Bespoke tailor Russell Howarth swaps silk shirts for altogether rougher material as his family move into a Victorian slum to live life in the past lane
Slumming it literally keeps the Howarth family in stitches
LIVING HISTORY e may be dressed in period garb and hunched over a candlelit sewing machine, but Russell Howarth is no ordinary Victorian tailor.
This 21st-century man heads one of three families who have volunteered to exchange modern luxuries to live as urban poor in BBC2’S latest re-creation of history in The Victorian Slum.
The eye-opening five-parter sees them put to work in traditional trades to pay their rent for an east London hovel, in the hope of avoiding the ‘coffin’ beds that otherwise await in a doss house.
Starting in the 1860s, each episode sees the families brought forward a decade at a time.
Russell, 48, a real-life bespoke tailor from Essex, took on the challenge alongside wife Mandy, 47, and their children Rebecca, 15, and James, 12.
HMandy had a deeply personal connection to the series – her great-grandparents emigrated to the East End after fleeing horrific 19th-century persecution of Jews in Russia. ‘All they had was their trade, which was tailoring,’ she tells us. ‘I wanted to walk in my greatgrandparents’ footsteps and keep their memory alive so the kids could understand where their roots come from.’
Russell also has close ties to the area as he completed his tailoring apprenticeship in Bethnal Green.
‘For me it was about seeing how tailoring was done. You hear people on Savile Row talking about how they use the same techniques as our forebears, and it really is true!’
The family of four shared a cramped room in the slum where they ate, slept and worked. Adjusting to their new work schedule was tough, especially for Russell, who owns his own shop in central London.
Deadlines were tight and one week the Howarths had to make at least 23 pairs of trousers to pay their rent, as well as completing multiple orders from a factory.
‘It was relentless,’ says Russell. ‘I’ve never tailored for that length of time. We were up at seven in the morning and tailoring until 10 at night.’
‘I remember sewing by candlelight, only going to bed when we just couldn’t focus any more,’ adds Mandy, ‘and the minute our eyes opened in the morning, we were back working again.’
It wasn’t only the toil that was a challenge. Domestic conditions made keeping clean particularly difficult, as the walls in the slum were coated in thick layers of dust.
‘For me, the hardest part was not being able to shower. We bathed in a little bucket and had to heat water on the stove, which took forever,’ reveals Russell.
He admits that there were plenty of times he wanted to leave. ‘In the second decade we had a machine that was 130 years old and kept breaking down. I just walked out and said, “I can’t do this”.’
Mandy also had her low points, but leaving wasn’t an option.
‘About five days in I was sitting on my own and I just thought, “How are we going to get through this?” I felt very emotional on behalf of my ancestors. I never cry, but the tears came from nowhere.’
Although they were pushed to their limits, Mandy and Russell enjoyed spending time together as a family. ‘In our modern life I work, Russell works, the kids are at school and we’ve got televisions and ipads, so we’re often sitting in different rooms,’ she explains.
‘At night in the slum we sat around chatting about everyday stuff. There were no distractions. Who knew that we could all talk to each other?!’
IS PREVIEWED ON PAGES 50-51
Presenter Michael Mosley charts the families’ progress