead!’

    I’m not sure we’ve got man heirlooms. Quite a few photos kicking about; and I’ve also got my great-grandad’s naval papers, from when he first joined up. Oh, and my wedding ring was recast from one my grandad first bought 80-odd years ago. Okay, maybe I’ve got more trinkets than I thought!

  2. Lyndsey says:

    Lovely 🙂 I have a miniature prayer book and a barometer of my Grandma’s (and a real fur coat, to fit a 5ft, size 20… no idea what to do with that!). Under the kitchen wallpaper in my Mum’s house is a larger-than-lifesize cartoon of a busty blonde I did as a teen (prophetic..!?)

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