A Hampstead childhood: Memoir exposes ‘dysfunctional’ Victorian middle-class – complete with flashers
- Credit: Archant
Growing up as a woman in late-Victorian England wasn’t easy – even as a well-off member of the Hampstead middle-class.
It's an era relatively little is known about, and the female experience is even further marginalised.
In an attempt to remedy this, and to demystify the humour and horror of early 20th century north London, the Camden History Society has published the memoirs of Phyllis Floud - who dealt with doctors who had no idea how to talk to women, and recalls flashers throughout Hampstead and the early liberation of actually being allowed to ride a bike.
Edited by Cynthia Floud, who discovered the memoirs in the possession of her husband - Phyllis's grandson - the book is a fascinating social history of Hampstead, and Cynthia told the Ham&High all about it.
She said: "She wrote the memoirs about her childhood during the 1940s. I spend a lot of time recovering from ME by getting them into a readable state.
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"She writes as she talked: she goes off on tangents and doesn't explain things. There's so much social history, she provides reams of raw material."
Phyllis' experience with the pre-NHS medical profession is an illustrative one, Cynthia said.
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She told this newspaper: "One of the most fascinating aspects she discusses is how women dealt with doctors. They just didn't have the vocabularly to talk about what was wrong with them. One of the more striking examples - Phyllis had appendicitis, but she was only able to identify it when it was in the papers because Edward VII had it.
"Then, when giving birth in Flask Walk, they just didn't listen to her when she said there was still pain after the first baby was born. And of course she had twins."
London in the dying days of Queen Victoria was a place of contrasts and although trips via the horse-bus through Camden Town's slums were eye-opening for Phyllis, she wasn't immune from the worst of London's men in Hampstead, either.
Cynthia explained: "She talks about the descent on the horse-bus into the slums of Camden town, where she'd see all these people doing things she wouldn't be allowed to see in Hampstead. Though of course she was just passing through and she wasn't allowed to walk there.
"But, and I find this fascinating, the flashers - they were in Hampstead!"
Cynthia said Phyllis was quite happy dealing with - and avoiding - well-to-do exhbitionists.
"She was well-aware of the male anatomy - she had all of these brothers, you see," she said. "But sex: sex was a different matter. It's something Phyllis finds it so hard to discuss, even later in life when she's writing. She can never bring herself to refer to it as anything more than 'it'."
Away from the seedier elements of life, Phyllis' book tackles aspects of the social minefields that some in Hampstead may remember.
Phyllis was of the first generation of girls to be able to ride a bike without social condemnation.
She writes about a bizarre demonstration where a group of Hampstead's female cyclists were on their bikes in Swiss Cottage, only for Mrs Nevinson (the mother of journalist Henry) to stop and pull out a roll of knitting.
Cynthia said Phyllis was appalled by her mother's snobbery.
"When she was young, on a Sunday you'd go walking on Fitzjohn's Avenue, but her mother was so concerned about who they might run in to that their walks were limited to a very small section of the road.
"They lived in Eldon Road and they wouldn't talk to neighbours because they were Unitarian, even!"
Perhaps unlike many modern Hampstead residents, Phyllis Floud wasn't averse to the new homes that were popping up in Hampstead and Belsize.
Cynthia said: "She quite liked the new red brick houses, but her father didn't - despite living in one.
"Phyllis writes about the frightful horrors of being so middle-class, too.
"At a family dinner party in Chelsea, there's a discussion about skinning rabbits. Phyllis was confused as to why you would waste the time when Sainsbury's in Hampstead sell them pre-skinned!"
Cynthia Floud will be discussing Phyllis' childhood in October at Burgh House, Hampstead. To get buy the book head to the Camden History Society's website camdenhistorysociety.org