It's not all rubbish
One can’t move for television programmes on hoarding. Watching the people who live in over-crowded squalor it is hard not to shout at the television, “Just throw it out. Get rid of it all.” But before we all become a nation bent on throwing everything out and living in Spartan houses minus all our clutter, can I beg you not to throw out the baby with the bath water.
Just think how historians are thrilled when they find a Roman rubbish dump. Of course I am not arguing that we should all live on a rubbish tip - but beware of de-cluttering. As I have found to my personal cost, the worst thing I ever did was destroy my love letters. It was 20 years ago and I had been happily married for about 15 years. We moved and I was busy de-cluttering my life and so I burned the love letters I’d had from my teenage boyfriends. Before I destroyed them I read them one last time and they brought back so many memories and powerful emotions. The joys of juvenile love and the agony of having been dumped, it all came flooding back.
Now I have been happily married – to the same husband – for 37 years and how I wish I hadn’t destroyed those letters. Why? Because I am writing my life story and now there are so many gaps in my youth. My memory has never been brilliant and without the evidence I can hardly remember anything about those times. And it set me to thinking about how dangerous de-cluttering is.
In a series a few years ago called “Life Laundry” I vividly remember that one of the things the hoarder was told to throw out was a delightful sketch made by her father of her 21st birthday party seating plan. I remember shouting at the TV ‘don’t throw that out, it is a precious part of your life story.’ But it was ceremonially thrown into the bin.
More recently some extraordinary photographs of the building of Tower Bridge were de-cluttered and thrown into a skip. Thank goodness someone spotted them and retrieved them. They are now valuable documentary evidence about the construction of this iconic building. We would be a lot poorer in our understanding of that feat of engineering.
Not many people would have such historically valuable photographs in their cupboards but most people have photographs and documents maybe a diary of a grandparent or great grandparent. Recently a friend of mine was witness to some de-cluttering which distressed her. His aunt’s grown up children were going through her papers. They came across photographs of long dead relatives and were busy throwing them out. My friend asked if she could have them, she knew who they were and wanted to keep them. They were part of his own life story and, had his aunt’s relatives listened to him, they would have learned more about their own family history.
I am particularly grateful to my grandfather and my father because neither of them de-cluttered some precious letters, at least they are precious to me, written by my great grandfather, Walter Mitchell. As a young man of 23 he went to America to seek his fortune. His letters to his sweetheart Emillie Read (who he later married) and his mother and brother are full of stories of his adventures.
I found them in a de-cluttering phase after my father had died and I was clearing out his ‘junk’. I read the fourteen letters great-grandfather sent home with fascination. Walter had sailed in June 1867 from London on a ship called the Hudson and arrived in New York and then travelled by train from New York to Indiana and then on to Missouri, working as a carpenter, and then spending three months hunting on the prairies. He writes about “a monstrous snow storm”, he describes how they reached St Joseph, Missouri, at the very end of the railway, Saint Joseph was where twenty years later the notorious outlaw Jesse James was killed. “Some days after our arrival,” he writes still in that elegant handwriting, "A quantity of red Indians (peaceable tribe) the Mowhawk we were informed had pitched their wigwams on the shores of Kansas territory, and being very anxious to see (them) we paddled our own canoe to the shore of Kansas across the Missouri river with much bother and sundry little mishaps made our canoe fast to a tree and introduced ourselves to the real live injun, being surrounded by a heap of warriors, squaws and their papousees, (children).” Walter even smoked a pipe of peace with the “Mowhawk” chief, as he said “a friendly pipe upon the pristine prairie”.
Did Walter make his fortune in America, become a Carnegie or a Rockefeller ? Sadly, no. After three years of hard work and sacrifice he came back without even a plot of land or a log cabin to his name. I came across a letter to the sweetheart he had left behind, Emilie, my great grandmother which explained why. Firstly, he could only get a grant of land if he agreed to swear allegiance to the brand new nation, and he refused to “take an oath to fight if necessary against Dear old England and its Queen” Victoria. Secondly, a close friend, Tom, had gone down with typhoid fever, and for three months my great grandfather looked after him, “without a trade and penniless”. And thirdly, he constantly longed for Emilie, “sometimes when waiting for a letter I read and reread your old ones until I almost know them by heart”. So he came home to her.
In 1870 he sailed back to Liverpool. And did well. He married Emilie, became a clerk of works for some big and important projects in London, and died on February 20, 1898 aged just 53.
How I wished I had met this brave, loyal, hard-working young man, only 23 years old when he took this extraordinary leap in the dark, across the Atlantic. Then, another glorious moment, among a huge pile of other photographs I found his picture, uncaptioned, unidentified, apart from the name of the photographer, George Adams, in Worcester Massachusetts. So I knew this young man with a sweet face and an elegant cravat was the great grandfather I never knew I had.
Knowing how precious it is to have his letters gave me the inspiration to create a business at the age of 61 called autodotbiography.com, in the hope that life stories and precious family photographs can be saved for posterity and provide their families with an heirloom and stop people from throwing their family histories away when they de-clutter.
Of course, Walter Mitchell’s story will have pride of place in the book of my own life, my autodotbiography. But what if someone had de-cluttered him? I would never have known of his adventures and I would have been the poorer for not knowing about my ancestor. So please be careful about what you throw out – just imagine your great-great-grandchildren are looking over your shoulder, are they saying ‘get rid of it’ or ‘please keep that, it is our legacy’.
Bryher Scudamore, Managing Director, www.autodotbiography.com
9 May, 2012