The last time that Parham was in a comparable situation to the current pandemic was during the Second World War. Lady Emma Barnard reveals how she finds echoes of those days everywhere, including some surprising wartime rediscoveries.
Wartime stockpiling: Parham’s hidden treasures
The last time that Parham was (in some senses) in a comparable situation to the one we are currently living through was during the Second World War, and I find echoes of those days everywhere here at the moment.
Living at Parham, I’m reminded constantly of past generations – and their habits. People always think that a big house must afford lots of spare space, but that’s not true here.
There are indeed all sorts of cupboards and drawers and hiding places, but my great-grandparents Clive and Alicia Pearson and my great aunt Veronica Tritton were very practical, careful people who didn’t believe in wasting anything if it could be used again. They kept things. They would have approved thoroughly of the current swing away from treating everything as disposable and going back to “make do and mend”.
I have been rummaging off the beaten track in some of those cupboards and drawers, something I’ve been meaning to do for years but for which can never normally find the time. Only a few days ago, I unexpectedly came across a very old cardboard box from Harrods, containing a number of elaborate paper hats I’d never seen before – they were probably worn at Christmas parties many years ago.
Like almost everyone I know who is doing the same at the moment, my idea had been to rationalise, clear out and if possible make some space. However, it’s really not easy to throw anything away at Parham. I wouldn’t dream of throwing away the paper hats. The simple truth is that there isn’t much “rubbish” here; there’s a lot of domestic “stuff” which is very interesting and evocative of days gone by.
Some weeks ago, the rush for certain household goods caused many of my older friends to reminisce about rationing in the days during and after the War. This quarantine and the strange circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly made us all focus on managing at home in different, more old-fashioned ways, like going back to a once-weekly shop, and thinking of runs on supermarkets, last week I was amused to rediscover a good number of “stockpiled” items.
Many people will remember hard, shiny lavatory paper (very uncomfortable, and rather like the greaseproof paper used for cooking) from wartime, which I think was last in general use in the late 1970s. This was usually Izal, or Bronco. The Parham stockpile is of Bromo, an American equivalent, which prided itself on its softness, “unsurpassed in quality and purity”. I suspect that it was considered a superior option.
Originally made in the 1870s by the Diamond Mills Paper Company in New York, in individual sheets packaged in boxes, our Bromo is in roll form and manufactured in London. The packaging boasts of Bromo having been given the “Highest Prize Awarded by the Paris Exposition in 1878”, and describes itself as “A Perfectly Pure Article for the Water Closet”. It declares that “it has been on the market for over 70 years, and is known in most civilised countries”. These rolls must, therefore, date from the 1940s. I am sure that the ones we still have are the remnant of Parham’s wartime stock.
When I came to live here in 1994 after my great-aunt Veronica had died, the Ship Room (which now contains the exhibition about my family and Parham from 1922 to 1948) was filled to the ceiling with old mattresses. Years ago I remember asking Veronica why they were being kept. Surprised, she replied: “In case there is another war, of course!”
For her, the reason was obvious. Parham had sheltered a huge amount of people during wartime, including staff, 30 child evacuees from Peckham, and relations, dependents and friends of my family who had nowhere else to go. Veronica thought that in the event of another crisis the mattresses might be put into service once more. Sadly, by 1994 they had become a fire hazard and we had to get rid of them.
Furthermore, she often told me about the industrial quantities of vegetables grown to feed everyone (sometimes as many as ninety people), and in particular the hell of having to pick frozen Brussels Sprouts during the winter months. Parham grew for its own.
The South Lawn, in front of the House, accommodated two large enclosures for chickens, known as Greater Parham and Chicken Villa. The authorities allowed people to keep a dozen chickens per household. My great-grandmother calculated four households – the stables, the gardens and chauffeurs’ flats and the House – so they kept 48.
We will never run short of candles (kept in large tin boxes in the basement), or string; there are several drawers worth of the latter in various desks, neatly rolled and sorted. They saved sheets of brown paper, too. Veronica cut off the backs of envelopes and jotted notes on them; I found so many that I had to consign them to the recycling. We still use the many acres of black cotton, bought as blackout material during the war; this is very useful for covering pictures and needlework when we take them down and lay them flat for the winter.
Parham is a repository of the past. It always makes me a little sad when I hear that places have had a “makeover” or a total clear out. Once it’s gone you can never get it back, so I and my family go on living our lives round these quirky objects.
It’s frustrating sometimes, but it’s also rather wonderful that after 26 years of living here I’m still finding things I’ve never seen before. Paper hats are part of that fun.
All these “things” remind me very directly that everyone got through the wartime and moved on. Parham has sheltered its families before, over many centuries, and now it’s sheltering us. Things will pass and progress; the era of COVID-19 will, in time, become another finished chapter in the history of this extraordinary house. It’s a good thought.