A little bit of history Eileen Blacklock lived in Hoppers Cottage for 19 yearsWe found a package nailed down under the floorboards when we had the house rewired. In it was a long block of soap, tooth powder and a few other things including a toothbrush which I have had expertly dated to around 1912 – 1916 and made of bone.
WHAT TOMMY LEFT UNDER MY FLOORBOARDS
This is probably one of the most poignant and personal accounts you will read of WW1 and yet with all my detective work, I still don’t know his name. All I know is what I found hidden under the floorboards eight years ago caused me to start a search that will probably never end and has proved an impossible task so far.
Eight years ago we decided to rewire our old cottage before we sold it. A cob cottage built in 1658 required experts in to do the job but we knew our electrician well and he bought in a man who worked on old houses so we left everything in their capable hands. I jokingly said that if they found anything under the floorboards it was mine, little did I know what was to transpire.
On the first day they ripped up the old wooden floorboards upstairs, solid oak they were and more than a hundred years old. We were called up to look at a second layer of floorboards underneath the newer ones, rough hewn and all nailed down with hand forged nails. There was a gap of about six inches between the two layers and it was here we found a package that was to intrigue us. It had been placed carefully under the top layer and the floorboards nailed down again, a great hiding place.
Not really expecting anything of much value, after all this little cottage had always been a farm labourer’s home, we took the package downstairs and unwrapped it. It was wrapped in some old cloth, discoloured with age and tied with string, obviously a treasured possession the way it was wrapped and then concealed.
Inside was a long bar of soap about a foot long and obviously to be cut up as needed. Probably carbolic but it had long since lost any semblance of smell. Also in the package was a cardboard packet of tooth powder, a little tin box containing about 20 little squares of different fabrics and a toothbrush. Even stranger was a hand made scrap of black lace, the sort that would be on a collar but now white in places with tooth powder.
It is a fact that a century ago the farm labourers all over the country received very little wages. They had a cottage, cider to drink from the farm and all the rabbits they could shoot and that was about it. Most kept a cow for milking and a few hens but personal possessions were few and far between and were treasured. We know from the records that at one time this cottage was home to a couple and their five sons, all working on the farm. A snapshot in time recorded by the farm itself a couple of hundred years ago when they gave an account of all their workers and cottages.
The toothbrush intrigued me so I set about trying to date it from information on the internet. It would seem that it was not until the 1940s that the Government of the day encouraged dental hygiene and brushing and it was only then that most people owned a toothbrush. Prior to that, soot on a fingertip sufficed for most people it seemed.
The brush we found was dated as being made during the 1910s. It was made of carved ewe bone and had hogs hair bristles and an unusual possession in those days by an obviously fastidious young man. What with that and his personal soap supply and I suspect highly polished boots he must have looked really smart on his evenings off.
So I set about trying to find who he was but so far it has proved a fruitless task. One of the problems is that our tiny village didn’t have street numbers, just house names which sometimes changed with new owners. Some of the roads and lanes didn’t have official names either and were often called by more than one. We lived on a bridle path known as St George’s Lane because it led to the church but also as Back Lane. Some maps don’t give it a name at all.
Added to this, our cottage got missed out on most of the censuses or census if you like the purist Latin. The reason is that it is set back from the other houses, the frontage is small and just went unnoticed. When we moved in we were soon to find out that it missed being listed in the 70s when all old buildings were listed, much to the concern of the current listing officer as he said it is of architectural interest. Worse still our address was 1 and 2 Hoopers Cottages as it was originally two cottages and there were another three called Hoopers Cottages on the main road. A total nightmare until those on the main road changed their names.
I have access to the census records and many others but so far the search for his name has been proved fruitless but I will keep trying.
But the fact remains that anyone who nails down and hides what to them is a very precious possession knows they are going away for a while and intend recovering them when they return. That same package remained unclaimed for over a hundred years so he never came back for them and we must assume that was because he couldn’t.
Given the date of the toothbrush, the fact that a treasured possession remained unclaimed and this was at the same time as WW1 claimed the lives of around eleven million young military men I think we know why he didn’t come back.
So for now my unknown soldier will be called Tommy and I hope he knows I am taking care of his things for him.