“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.
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.