They may seem like ordinary people by day but in their spare time, these office, shop and school workers bring history to life…
During the week they work in shops, offices, clinics and schools, but at weekends they transform into Vikings, Romans and Medieval peasants. The world of re-enactment is burgeoning with more and more men and women taking up the hobby of travelling to bygone times.
Here, three living history enthusiasts reveal how it’s done:
Factory manager of a busy printers, Brett Freeman, 46, from Nottingham, morphs into "Padmore," a Victorian street-seller peddling stationery.
His teeth blackened with theatrical stain, in top hat and frock coat, Brett looks every bit his Victorian alter-ego.
Already a veteran of military re-enactments, Brett joined the "Ragged Victorians" when middle-age kicked in.
“I was too old to portray a soldier but I wanted to get back into the hobby and the Ragged Victorians looked the best in terms of authenticity.”
At his first event, group members gave him "loaner gear" and a year to research his character, equip himself with an outfit and essential props.
Seeking inspiration, Brett dipped into the works of Victorian journalist, Henry Mayhew, who wrote about the working people of London.
“My character is inspired by the description of a stationer in Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor. I mixed that up with my own background in print, and local historical sources to create street stationer, Padmore, which is the name of my Victorian great-great grandfather.”
Padmore’s stationery box contains period and reproduction items such as pens, ink wells, and sealing wax. Brett reproduced his outfit using period patterns, the correct fabrics and sewing techniques, employing a cheese grater to create wear and tear, shoe polish for dirt, and Vaseline for grease.
"Normal life can seem very dull after a particularly good weekend"
“Getting into kit helps immensely and once you are in the public area you try to remain in character wherever possible.”
Events take place a few times a month. A regular haunt is SS Great Britain with the group taking over steerage cabins and lining the quayside.
“All modern trappings are banned. Even tattoos must be hidden and any piercings or jewellery removed.” For extra authenticity, Brett smatters his language with Victorian selling patter, replacing the word "envelope" with the archaic "hangflups."
His partner Gail, and eldest son, Louis, are supportive of Brett’s "eccentricities" but not involved. Youngest son, Byron, 15, however, plays a Victorian street rogue. “Re-enacting is great fun, but we’re always glad of a hot shower and a comfy bed at the end of the weekend,” says Brett. “Normal life can seem very dull after a particularly good weekend. It would be wonderful to go back in time for a visit, but studying the period as I have done, makes you realise just how hard life was for our ancestors.”
Julia Rowland, 34, from Southend-on-Sea, visits schools to talk about history, but at weekends she goes back in time…
“We call it Post Re-enactment Distress Disorder,” says Julia, describing the deflated feeling she gets having spent the weekend as a Second World War Land Girl.
“The weekends are so lovely, the values of that era are so strong that modern living feels rather mercenary and soulless in comparison.”
Formerly a gardener, Julia helps bring history to life as a member of a Second World War re-enactment group, "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Conduct," (named after a secret branch of the Special Operations Executive).
She oscillates between playing a Land Girl and a "Lumber Jill"—the name given to workers in the Women’s Timber Corp (WTC)—a specialist force tasked with felling trees for the war effort.
"The weekends are so lovely, the values of that era are so strong that modern living feels rather mercenary and soulless in comparison"
“I use the role to raise awareness of what women achieved, and to show, that despite not being on the front lines, their contribution was valid and necessary,” Julia explains. “I’m lucky enough to be from Essex where a lot of the WLA were trained at Writtle College in Chelmsford, so I have some local information.”
Authenticity is key, and Julia’s character carries a period make-up compact and a ration book as well as a cigarette case “filled with sweets,” (she doesn’t smoke).
“Just getting into the outfit makes a massive difference, especially for me, as I have to wear make-up and put my hair in rollers—I’m not normally that kind of girl, preferring a natural look.”
The experience feels all the more real due to the re-enactors sticking to the food of the time and adhering to rationing.
“I’ve cooked sausages in cider with onions and tinned peas in a hay box with a side of mash (sausages weren’t rationed until 1942). Lunches are tinned meats or bully beef. Preserves and chutneys go down a treat with these. Rationing makes you creative—we’ve used recipes for ersatz devilled eggs with the yolk made from grated carrots, and the white from mashed potatoes.”
Julia’s husband, Alex, plays an Essex Regiment Infanteer, and her step-son Ulrich, 12, an evacuee—representing the many thousands of children who were sent to the countryside for safety.
“If I could choose, I would rather live back in a time where you worked hard but cared for each other than working hard and getting nowhere,” says Julia. “I know it wasn’t all "Blitz spirit," but reading through so many memories that aren’t rose-tinted, hasn’t changed my mind. I’ve always felt like I’m in the wrong era. The Second World War, Vikings, or even Mesolithic period would suit me fine!”
For information contact Julia at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris Felton, 58, from Sheffield, manages IT systems for the Department for Work and Pensions, but on weekends he’s a Medieval barber-surgeon…
“My 13th-century character, 'Giles Fitzroy, le Comte de Falaise', was an arrogant so-and-so because that was the easiest way to overcome my initial stage-fright,” explains Chris, who joined re-enactment group the Knights in Battle Medieval Society (KIBS) in 1984.
When he first started, other members trained him in combat and taught him about the history and costumes.
“We have a strict policy that things must look right, so visible seams must be hand-stitched, but invisible ones can be machined. All fabrics must be authentic or of such quality that you can’t tell there is a man-made element. Our primary bible is a very well-researched volume called The Medieval Tailors’ Assistant.
"We don't eat modern food in sight of the public. Indeed, there is a whole sub-culture of authentic food"
During events, modern trappings are kept out of sight. “We don't eat modern food in sight of the public. Indeed, there is a whole sub-culture of authentic food. Some members are very knowledgeable and base recipes on cookbooks of the time. Tents with modern kit are kept closed, only fully authentic ones are open for the public to see inside.”
Chris loved his combative role as the audacious Giles Fitzroy, but sadly arthritic hands put paid to this. “It was hard to accept because it had been the centre of my life for 30 years.”
Fortunately, there were other roles to fill: Lords, Ladies, monks, nuns, merchants, farmers, peasants and undesirables. Having hung up his sword, Chris became "John Barber," clad in doublet and hose, a coat, and fine hat, complete with the tools of his trade: amputation knives and saws, cauterising irons, shears for nose and ear hairs. During events he dons a leather apron before demonstrating a series of grisly procedures.
“Arrow extraction is the noisiest. The moment where the hot irons sizzle into flesh is the climax (we use a bit of pork-fat for the noise, steam, and smell).”
Chris participates in around 20 events a year. His girlfriend, Saxon, is also a member. “She’s now a grandmother so has less time. One of my finest memories is of her fighting me with sword and buckler in the aisles of Beverley Minster—the look on her face as she took me down!”
On weekdays, it’s back to work as normal. “They're separate worlds. As a civil servant it’s my role to explain how to make IT accessible to people with disabilities. As a barber-surgeon I explain how to make people better, and, knowing what I do about medieval healthcare, I wouldn’t really go back in time.”