My mum's cousin Martin pointed out today that I am not the first member of my family to live somewhere other than a house. He posted a picture on Facebook, from around 1919, that showed my great grandmother, who I vaguely remember, standing in front of a showman's caravan along with her husband and father-in-law.
What Martin didn't know at the time was that this photo has been on my wall for at least the past five years and now, given the limited wall space that I have, it occupies the gap between the two windows directly opposite the door. I look at that picture every day and I often wonder what life was like for Clara Jane Johnson and her family. However life was, I doubt it would have been easy.
The lady who I remember as an opinionated ninety-something sitting in her chair by the fire, grew up in a deprived area of Birmingham and trained as a french polisher. By her early twenties she had lost her first husband and child to tuberculosis (which may explain the natural immunity that my sister and I have - I still have the daisy mark from my Heaf test on my forearm and no scar from the injection) and spent a couple of years recovering in a sanatorium. Despite this she lived until she was ninety-four. No wonder my mum describes her as being 'tough as old boots'.
After this she remarried and worked the travelling fairgrounds around Birmingham in the summer season with her husband John, who manned the hand-cranked chair-o-plane - imagine how strong he would have been! His father Joseph managed boxing booths and was known as a good horseman. They all lived together in that small, wooden caravan...
There is not much detail about their lives with the fairground was like. Unlike gypsies, the travelling fairgrounds were a way of life rather than something you were born into, and people came and went. They weren't ones for recording their history and most of the stories of this generation were taken to the grave. There aren't even many photographs.
At one point they owned a small patch of land where they lived in an old double-decker bus and tended to a mixed flock of some 400 ducks, geese and chickens. At some point in the 1930s, before the outbreak of war, they moved into a house where Clara lived until she died in 1984. It was the house that my mum and her sisters grew up in.
I can only imagine the challenges that they faced (least of all living in a confined space with your father-in-law). At least I have access to mains water and electric lighting. I have a fridge and, although nipping to the loo is a bit annoying at times, I have proper sanitation and a hot shower. I will never know what that period of her life was like for Nanny Johnson but one thing I do understand is the appeal of living a life closer to nature. The big difference is that I have a choice. Given the post-war conditions and rife unemployment at the time, I'm not so sure that she did.