“I’m A Tu­dor Girl Through And Through”

Gil­lian Thorn­ton meets TV his­to­rian Ruth Good­man, who com­bines a love of the past with a thor­oughly mod­ern out­look.

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Gil­lian Thorn­ton meets TV his­to­rian Ruth Good­man

ON my way to meet so­cial his­to­rian Ruth Good­man, I can’t help won­der­ing if I’ll recog­nise her out of pe­riod cos­tume. I’m used to see­ing Ruth hard at work in a kitchen or muck­ing out pigs, the only lady in the pop­u­lar se­ries of BBC ru­ral re-en­act­ment pro­grammes that in­cludes “The Vic­to­rian Farm”, “The Ed­war­dian Farm” and “The Wartime Farm”.

But when Ruth walks into the high street cof­fee shop near her Buck­ing­hamshire home, she’s in­stantly recog­nis­able even in 21st-cen­tury cloth­ing. Within min­utes, we’re chat­ting like old friends.

“I al­ways loved history but I never set out to be a his­to­rian,” she ad­mits. “I stud­ied So­cial Pol­icy and Ad­min­is­tra­tion at univer­sity with a view to join­ing lo­cal gov­ern­ment or the health ser­vice.

“But I got a job as a ticket clerk on the rail­ways, was fast-tracked on to their train­ing scheme, and then posted two hun­dred miles away to Ch­ester as sta­tion man­ager. I re­ally liked the job but left when I had a baby as it just wasn’t com­pat­i­ble with fam­ily life.”

It was Ruth’s hus­band Mark, an IT con­sul­tant, who reignited her child­hood pas­sion for history. He’d been in­volved in his­tor­i­cal re-en­act­ment since he was twelve, start­ing out as a Napoleonic drum­mer boy, and within a month of their first meet­ing, he sug­gested she come along to an event set in the 1640s.

“I can re­mem­ber my re­ac­tion very clearly!” Ruth laughs. “‘You want me to do what?’ But I went along and was amazed at how friendly ev­ery­one was, of­fer­ing to share their tents, their meals and what­ever they had. From that mo­ment to this, it’s an in­ter­est that Mark and I have shared.

“I was never in­ter­ested in the bat­tle as­pect, though, which I ac­tu­ally found morally rather un­pleas­ant, but when we were in­vited to a liv­ing history event in the Isle of Wight a year later, I re­alised there was another side to re-en­act­ment.

“Mark plays mu­sic and we met through folk danc­ing, so I spent two weeks re­search­ing in the li­brary for some­thing we could do to­gether.”

Ruth quickly be­came hooked on re­search­ing the lives of ev­ery­day peo­ple, go­ing on to help out at lo­cal schools and mu­se­ums. Sud­denly the past had taken over her life. Her first ap­pear­ance on the small screen came through a BBC se­ries set in 1620, “Tales From Green Val­ley”, which she turned down five times be­fore giv­ing in.

“In some ways I should have re­sisted as the se­ries at­tracted very few view­ers, but on the back of that, I was asked to do ‘The Vic­to­rian Farm’, which we filmed at Ac­ton Scott in Shrop­shire. I don’t think any­body an­tic­i­pated how pop­u­lar it would be, or that we would do fur­ther se­ries.

“And no, we didn’t sleep in the cot­tage, be­cause there was no roof up­stairs. Only the down­stairs had been re­stored. But we did stay on the es­tate in some fairly Spar­tan ac­com­mo­da­tion. We worked al­ter­nate weeks and took a year to film the se­ries.”

ASK Ruth if it changed her life and you hear hol­low laugh­ter. It had al­ready taken four years to re­build her one-woman his­tor­i­cal con­sul­tancy busi­ness af­ter her first se­ries on tele­vi­sion, and “The Vic­to­rian Farm” sent her right back to square one.

“Maybe peo­ple think you will be too busy or too ex­pen­sive af­ter you’ve been on tele­vi­sion, but I re­alised I would have to rely on my mod­est tele­vi­sion earn­ings for in­come,” she ex­plains. “His­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­taries are not a way to get rich, but I am so grate­ful to have such an in­ter­est­ing and ful­fill­ing life.”

Ruth does all her own re­search, some­thing that has been made much eas­ier over the last 15 years by online re­sources. No longer does she have to travel the coun­try, or even the world, to look at orig­i­nal manuscripts for in­for­ma­tion. At the touch of a but­ton, she can bring many of them into her study at home.

She’s a huge fan of ev­ery­day ob­jects, us­ing them as start­ing points for fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion. How were

they made, she won­ders. Who by? Who used them? Who re­paired them? Ev­ery ques­tion has the po­ten­tial for new dis­cov­er­ies. And she makes as many arte­facts as she can, in­clud­ing her pe­riod cos­tumes for tele­vi­sion. But she’s not a col­lec­tor.

“I don’t have the space or the money,” she says firmly. “If I started, I’d be bank­rupt and out of the house within min­utes!”

Ruth has co-writ­ten three books to ac­com­pany the BBC se­ries with fel­low pre­sen­ters Alex Lang­lands and Peter Ginn. But she’s par­tic­u­larly proud of her first solo ef­fort, “How To Be A Vic­to­rian”.

“It’s sold re­ally well in Amer­ica, which is some­thing of a mys­tery,” she says grate­fully. “The pro­grammes are shown in Canada, Aus­tralia and a num­ber of Eastern Euro­pean coun­tries, but not the States. I fre­quently get letters from view­ers in coun­tries like Lithua­nia!”

IASK Ruth for her favourite pe­riod in history and she tells me it is not, sur­pris­ingly, the Vic­to­rian age. “I’m a Tu­dor girl through and through!” she de­clares. “It’s a pe­riod in history when pro-ac­tive, com­pe­tent women were val­ued for their skills. You might be sub­servient to a man, but he couldn’t func­tion with­out you and he knew it.

“A Tu­dor woman wasn’t only re­spon­si­ble for the house­hold, the chil­dren and the cook­ing, she ran the dairy op­er­a­tion and the poul­try, the gar­den and the small-scale buy­ing and selling. And at a time of re­li­gious up­heaval, she was also in­volved in de­bates about faith and the opin­ions of the house­hold.”

Least favourite pe­riod for Ruth was World War II.

“Whilst the war pre­sented many younger women with new open­ings and free­dom, I find it deeply dis­tress­ing that so many older women who had lost sib­lings and fathers in the Great War then lost hus­bands and sons twenty years later.”

Ruth’s time-travel ex­pe­ri­ences have made her eter­nally grate­ful for three things – the NHS, run­ning wa­ter and wash­ing ma­chines.

“They are ab­so­lutely be­yond lovely!” she says with char­ac­ter­is­tic en­thu­si­asm. “But my work has en­abled me to make in­formed choices rather than be bul­lied by ad­ver­tis­ers.

“You don’t, for in­stance, need wash­ing pow­der or chem­i­cal clean­ing prod­ucts. Clothes are cleaned by ag­i­ta­tion of wa­ter through the fi­bres. Only if there is grease do you need the tini­est bit of soap, so I haven’t used de­ter­gent in ten years. And I clean house­hold sur­faces with wa­ter or just a lit­tle vine­gar or salt on a mi­crofi­bre cloth.”

Ruth of­ten pops up on BBC1’s early evening mag­a­zine pro­gramme, “The One Show”, but her ef­forts re­cently have been con­cen­trated on draft­ing her sec­ond solo book, this time about life in her beloved Tu­dor times, due out this au­tumn.

“As a his­to­rian, there’s al­ways more to find out, and ev­ery­thing you think you know can be turned on its head in an in­stant,” she says hap­pily. “That hap­pened about four times dur­ing the Tu­dor book and it’s so ex­cit­ing!”

Next she would love to do a se­ries about the im­pact of tex­tiles across the cen­turies.

“Not a history of fash­ion,” she says firmly, “but or­di­nary cloth­ing and ma­te­ri­als. The In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion, for in­stance, be­gan with cot­ton mills, not steel works, and the Bri­tish armies tri­umphed in the trenches of the Great War be­cause they had bet­ter cloth­ing than the Ger­mans. The so­cial history at­tached to tex­tiles is enor­mous.”

Which turns our con­ver­sa­tion neatly to cos­tumes. Most un­com­fort­able was Ruth’s Vic­to­rian corset which, af­ter film­ing two se­ries back-to-back, brought her sen­si­tive skin out in welts. And when her voice failed to re­turn af­ter a bout of ton­sil­li­tis, a speech ther­a­pist pointed out that she had got used to “top breath­ing” be­cause of corset re­stric­tions, rather than us­ing her di­aphragm.

“I lit­er­ally had to learn how to breathe again,” she says. “But the most com­fort­able out­fit was the tu­nic I wore in France at Guéde­lon for ‘Se­crets Of The Castle’. It looked like a sack tied with string but was cut to work with you rather than against.

“Sadly, though, it was also very ugly so I don’t some­how think it will be mak­ing a come­back any time soon!”

Ruth as we rarely see her, out of cos­tume.

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