Tin bath, coal fire: woman ‘lives’ in 1939

Blast from the past: ‘Out there everything is faster and louder’. © Ross Parry

Joanna Francis is such a big fan of 1939 that she has transformed her home and survives without modern conveniences. Society has changed greatly since — but has it been for the better?

‘People find me quite hard to live with,’ says Joanna Francis. ‘I think I was born a few decades too late.’

Visitors to her home in North Lincolnshire might think Britain was still at war. Over the last decade, she has adopted a lifestyle from 1939 which one historian says is ‘incredibly authentic’.

She has ripped out her kitchen, bathroom and central heating, installed a tin bath, range oven and real coal fire, and turned the utility room into a pantry. Blackout curtains and bomb blast tape cover her windows and an Anderson shelter stands in her back garden.

Now she is gaining nationwide fame. Over the last week, her story has featured in local and national newspapers and television programmes.

Joanna Francis wears traditional clothes, chops wood and heats water on her stove. Her only form of transport is a 1937 Raleigh pedal bike. She does not own a television, computer or washing machine, and only uses an outside toilet.

But when she tried to live off rations for a year, she said it was ‘a step too far – even for me’. And she needs a mobile phone for work – though her ringtone is the sound of an air raid siren.

She is now in her forties, but her interest was piqued as a child, when she started collecting wartime memorabilia. ‘I used to go to museums and see their 1930s and 1940s rooms,’ she says. ‘It felt natural. I wanted it all to be alive.’

The attraction, she says, comes from the ‘traditional roles, etiquette, morals, standards and simplicity’ of the era and a ‘more hands on, more laid back, more rewarding’ lifestyle. She has met friends through wartime weekend events, but says: ‘For them it’s a hobby. There’s really only me who lives like this 24/7.’

In November, the National Archives released a government register which revealed how people lived in England and Wales in 1939. Lifespans were shorter, people were more likely to be married. And over 70% of working age women performed domestic work – mostly unpaid, as housewives.

Party like it’s 1939

Life, some say, is better now. Modern life has opened up a wealth of opportunities. Advancing healthcare now allows us to live longer; we can travel further and communicate across borders with ease. Society is much more sympathetic to everyone’s aspirations and in much of the world the lives of women, in particular, have been transformed.

But, Joanna Francis responds, ‘people helped each other’ in 1939. Scarcity and lower expectations encouraged them to appreciate what they had, rather than being wasteful. The family unit and class structures brought clear divisions of responsibility and provided security and stability. And people felt more attached to the communities they lived in.

You Decide

  1. Could you live like Joanna Francis?
  2. Was life better in 1939?

Activities

  1. Write a one-page letter to someone your age, living in 1939, explaining how life has changed since then. Use the links under Become An Expert if you want to include extra detail.
  2. Study the wartime recipes in the bottom link under Become An Expert. Create a meal plan for a week for a family of four living in 1939.

Some People Say...

“A simple life is a happy life.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How would 1939 have been for me?
In Britain many young people were evacuated from major cities to live with strangers in the countryside. In the government’s register, children under 10 made up 14% of the overall population of England and Wales, but in London the figure had dropped to just 2%. The London population of 10 to 20-year-olds was also significantly reduced.
Would there be any benefits if I lived like Joanna Francis?
Joanna says she has ‘a healthier way of living’. When other people are playing on their computers or watching television, she is likely to be washing clothes, working in the garden or dancing to gramophone records and — in her words — ‘looking daft’. But you would be a lot colder during winter and you would need to learn new skills we no longer have to practise.

Word Watch

Historian
Dr Robb Robinson of Hull University.
Pantry
A room or cupboard where food was kept cool.
Blackout
People had to prevent light from leaving their houses at night during the war, to disorientate enemy bombers.
Anderson shelter
Small, cheap bomb shelters in people’s gardens.
Clothes
She wears a traditional black dress, a white pinny and bloomers (knee-length knickers).
Rations
Shortages meant limits were placed on the amount of food and other necessities people were entitled to.
Work
She works for herself as a housemaid who cleans homes and cares for the elderly.
Traditional roles
Joanna says she would like to share her lifestyle with a man, and the difficulty of doing so is ‘the biggest disadvantage’ of it.
Register
The personal details of 41 million people were collected to help the government give out identity cards and ration books and facilitate conscription. The data from Scotland and Northern Ireland is not yet available.
Domestic
More than 9.3 million women were carrying out ‘unpaid domestic duties’; 581,000 more worked as live-in or paid domestic servants or cleaners.

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