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Berkshire Family Historian
June 2001

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June 2001 Contents

The way we were ................ the origin of well-known sayings

Most people got married in June because they took their annual bath in May, and were still smelling pretty good by June although they were starting to smell - so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odour. Baths equalled a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men then the women, and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying: "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water".

Photo of a Turf Roofed Cottage

Houses had thatched roofs. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the pets, dogs, cats and other small animals, mice, rats and bugs lived in, or on the roof. When it rained, it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying: "It's raining cats and dogs".

This posed a real problem in the bedroom, where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed; so they found that if they made beds with big posts and hung a sheet over the top, it addressed that problem. Hence those beautiful, big four-poster beds with canopies.

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying: "dirt poor".

 The wealthy had slate floors which in the winter would get slippery when wet. So they spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed at the entry way, which formed a "thresh hold".

Inside a dwelling - line drawing

They cooked in the kitchen in a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They mostly ate vegetables and didn't get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been in there for a month. Hence the rhyme: "Pease-porridge hot, pease-porridge cold, pease-porridge in the pot nine days old."

Sometimes they could obtain pork and would feel really special when that happened. When company came they would bring out some bacon and hang it to show it off. It was a sign of wealth that a man "could really bring home the bacon."

They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit  around and "chew the fat". Most people didn't have pewter plates, but had trenchers - a piece of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Trenchers were never washed and worms often got into the wood. After eating off wormy trenchers, they would get "trench mouth".

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the "upper crust". Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait to see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a "wake".

England is small, and they started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take their bones to a house and reuse the grave. In reopening these coffins, one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realised they had been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on their wrist and lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell. Hence, on the "graveyard shift", they would know that someone was "saved by the bell" or he was a "dead ringer".


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Berkshire Family History Society 2001

updated 20th August 2001