If Joanna Francis were to write her internet dating profile, it would go something like this. Petite, blonde 30-something, who likes tea (leaves not bags) and chopping kindling, seeks similar.
Doesn’t drive, but is the proud owner of an 80-year-old pedal bike. Occasionally likes to spend the night in an air raid shelter. Or at least that’s what she would write if she had a computer. She also doesn’t own a television and the last time she used a washing machine was at least a decade ago. In Joanna’s world, the clock is permanently stopped at some point in 1939 and her home in the picturesque village of Burton-upon-Stather in North Lincolnshire is an exact recreation of how we used to live, right down to the bomb blast tape on the windows.
“I think the neighbours realised I was serious when I ripped out the kitchen and bathroom as soon as I moved in. The units were just too modern. Besides, I wouldn’t have had a bathroom in 1939 and I definitely wouldn’t have had a Jacuzzi bath.”
Instead Joanna bought a tin bath, installed a range oven and turned the utility room – which just so happened to be a couple of degrees colder than a modern fridge – into a pantry. As the neighbours looked on, out also went the central heating, in came real coal fires and she also converted one of the outbuildings into an outside toilet.
“Every morning I come downstairs and empty my chamber pot in the loo outside. People think it’s a hardship, but it’s not. You get used it.”
Today, like most days, Joanna is wearing an authentic Land Girl’s uniform – even the dirt on the knees is genuine. It might not win any awards on the design front, but corduroy is at least practical for her seemingly endless list of household chores.
It’s now Monday afternoon and Joanna has spent the morning as she always does, doing her washing using soap flakes and an old dolly tub. Tomorrow she’ll iron the freshly washed laundry and clean the range. Fridays are reserved for food shopping in the local market. It’s then that the year 1939 becomes important. While the Second World War had begun, only limited rationing had been introduced, so while Joanna’s diet isn’t exactly exotic, it does mean that she hasn’t had to give up all luxuries.
“I’ve always had what you’d call quite bland tastes. I like sausage and mash, pie and potatoes. One year I did try to live off the equivalent of rations, but that was a step too far even for me. I’d make a sandwich and realise that I’d eaten an entire week’s ration of cheese.”
Joanna’s one concession to modern life is a mobile phone. She needs it, she says, for work, but just to keep with the general theme the text alert has been set to the sound of an air raid warning siren.
“It went off in Jack Fulton’s the other day,” she says. “It nearly gave the other customers a heart attack. I only have it because I clean three days a week for various people and sometimes they need to get hold of me.”
When Joanna goes out to work she cuts an even more anachronistic figure than she does at home. And that’s not just because she cycles everywhere on a 1937 Raleigh pedal bike. “Here it is,” she says, bringing down the traditional black dress and white pinny she wears. “I’ve got bloomers the size of barrage balloons too. I look like I’ve stepped off the set of Upstairs Downstairs. But you know what? People tend to be much more civil to me when I’m dressed like this and I honestly think it makes me a better cleaner. You don’t want to get your pinny too dirty, so it does make you more careful with how you work.”
Joanna says she has always been attracted to the war period and even as a child felt most at home in museums of social history. The reasons are clearly deep rooted – she doesn’t have a family or at least not one she cares to talk about – and there is she admits a safety and security about living in a world of Bakelite hairdryers and carbolic soap.
“I remember walking into museums and thinking: ‘It feels like I’ve come home’. I began collecting bits of pieces of memorabilia from quite an early age, but it was only when I moved in here 10 years ago that I guess it became a full-time lifestyle. I fell in love with this place even before it was on the market. I’d come to view the house next door, but it wasn’t right. As I was leaving I noticed this property, peeked in through the window and saw the original tiled floor. A fortnight later the For Sale sign went up and within eight weeks I’d moved in.”
As well as removing any trace of modern living from the interiors, Joanna has also brought a wartime touch to the garden, installing an Anderson shelter just next to the coal store. “It’s a bit of a work in progress,” she says, opening up the corrugated iron door to reveal a pile of wood which she plans to turn into a bed. “It will take a bit of time, but that’s one thing I’ve got a lot of. Today people want everything done yesterday.”
Being cut off from the modern world, however, does have its disadvantages. While a friend lets Joanna know about major political events that are taking place, every so often she does get caught off guard.
“I worked for a while at Sainsbury’s and I remember going on my break one day when someone had left the television on in the staff room. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The cameras kept switching from Liverpool to London to Birmingham and Leeds and for a minute I honestly thought that we were at war. I ran and got a colleague, but he told me it was just a series of riots. They said it like it was ‘just one of those things’ and that’s something I definitely notice about other people. They have become desensitised. Out there everything is faster and louder.”
Most evenings Joanna can be found listening to records – George Formby is a particular favourite – or reading; all her books date from before 1940 and include titles like Fifty Amazing Secret Service Dramas or Four Stirring Wild West Novels.
“This isn’t a museum. All the crockery is there to be used, the books are there to be read. I don’t live in a glass case. I know it sounds silly, but I honestly thought there were more people like me. It was a bit of a surprise to find out that there weren’t. I’ve met lots of friends through wartime weekend events, which have become really popular over the last few years, but for them it’s a hobby. They go back to normal homes and normal lives. There’s really only me who lives like this 24/7. When some people come to visit I swear they think that I’m hiding a microwave in a cupboard and have a television hidden away, but I’m not.
“Others will pop round and think I’m not in because there are no lights on. But I tell them it’s the blackout so I wouldn’t have had the lights on. The only problem is that when people find out I live like this they keep bringing me things. I’ve lost count of the number of gas masks people have brought me.”
While Joanna says she doesn’t yearn for any of the things the rest of us take for granted, there is she admits just one thing missing from her life – a man.
“I would like to meet someone. I’ve had few boyfriends, but I know I’m a bit of a novelty and once that novelty wears off, well, most people find me quite hard to live with. But I haven’t entirely given up hope, I mean, I still like to think that I am a pretty good catch. I would have their tea on their table when they came home from work, I’d do their washing and ironing. In fact, I’d take care of everything.
“The only problem is that most people who want that kind of housewife are either in their 90s or dead. I might just have to accept that I was born just a few decades too late. But until then I will keep on looking.”