ID COR2_022 / Judith Kirkby

TitleThe Old City Cottage: A Museum Favourite

The Cottage, Mersea Museum. Photo Mike L. Davies.

"I remember using those!" and "Granny had these on her mantelpiece" or "We found one of those in the attic" are typical comments heard in the museum. The visitors' book produces some interesting comments, most memorable of which was perhaps "Your museum rocks" from an enthusiastic young visitor. The book also gives interesting insight into where our visitors come from - as far afield as America and Japan in some cases.

There is also now a book asking visitors which was their favourite exhibit or aspect of the museum. This is already echoing the many comments received over the years, showing that the fisherman's cottage is a particular favourite.

The cottage, with its weather-boarded exterior, represents the living area of a typical property in the Old City area of West Mersea in the early twentieth century. Now something of a quiet residential backwater, this area at the end of Coast Road would have been one of the busiest parts of the island, home to fishermen and others who made their livelihood from the water, where large families lived and worked in cramped conditions with none of today's amenities or conveniences.

There was no electricity then, with lighting by paraffin lamps and candles. Gas only came to the island in the 1980s, and so the coal-fired range would have supplied warmth and cooking power - a focal point of the home. At night, the copper warming pan which hangs by the range would be filled with hot coals and put between the sheets to help take the chill from the bed.

Nor was there any water laid on, with families from the Old City having to walk up to Firs Chase to get water from the "Canada Well". Children as young as ten were expected to wear a wooden yoke over their shoulders, bearing a couple of heavy buckets of water - and woe betide them if they spilt any of the precious commodity on the long trudge back home. The yoke displayed outside the cottage is modern handicraft, but gives visiting children an idea of how their ancestors had to work. It was, in fact, a life full of toil.

The model fisherman, seen sitting by the range to enjoy a little comfort, is shown mending his nets ready for the next fishing trip. His wife is working at her sewing machine. During the day she would have been busy not only mending clothes, cleaning the house and coaxing the stove to produce enough heat for cooking, but also using the washtub, dolly, mangle and clothes drying frame in the cold scullery adjoining this one living room. There must be several people on the island who can remember the hard work of laundering before the days of washing machines!

For personal washing, the chilly scullery sink and a tin bath pulled up in front of the stove were considered adequate before today's luxury of en suite showers and luxury bathrooms. At the fisherman's cottage, we are not - fortunately - shown the horrors of the spider-ridden outdoor "privy"!

The cottage is full of fascinating domestic artefacts, from the copper jelly mould, wooden butter pats and a variety of pastry and biscuit cutters to the flour storage tin, mincer, flat iron and hair curling tongs. The oilskins hanging up to dry show signs of many long and hard days on the water, while the carpet beater gives yet another glimpse of the housewife's battle to keep the house and its contents clean. But the superb dresser, carefully positioned in full view of any visitors who called, displays the family's treasures. Here are a few special books and some china which would have been handed down through the family and kept for special occasions. Reigning supreme on the mantelpiece, as they did on mantlepieces throughout the country, are the china dogs, Gog and Magog.

Article published in the Courier 17 August 2011 Issue 512.

AuthorJudith Kirkby
Published17 August 2011
SourceMersea Museum
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