Every British Edwardian hardware store needed a corner like this one. Beamish, the Living Museum of the North in County Durham, which first opened in 1972, is a truly wonderful place. A spacious estate is divided into three distinct areas, where the activities and buildings each reflect a different era. You can choose to explore a Victorian coal-mining village, or a small Edwardian town, or a Georgian landscape; take a ride on a tram or be hauled in an open carriage behind a replica of an early steam locomotive. I never cease to be amazed at the diversity of exhibits at Beamish, and their truly impressive interpretation of past lives.
Here we can see some of the objects on display inside the Edwardian Co-operative hardware store, one of three Co-operative stores on site (the others are a grocer’s and a drapery). They reflect the growth of the Co-operative movement, which started in the town of Rochdale, Lancashire, in the North of England, in 1844. Owned by the membership, any profits are either plowed back into the movement, or distributed as a ‘dividend’ to the members; they were extremely popular in the North, although they did, slowly, spread to most parts of the country. After being disabled in a coal mining accident, my father managed to find work with the local Co-operative Society, for which my family were most grateful. The Co-op at Beamish originally stood in the little community of Annfield Plain, about 5 miles to the west of Beamish. When it was due to be demolished, it was instead carefully disassembled, brick by brick, and re-erected in its new position on the ‘Main Street’ at Beamish. It has been thoughtfully re-stocked with period items, and is usually staffed by re-enactors in period costume. This section represents a typical hardware store of 1913, and contains many items that my Grandfathers would have used!
Just to remind us that public hygiene was not up to modern standards (it was a comparatively wealthy household that had indoor, flush toilets, at this stage, in this area), you can see a plentiful supply of fly swatters; the sticky rolls of fly paper would not have been far away. The grid-like object is a boot scraper, fitted immediately in front of most doors. Edwardian housewives in the North were proud of their floors, and woe betide anyone who walked in with muddy boots! Those long springs are to fix on the back of a door, to make it self-closing, after all, you wanted to keep rooms snug in winter. Chains were a fact of life in Edwardian Britain; they were used for everything from regulating the gaslights in a home to securing the back door, and were sold either by the foot, or by the pound – brass or galvanised steel, they were everywhere.
There is an interesting advertisement for red stair carpet clips towards the centre of the display. These utilitarian objects began to be a design element in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, with bright colors and shapes. The Edwardian family would try to show their status by covering their wooden staircase with nicely woven carpet, secured, of course, with fancy clips. I can see no less than four small oil cans in this picture. These would have contained a light lubricating mineral oil, and the thin nozzle would have delivered a drop or two, with every push of the plunger. Given the lack of pressure lubrication, and the abundance of ‘plain’ bearings everywhere, every household needed one of these, to keep that garden gate swinging easily and much more besides. Indeed, if your grandfather worked on the railways or in any mechanical trade, he would probably use a larger one of these, constantly; a bigger one was standard issue on most steam locomotives, and the ‘loco sheds’ where they lived out their days.
Next to a pair of brass candlesticks, I can see a blowlamp (blowtorch for my American reader). This is NOT a tool for the faint-hearted. Following the development by Nyberg of a new vapourizing technique in 1882, these useful tools became widespread, although the European version uses paraffin (kerosene) rather than a petroleum distillate. I was taught by my Father how to wield one of these when removing old paint from windows (without scorching the wood underneath). I understand that some Edwardian cooks also used one to get a crunchy topping to their crème brûlée – although I wouldn’t dare do that. Close by is a long pair of fire tongs, used for picking up errant coals which have fallen onto the hearth, or repositioning individual pieces of coal in the fireplace. A wide selection of ‘door furniture’, simple lever locks and keys and a full-size, brass-edged, rosewood spirit level (big enough for a builder to use) reminds us that the Edwardian householder was supposed to be able to hang a door by themselves – and make a good job of it. As one of the authors of the day, Jerome K. Jerome, showed in ‘Three Men In A Boat’, you were looked down on if ‘you had to get a man in to do that’.
Finally, in the center of the display you can make out what appears to be several examples of a fierce-looking edged weapon; the sort of thing you would slip into your pocket of a dark night, for self defence. Yes, these are the first-generation tin openers (can openers for my American reader). The sharp blade was designed to pierce the thickest, hand-soldered, plated steel can. ‘Tinned food’ was just coming into fashion. Indeed assorted tins can still be found on the shelves of another time capsule – Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910-12 Terra Nova Expedition Hut at Cape Evans, Ross Island, Antarctica, which still stands to this day.
The hardware section of the Co-op at Beamish is so fascinating that I could spend hours there. It affords us a rare glimpse into everyday life at the end of the Edwardian Era. I can only say I was delighted to hear that the Living Museum of the North is going to be expanding in the future. A new ’1950s area’ will be constructed, giving many more opportunities for education mixed with entertainment – well done, Beamish. One more thing, I adore the sign extolling the Co-operative Wholesale Society that says ‘CWS Products Are Essentially British’!