Sunday, 6 January 2013

A history of smells



A few weeks ago I received a letter from Shirley Williams thanking me for sending her an article I had written on her mother Vera Brittain. In the piece, which appeared in May, I wrote of Vera’s taking her Oxford entrance exam at Leek College one hot day in July 1914. She wrote of the unpleasantness of the occasion the consequence of being cooped up with “odiferious” 16-year-old students. In her letter of reply the Baroness believed that the personal hygiene of teenagers had not changed much in a century. It’s an opinion, which I challenge given the range of deodorants available. But nevertheless this led me to think of the olfactory landscape of North Staffordshire in the past.


One great change is the absence of horses nowadays compared with 100 years ago the by-product of equines would have been very noticeable as would have been the absence of cars and exhaust fumes. People would have smelt of carbolic, especially as soap become more widely available after the 1880s. There was the odour of camphor from mothballs on clothes during the winter. My mother recalls clearly the smell of “Rinso” on washing hanging in the alleyways in the 1930s. Industry would have its own emanations. Smoke hung heavily in the air. Dye works gave off a pungent fragrance. The smell of steam trains to me is wonderfully evocative, other places would give off from less pleasing stenches. A friend recalls the reek coming from a bone mill near to where he lived in Silverdale. Slaughterhouses smelt of blood and the acrid smell of scorched hide, but for my mother an unforgettable aroma was that of roasting meat on the range. My own Proustian recollection is that of hot Brown’s sausage rolls in Stoke market. Of cigarette smoke during a football match combining agreeably with wintergreen. And I do miss the smell of pipe tobacco in public places.


Certain places carry with them unique bouquets. I always think of the pleasing reek of Higson’s brewery- sadly gone- as you walked out of Lime Street Station in Liverpool. When the wind was in the right direction aniseed fragrance from the Uncle Joe’s Mint balls factory pervaded the air of Wigan and catching a train in Worcester was made the more congenial by the close proximity of the Lee and Perrin works.