Making History

Today's junk is tomorrow's history, or so they say. Unfortunately we live in an increasingly mobile and throwaway age. For most of us it is a rare treat to find an old newspaper or a scribbled note from the past. But for Charlotte Moore it couldn't be more different. The past is the present. The story begins in 1891, when Milicent Ludlow, young, single and an orphan with an inheritance, took the bold step of buying Hancox, a Tudor hall house near Battle in East Sussex. In time she married her deceased cousin's husband, Norman Moore, thus becoming stepmother to his three children. So began an association between Hancox and the Moore family which continues to this day. The writer and journalist Charlotte Moore, Norman's great-granddaughter, now lives there with her family.

It is extraordinary enough that the house has passed down through five generations, but it is frankly astonishing and utterly fascinating that their legacy is so much on show. Every corner, shelf, and drawer is crammed with family relics and most of the day-to-day household items sheets, pots and pans, towels and crockery have been passed down from generation to generation. As Charlotte so succinctly puts it: "Since Hancox came into the family remarkably little has changed. It's not so much that we live in the past as that we live in parallel with the past. I can't see any reason not to use the perfectly good pots and pans that came with the new Aga in 1934 and I'm strangely proud of the fact that I've never needed to buy a new towel."

On entering the house we come through the hall and into the drawing room, part of the most recent (Victorian) extension added by Milicent. It is a big room, tall ceilings and quite austere. Last decorated in 1907, the impressive anaglyptic borders (peeling in a rather stately droop) and the William Morris curtains (wonderfully muted with age) suggest how grand this room might once have been. It is still used for big family gatherings such as Christmas. "Maude Anna", Charlotte's great-grandmother's doll from the 1870s, sits on an old sofa and is, we all agree, rather creepy with her dull waxy skin, tufts of real hair and Miss Havisham apparel. A decoupage screen, on the other hand, has a very jolly tale to tell. It is a relic from Charlotte's father Richard's childhood, made by his parents in the 1930s. Each family member was encouraged to stick a few pictures on the screen and it's very apparent who chose what. Alan, Richard's father, chose pictures with a definite seafaring theme, his wife's were religious, Aunt Hilary went for a bucolic theme with a selection of seed packets and for Richard himself lots of steam trains were added along the bottom, perfect height for a three-year-old.

From the drawing room we move through into the parlour and adjoining dining room, one of the oldest parts of the house. Back in the 17th century Hancox belonged to the Sackville family and while not on the same scale as Knole, their family seat in Sevenoaks, was nevertheless one of the grandest houses in the neighbourhood. However, during the 18th and 19th centuries (during which period two Jacobean wings were taken down) it was let to farmers and much of the ground floor was partitioned into small rooms for labourers, their families and often their animals, too. And further damage was done when Milicent (she and Norman also had a house in London) rented Hancox to the Church of England Temperance Society to be used as a drying out house for inebriates!

So when Milicent and Norman finally moved down to Hancox on a permanent basis in 1907, they spent a great deal of time taking down temporary partitions, stripping off wallpaper and restoring and replacing wood panelling. At the same time they commissioned (for the princely sum of £3 10s) a carved inscription which still runs the length of the dining room wall NISI DOMINUS AEDIFICAVERIT DOMUM IN VANUM LABORAVERUNT QUI AEDIFICANT EAM, "Except (or "unless") the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it". Rather romantically, three letters N, M and M standing for Norman and Milicent Moore are picked out in gold.

A central pillar in the room is particularly old, probably the only relic left from a previous building that was on the site in the 12th century. A tiny white imp grins down from the top of the pillar, a copy of an original carving from Lincoln cathedral purchased by Norman Moore because he looked like he had rickets, a condition the eminent doctor was studying at the time. The Hancox imp has been "the bogey-man" for many generations of Moore children, his reputation for mischief enhanced when his leg fell off in the Second World War when a doodlebug shook the house rather violently.

Many other rooms lead off from the parlour, including a corridor to the kitchen. This had a major makeover in 1934 when the range was taken out and replaced by a modern Aga. When Charlotte and her family moved in, the entire kitchen was painted in that ubiquitous pea green paint so favoured in the thirties and forties, interesting but quite hard to live with. So they carried out one of the few DIY projects of their generation, and in 1990 painted it all blue. However, the inside of the pantry cupboards were left green, partly for posterity and partly because they were home to another fascinating piece of social history.

In 1961 when Charlotte's mother went into hospital to have her youngest son Rowan, she stuck on the back of the cupboard doors housekeeping details for the person coming in to look after the family. They are still there. It's only 50 years ago but what a window on a different world! She spells out which days the butcher, baker and greengrocer would call and advises that milk would be delivered in a can from the farm before breakfast and again at 4.30pm.

Leading off the kitchen in one direction is an adorable little scullery which houses one of the rare nods to 21st century living, a dishwasher and washing machine, while turning along a different corridor you come to the utility room. Full of boots, saddles and carthorse harnesses it's another part of the house that hasn't been touched for years. But it is on Charlotte's list for possible rejuvenation. "The brick floor here is wonderful and with a few rugs and old chairs this could become a really cosy part of the house. It would, however, require a great sorting out of all the junk that has accumulated and as you can tell I'm always loathe to part with anything."

Going upstairs, Charlotte's bedroom walls are covered in what I take to be the most wonderful honey-coloured paper, which looks perfect with the dark red throw on the bed (amazingly, a recent purchase from Battle). But the paper turns out to be ancient lining paper no one ever got round to adding the next layer! She often spends time writing here at the desk which looks out over the farm buildings. "I can see the great roof of our cathedral-like barn, the stables, the old coach house and the brew house. It's a view that hasn't changed for several hundred years."

Many of the rooms upstairs, the boys' bedrooms, the bathrooms and spare rooms, are all very simple in their decoration and contents. I'm rather envious of how Charlotte has managed to bring up three boys without an invasion of plastic and electronic junk, but what is most charming are the graffiti and drawings evidently it was acceptable to draw on the lining paper left by generations of Moore children. One bedroom has a wonderful frieze of water birds chalked on the wall by Gillachrist in his Edwardian boyhood. Sadly he went on to die at the first battle of Ypres. Another budding artist has added chipmunks and mice to a bedroom door, and less impressively a sixties addition from one of her brothers is "Big Nit Charlotte" writ large.

Going up another floor we come to attic rooms full of yet more treasures, penny-farthing bicycles, rocking horses and boxes and boxes of still-to-be-discovered family heirlooms. "My family, present and past, are disinclined to throw anything away. If you live in a house as large as Hancox, there's no pressing need to dispose of stuff, so it just silts up," says Charlotte. "Stamped on our DNA is a dislike of change and an unusually high threshold for tolerating, even welcoming, shabbiness and inconvenience in our living arrangements." Thank goodness!

Charlotte Moore has written a richly detailed and fascinating portrait of Hancox, the remarkable family and a valuable account of Victorian and Edwardian society. "Hancox, a House and a Family" is published by Viking, for £20 hardback.

  • words Jane Howard
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming