My life as a Victorian teenager

Kathryn Bowler, aged 17, spent three months in a 1900 timewarp. She describes the hell of corsets and camphor to Cayte Williams

Cayte Williams
Saturday 04 September 1999 23:02

Kathryn Bowler doesn't look like a teenager who's been to hell and back, but the 17-year-old spent three months earlier this year in filthy, dark confinement with the rest of her family. She was deprived of a hairdryer, CDs and her own clothes and was forced to wear shapeless dresses, disfiguring boned underwear and was sent to bed at 8pm every night.

The evil that inflicted this was Channel 4. The Bowler family from Somerset were selected from over 400 families to take part in a fly-on- the-wall documentary on Victorian life called 1900 House. They were installed in a restored house in London and had to live a lower-middle-class Victorian life as authentically as possible - only wearing clothes, cooking food and using household appliances that were available in 1900. The only communication with the world was by post. A film crew visited regularly to record the culture shock.

The onus was on mum Joyce, who had convinced her family it was a good idea and spent the next 12 weeks slaving over a hot range dreaming of good shampoo (in 1900 this was home-made from egg yolk, borax and camphor). But while Joyce had her role as Victorian mum to console her, Kathryn had no role models. There wasn't any teenage culture in 1900.

"My 12-year-old twin sisters and nine-year-old brother had a great time - they just kept on being children," she explains. "But a girl my age in 1900 probably wouldn't have still been at home. I would have been working as a maid, or trying to find someone to marry."

Tellingly, Kathryn's 19-year-old sister Connie turned down the offer of joining in, and the 17-year-old began to see why. "I'm quite rebellious," says Kathryn. "I'm a typical teenager really. I go to college, play music, go out and avoid my parents. I have a place in my family - we are close - but in Victorian life I felt left out. My mum tried to get me interested in what a teenager would have done, but she did so little. Victorian 16- year-old girls had a really, really dull time."

Then there were the clothes. The younger Bowlers looked like characters from The Railway Children. Kathryn herself had to settle for scraped-back hair, no make-up and three outfits (one to wear, one to wash and one for best). "All I could put on was a blouse that hadn't been washed in two months and a long skirt with a ripped hem," she says. "I remember getting this huge needle and thick cotton and trying to sew it up. I found it all so depressing. You couldn't go through your wardrobe and think, I'll wear this or that today."

Kathryn felt the clothes repressed her. "I was a different person in them," she says. "Both Mum and I felt that the layers covered you up mentally as well as physically. I couldn't be myself. And the corsets! Once I ate my food too quickly and my stomach was so squashed I just threw up."

Not only did she have to wear a corset (like a young lady), she had to sleep in the same bedroom as her younger siblings (like a child). "It was hell. I could see this person who I really was - the person I had been working up to be since I was born - being smothered by this Victorian life."

She missed the trappings of her teenage years - hair gel, hairdryers and make-up. "I feel stupid that those things were important, but that's how you grow up. I'm literally taught that when I get older I'll wear make-up and go to the hairdressers and I'll look nice so it's awful when you can't do that."

She felt permanently dirty. The house was covered in a layer of coal dust, the product of the authentic fuel, and they were only allowed one bath a day: "If you had yours at night you'd wake up in the morning with dust on your skin. It was foul." And she found the Victorian decor depressing. "The house was dark, dingy and a bit scary. It had this awful dark carpet, pictures of scary old men, brown wallpaper and horrible knick- knacks."

Fortunately, Kathryn seems a resilient teenager. She didn't resent her mother for the ordeal - rather they propped each other up as things got worse, as the drudgery of women's lives at the turn of the century sank in. "I talked to Mum about how unhappy I was and we became closer. Sometimes things would get on top of her, other times she'd help me," she says.

The experience has certainly changed her, she says. It helped her to understand her father better, for starters. "He got on with the whole thing straight away, but if you looked at him, he struggled. He struggled with the fact that everybody else was breaking down.

"It made us all closer. We communicate better now because we couldn't run away from problems, we had to deal with them. And I appreciate things more. Women have worked so hard for our independence, I really appreciate what the suffragettes did now. And when we got back, my parents said how much more grown-up I had become. We all matured."

And how was coming home? "I just went mental for two weeks going out clubbing every night," she says. "I was so out of touch. People would be talking about 'Geri' and I had no idea that Ginger Spice had left and gone solo!"

'The 1900 House' starts on Channel 4 on Wednesday 22 September.

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