Last week, me and my dad dug a test pit in the garden. At first I wasn’t really enthralled with the idea of sitting in the heat, digging and sifting through mud; the reason I decided to do it is because, as a family, we’re really connected to the house. My Grandmother was born in the house (her parents moved into the then new Ely estate in the late 1920s). My Father and his siblings were also born in that house and so that space feels like the foundation of us.
Over the years I’ve picked up plenty of stories about my ancestors––what they were like, what they did, funny anecdotes––but there were details that I guess never came up. For instance, whilst digging, I learnt that my great-grandfather, Michael, was an avid gardener. When he first moved into the house, the front garden was for growing flowers and creating a beautiful space, but he reserved the garden space to grow vegetables (something which my grandfather continued after him until the late 70s). This means that for around twenty or thirty years, a lot of digging took place in the garden (which affected what was found in each pit).
I dug two test pits; one where both my great-grandfather and my grandfather alike grew potatoes (my grandfather only used half the garden to grow food due to the soil losing nutrients therefore making it harder to grow produce). The earth in this test pit was very dry (it enjoys a full day’s sun, especially at this time of year. A great section for lying in, less so to dig). However, once my dad and I got going, it was easy to sift through. In fact, it provided an excuse for us to chat to each other about something other than COVID and TV.
My father described what the garden looked like when he was younger––how fences were shorter and how the kids in the area would play in all of the gardens, not just their own––he also pointed out who had lived in different houses and told funny little stories he remembered (my favourite was two women, usually best friends, got into an argument and ended up screaming across the gardens which, in turn, led to bricks being thrown at each other; I absolutely do not condone this (and my grandmother would want me to emphasise that this is now how she or anyone else behaved at the time, very unlady like) but my father, as a young boy sat playing in the garden, eyes widening and jaw dropping in shock now laughs heartily when telling the story. We didn’t find too much in this pit; a few pieces of plastic on the top layer, some pottery, and plenty of charcoal (my father explained that ashes from the fire were used to fertilise the soil which explains why we found so much!)
The second pit I dug was at the top of the garden, in a more shaded area. This area, during the war, was an Anderson shelter which my great-grandfather, an air-raid warden himself, had filled with furniture in order to make it more comfortable. My nan was just 10 years old when the war started, and she said she could remember the sound of bombs being dropped. The shelter was small; my nan said her older sister, Kitty, would refuse to get out of bed when the siren went off at night which would make my grandfather ‘lose his hair’.
Anyhoo, back to the garden. So, after the war, my great-grandfather dug up the shelter (the corrugated iron still remains in the garden). He then kept a chicken coup at the back of the garden. It was whilst digging that my father told me about his grandmother (who went completely deaf at a young age and then completely blind in old age), she had gone in to feed the chickens and managed to get locked in the coup. She then had to sit in there until my nan came home to let her out.
In this pit at the back of the garden, I found a cup which had smashed. This could have belonged to a number of people, but I like to think that it belonged to my great-grandfather. I like to think of him drinking a cup of tea as he grew the food which would feed his family.
An aspect of this dig which I really loved, is finding so much about the other people who lived in the area. My nan told me about her neighbours: who so-and-so courted; who married who; who would fight; who died, went to prison, or moved away. Many of her neighbours have lived in their houses for as long as my family has lived in this house. I think once we can go out again, it would be lovely to connect with the other houses to share what was found in the gardens and what they know. (I know my father would really like to find some of his old toy cars, so hopefully someone will dig them up!).
Written by Charlotte McCarthy 05/2020