Suffolk: The 95th Rifles . . . and what a girl does at the weekends to beat boredom!
Tracey Hammond and her then husband hit on a great antidote to the monotony of weekend chores: going back in time. She tells Steven Russell about life as a regency lady and soldier’s wife
TRACEY Hammond’s first proper taste of historic re-enactment was a true case of “in at the deep end”. “It rained all weekend!” she remembers of that Easter event at the Museum of East Anglian Life in the late 1990s. “It was very cold and very wet. That should have put us off; but it didn’t. My son had Wellington boots on and they filled up with water! The children spent the whole weekend in puddles, getting muddy and dirty. He absolutely loved it.”
Before long the family were committed members of the 95th Rifles – re-enactment enthusiasts striving to re-create the period from about 1795 to 1815 as accurately as possible, and having a lot of fun in the process.
“We ended up getting a trailer; a full-sized family canvas tent. That first year we didn’t go abroad, but we went to Fort Nelson [part of a chain of fortifications that protected the key naval harbour of Portsmouth], and Newhaven was another one. Newhaven Fort was really high and there was a very basic-type netting. I had a two-and-a-half-year-old – nearly three – and was pregnant with my second child, and I was not happy!”
Generally, though, all was fine and dandy. In Tracey’s busiest year, 2004 or 2005, re-enactments at historic houses and other settings accounted for more than 27 weekends. She does fewer these days, but there are some potential longish and memorable trips in the mix: to Waterloo, near Brussels, for instance – where Napoleon’s final battle brought a defeat by coalition forces commanded by the Duke of Wellington.
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During re-enactments she’ll dress as either a camp follower – as the wife of a soldier during the Napoleonic Wars – or as a regency lady in finer clothes. But the part-time civil servant – in real life – recognises her pastime is not for everyone.
“If you can’t bear to be away from your hairdryer or your hot water for the evening, then it’s not for you. We do step back in time. We do without electricity for the weekend.
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“When you come home, the first thing you want is to go in the shower! You do have a wash there, but for me, as a camp follower, I’ll be dealing with the cooking and I’ll get all that ash and smoke, and that smell pervades everything – every item of clothing I have will smell of that. Your hair, your skin, it all smells; and it takes a couple of days of regular washing to get that smell out.”
Do members of the public ever whisper “I really don’t see why you do this . . .”?
“A lot of people do say that. They say ‘Why do you want to be here?’” Some also come out with the line about playing soldiers.
“It’s difficult to describe, until you do it, what the attraction is. When I joined, it was because I wanted my weekends to be more than catching up on chores like washing and housework; and it was about meeting people – about feeling part of a large social group, and having a laugh . . . leaving those modern-day pressures behind.”
Her then husband was a plumber. “If we were at home, we could never escape the phone. If people have pressured lives, re-enactment is a really good outlet.”
It’s the people that make it fun. “You make good friends. You see them more often, sometimes, than your own family – which is a shame, but, you know . . .
“It’s the social life afterwards, when the public have gone home and we’ve got the place to ourselves and we can have a fire and all eat together – a bottle being passed round, cakes being passed round – and it’s that time that’s really special. You’re camping, in effect, and it’s like a social group.”
It was a holiday in America that provided the initial spark – specifically time in Pennsylvania that coincided with the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The confrontation was a key moment in the American Civil War and the festivities included large-scale re-enactment.
Tracey had long been a history fan, though she can’t pinpoint exactly when or why the past started to capture her imagination.
“Some of it, I would say, is because my father is American – an ex-American serviceman – and I didn’t come back to England until I was about 10.
“When I was over there, the Americans were quite interested in history, probably because they have so little of it themselves! I think it stemmed from there – my father’s own love of history – and it snowballed. Once I got to England, of course, there were so many historical places to visit.”
One day, following that holiday across the Atlantic, Tracey says her husband mentioned the Gettysburg re-enactment and how interested she’d been in it. “And I said ‘Yeah . . .’ And he said ‘Well, I’m meeting two people from a group.’”
That led to the initial taste of the 95th Rifles experience during an April event at the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket, and from there it was onwards and upwards.
Tracey was game. “At that time I was working two or three days a week and I missed the social life of being at work, so I thought I’d go along and make some new friends. I was up for it.
“Me and my husband, we were bored with doing chores at the weekends. Our whole weekend we would spend catching up on housework, or doing gardening, and we got fed up with it. We wanted to have some time away and to enjoy ourselves; so that’s why we did it.”
Domestic duties were relegated to Monday-to-Friday.
Nowadays, there will be perhaps 14 or more major events on the 95th Rifles’ calendar, and Tracey will be there for many.
Waterloo is always a highlight, because it features re-enactment on a grand scale. Enthusiasts can do their thing in a huge field and be much more expansive than they could at a village fete!
“Waterloo is special because it’s got that Gettysburg idea of it taking place over several days, and the re-enactment moves. One day it will be in a field, the next it will be in one of the towns or villages. We’ll see people hanging out of their windows. It’s the whole spectacle for me.”
The 95th Rifles don’t use old-fashioned language or play characters in a theatrical sense; she feels it can be off-putting for the public. “We’re trying to show a way of life, but we don’t take it to extremes.
“I’m always ‘myself’, though I will change roles. I might be a camp follower – a soldier’s wife – one weekend or on one day, and the next day I’ll be a regency lady. But my tone of voice and my language never changes. Our hobby is very much one we approach as a family-oriented unit and we want people to ask us questions and we want to present a friendly face.”
Much of the re-enactment clothing is the handiwork of a dress-maker near Cheltenham.
“It’s quite hard to buy authentic material now, unless it’s pure silk – which costs a fortune. So this” – she picks up one of her dresses – “has got a bit of a sheen on it, which is wrong. I wouldn’t wear this at a re-enactment, but this was for our January ball. For re-enactments I’ve got some cotton day-dresses.”
It’s sometimes not that easy to research the past. Information can be misleading – or simply not there at all.
“There’s lots on being a regency lady; there’s virtually nothing on being a soldier’s wife, except the diaries of the soldiers who were there, but there’s very little physical description of what those ladies looked like.
“We know the camp followers did washing; we know they cooked; we know they gathered and chopped firewood; we know they dealt with men’s wounds and assisted the surgeon; but we don’t know how many British women went over. We can’t research everything; to some extent it has to be assumed.”
The soldiers’ lives are much better documented, “but even then there’s discussions among rifle companies about uniform and what is right and what is wrong”.
As a camp follower, Tracey gets involved in the cooking – authentic as much as possible, though with a nod to 21st Century sensibilities. They don’t, for instance, serve up a pig’s head!
“One of our sister groups had rabbits hanging up one year and parents were absolutely horrified. But that is authentic. They would have had cooked pig’s head, a cooked cow’s head, and they would have dished it up on a platter and cut it. We can’t do that; it turns the public off straight away.
“It’s re-enactment, but always with a pinch of modern-day reality. We can’t make it so realistic and horrible that no-one wants to come and see us!”
Because she’s had her two boys to care for, Tracey hasn’t much got involved in the onfield skirmishes, but she’s hoping to soon play a bigger part “in the pyrotechnics”.
The troop has both cannon and rockets. Weighty balls aren’t fired, for obvious reasons, but cartridges do use sawdust and soil “and a measure of gunpowder, so you still get the puff, you still get smoke and you still get the bang, but you obviously don’t injure anybody when you fire it!”
Tracey will need an explosives licence, and probably a firearms licence, in order to make up charges and move weaponry.
Safety is top priority for the Rifles, with members having to undergo regular training and pass annual assessments.
Tracey admits the magic has waned for her sons, now aged 14 and 11.
“They were fine up until about the age of eight, I would say. It’s very hard for modern children to be without their electronic gadgets; they want to be with friends; they want to be in town; they want to be doing their thing.
“They’ve grown up with it and kind of want a break from it.” The boys go with their mum rarely now, tending instead to stay with their dad. “They really don’t like the itchy clothes!”
In fact, 21st Century youngsters are stuck in limbo once they grow up a bit.
“Kids in those days would have been chopping wood, lighting fires and helping parents – working, not playing. They’d be like little men and women. Modern day, we don’t allow them to do that. That’s very hard for modern children; they’re not allowed to do the things that the children of the past were.”
The period between 1795 and 1815 was a fascinating era, Tracey reckons. “It’s a time when there was enormous advance in technology and social change. The idea of a monarchy had never been challenged in such a way before, and to have France out their monarchy left the British Government and monarchy absolutely terrified.
“The idea that people could be in trade and be millionaires was a new concept as well. Before that, you had to be born into the upper class. That’s what makes it interesting.”
Would she like to have lived at that time?
“No, I don’t think I would! It was extremely hard. I think most ordinary people had trouble putting food in their bellies. At the end of the day, most people can eat in this modern age; and we have the luxury of running water and electricity, so we can be warm and we can be fed. Those two things make such a difference. We take it for granted.”
Tracey Hammond was born in Ipswich
Her father was a young American serviceman based at Woodbridge and her mother came from Ipswich
Tracey went to live in the U.S. when she was about two years old
Home was Indiana
She returned in 1978 after her parents split up
Tracey had a year at Sidegate Lane primary school in Ipswich and then went to high schools at East Bergholt and Claydon
She lives just outside Ipswich
Partner Jim is quartermaster of the 95th Rifles. They got to know each other through the group
The 95th Rifles
Formed in 1975
Includes Royal Horse Artillery troop
Camp followers included people such as the families of soldiers, tradesmen, doctors and gentry, surgeons, tinkers, seamstresses and clergymen
When Tracey joined the re-enactment group there were about 10 members
Now, she reckons there are 50-60
Folk come from places such as Leeds, Staffordshire, Cornwall, Devon, Southampton, Chelmsford and Basildon
Backgrounds? ‘There’s no set person that does it, but I think they’re all people who like to have fun or are looking for a more creative outlet for the weekends,’ she says
Food? Lunch could be soup, bread, cheese, apples; or green salad with pork pie, cuts of meat, pate, boiled egg
Supper: normally rice, or a stew with potato
Injuries? Not many, happily. There are a few powder burns, she says, where the wind might catch the powder in the pan and the embers come up as it sparks
Dehydration and exhaustion is a risk. In summer, people have to be careful not to overheat because of the thickness of clothing
See them in Suffolk
THE men and women of the 95th Rifles are no strangers to the Ickworth estate, near Bury St Edmunds. It’s often been the setting for their regimental camp – and they’re back again on the weekend of April 16 and 17.
Visitors to the National Trust parkland can see what military life would have been like in about 1811, including the cooking and living arrangements.
The group will arrange (mock but authentic) recruitment and training sessions for children, with certificates of enlistment for those who make the grade, and there will be a daily skirmish, demonstrating the role of the Napoleonic soldier.
Ickworth details: 01284 735270 and www.nationaltrust.org.uk