You have arrived in the year of my novella, Forged in Fire, which appears in the Bluestocking Belles’ box set Never Too Late.
In 1886, Queen Victoria was the revered mother-queen of the British Empire, on which the sun never set, and New Zealand was her furthest possession.
This was the year in which Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Karl Benz patented the world’s first successful gasoline powered car. The Apache chief Geronimo surrendered in this year, ending the last major US-Indian war, and Spain abolished slavery in Cuba.
A strange mix of long ago and very near.
I was startled when I realised that my grandfather — whom I remember from when I was four — would have been a young apprentice builder in 1886, working with his master builder fathers and uncles to build the home my mother grew up in, and after which I would one day name my publishing imprint, Titchfield Press.
Lovers of 1886
In 1886, Grover Cleveland became the first and only sitting President of the United States to marry while in office. He and his bride, Frances Folsom, remain the only president and first lady ever to marry in the White House.
The ceremony was a small affair performed at 7pm in the evening. The new first lady took over the hostess duties formerly performed by the president’s sister, and became very popular. She managed another first for a first lady, giving birth to the second of the couple’s two daughters during the president’s second term. In all, they had three daughters and two sons.
The lives of lovers in 1886
In the British Empire in 1886, your lifestyle would have very much depended on who you were and where you lived. My own ancestors were almost all in New Zealand by then — all hard working people, tradesmen and shopkeepers, determined to make a better life for their descendants. (One grandmother was yet to be born in London — she came out as a war bride in 1819.)
In 1886, New Zealand reached a milestone, when the census showed that, for the first time, more non-Maori residents had been born in New Zealand than had immigrated from overseas.
What they wore
The bustle returned in 1886. Fashionable ladies wore theirs straight out from the back waist, and decorated them with bows, frills, and swags of drapery. My own family photographs don’t show anything as extreme, but still Sunday best had a decided bustle.
Most men wore full-length trousers even for formal occasions, often with knee-length top coats in the colder weather.
Hats of all kinds covered heads then as they would for the next seventy years, right through into my childhood.
What they ate
Those with money or a bit of land of their own ate food they were familiar with, mostly British-Isles cuisine. One innovation not found in the old country was meat. Meat was rare on the tables of Britain’s labourers. In New Zealand, all but the very poor ate meat at every meal.
And New Zealanders retained the sweet tooth of their countries of origin, with baked goods made to imported and newly invented recipes becoming a great staple of every social occasion. With no shortage of milk and butter from the family cow, and eggs from hens, the ‘ladies a plate’ entry fee was born. No need to pay for a ticket, just bring food for the supper.
Where they lived
According to the 1886 census, 95% of the population lived in one of New Zealand’s 108,000 houses made with good materials. By which, the statistician meant mostly wood, since fewer than 5% of the houses, he informed the government, were made of brick, stone, or concrete.
Most houses had three or more rooms, which was just as well, since the average house had five people living in it. Titchfield was built with eight rooms (four upstairs and four down), for my great-grandfather and his family (a wife and eight children). Later alterations added a lean to kitchen at the back and other improvements.
Health and wellbeing
By 1886, the Maori population was reeling under the effects of the loss of their land and the diseases brought in by pakeha (the settlers). Lack of resources, overcrowding and poor diet let disease take hold. Just over 50% of Maori who died in 1886 were children. Significantly fewer Maori girls lived to child bearing age, which meant far fewer Maori were born.
For the settlers, better food and living conditions than they’d had in Britain meant better health, more children surviving the diseases of childhood, and a longer life expectancy.
New Zealand had its own risks, though. Not just the rare but devastating earthquake or the volcanic eruption that I write about in Forged in Fire, but the ever-present risk (in a land formed by water) of flooding. By 1886, the main roads had bridges, but many journeys still required fording a river. In the nineteenth century, drowning was known as ‘the New Zealand death’.
The rights of women
Reading the lives of colonial women, I am in awe. They set up house in the most primitive of conditions and built homes in the wilderness, working shoulder to shoulder with their men to clear the bush, at the same time raising and educating large tribes of children.
By 1886, most New Zealanders lived and worked in or around one of the towns rather than out in the country, but there were still cows to milk, pigs and hens to feed, vegetable gardens to tend, butter to churn, bread and other baking to make, and a myriad of other tasks to keep the family fed. Not to mention clothes and linen to boil and wash in kettles under an outside shelter or in a shed, and then to dry, with mending and the making of new items of clothing also high on the list. And childcare. Did I mention large tribes of children?
Male drunkenness was an abiding problem, and the Women’s temperance movement a response. That, in turn, led to a bid for women’s suffrage. The theory was that women who voted would be able to exert pressure on the liquor laws, to improve the lives of women and children who suffered from unbridled drinking.
Two suffrage bills narrowly failed to pass Parliament in the late 1870s. In 1885, a group of women led by Kate Sheppard founded the New Zealand version of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. So as a time-traveller, you might see them rallying for the vote, or collecting signatures on one of the huge petitions presented to parliament.
Barriers to Love for my 1886 couple
Tad and Lottie are both running from scandal when they meet on the other side of the world. It’s a bad time. Lottie is resigned to her fate, and untrusting of charm. Tad is being summoned back to England to a life he doesn’t want. And Lottie’s cousin is determined to keep her unpaid lackey, even if it means lying.
Tad has had many more choices than Lottie. As a man, he has been able to travel and find work. Lottie has been living as a dependent, physically safe and well cared for but emotionally abused.
Facing the power of the volcano gives them pause. Do they want to die before they have lived? And if they survive, will they have the courage to step into a whole different life?
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Farewell from 1886
Thank you for dropping in. Your next stop should be on Elizabeth Ellen Carter’s blog on 28th November. Or return to the time machine page on our Bluestocking Belle’s website and pick a year as they are posted over the next few weeks.
I wish you safe travels. Good luck. Try not to land in the midst of the Black Plague or Paris during the Terror of the French Revolution.