After caring – 2. house clearance

Following on from the piece about being a carer with a ‘power of attorney’ this is the first part of an account of the house clearance of my uncle’s home in Oulton Broad after he went into residential care.

My uncle, a widower, had suffered from a muscle-wasting disease for many years but had still managed to live on his own with carers visiting four times a day to help with dressing and cooking. Mentions in the following account of my uncle ‘becoming ill’ refer to the major infection he suffered in November 2014 which led to sepsis and admission to hospital. Although he recovered this resulted in further limitations of his mobility and he decided that he would go into residential care.

Once he had taken that decision he gave me the task of making his home available for
sale. It may sound silly but it had to be pointed out to him that in order to reach that
stage arrangements would have to be made first to clear the house. Under the terms of
his will my younger brother and I were due to inherit the house contents and my uncle
suggested that we should anticipate events and deal with the house contents as we saw
fit but there were some limitations.

My brother readily agreed to help and from March 2015 we arranged to spend one day
a week for the foreseeable future with our respective wives on the task of house clearance. At that point we had not appreciated just how much work would be involved.

The building is a detached three storey Victorian house with four bedrooms at first floor level, two large attic rooms on the second floor and many built in cupboards, a box room and walk-in eaves storage spaces. It is amazing just how much can be stored in a house of that size. My uncle and his wife, who had developed dementia and had died some years ago, had moved into it in 1957 nearly sixty years ago.

House clearance after the decease of a relative can be a brutal exercise involving a hardened heart and multiple skips. This case was somewhat different in that the recent
occupant was still living and might at any time ask for anything from the house. It was
also stressed to us that homes should be found for anything that we did not want for
ourselves and we were made aware that there were some mislaid share certificates, so
extra vigilance was needed in examining every piece of paper as we sorted.

Boxroom store

Boxroom store – note the cobweb (in light grey and its shadow from the flash in black)

Probably because of his late wife’s dementia and his own declining health the condition of the house both inside and out was somewhat neglected. We had taken advantage of his admission to hospital for some minor surgery the previous year to blitz the house and reduce the levels of dust and cobwebs, some of which had been hanging from the ceilings down to head height, but that had only been superficial. Disturbing the contents as we would with the degree of sorting required raised the dust, literally, to a whole new level and anyone who has lived in an older house once heated by open coal fires knows that accumulated soot can be found many years after the heating system has been modernised.

Care had also to be taken with the failing fabric of the house. Amongst the flakes of paint on every external window cill were sections of dried putty fallen from the joints of the sliding sash windows. In order to gain some ventilation some of these windows could still be opened but the sash cords of most had rotted dropping the weights into the sash boxes. On pulling downwards on the bottom rail of one window it had completely detached itself at the joints from the remainder of the sliding sash, leaving a task only a skilled carpenter could restore.

Most of the contents we did not want for ourselves. After over forty years of marriage we had each accumulated our own memorabilia and household chattels and had little space for any more. I had, however, given our word that we would save as much of the contents as possible. One of the features of the ‘domestic offices’ was an enormous pantry, a 25 feet long narrow galley-like room off the kitchen, fitted with tiers of shelving on both sides and with marble slabs and a meat-safe which was long past its best. It was a convenient place to gather together all the glassware, silver, plate and ceramics to establish what there was as items were spread throughout the house.

Two views of the pantry

Two views of the pantry

It was not unexpected that amongst all the ceramics there was only one tea service that was complete but there were a number of part tea and dinner services from their and probably previous generations. We laid everything out on the pantry shelves and in order to try avoiding the task of packing we thought it would just be a matter of inviting dealers in to view and purchase.

To this end we compiled a portfolio of photographs which I could show anyone interested together with web pages for further reference. My wife and I then visited as many second-hand and antique dealers and centres in the surrounding towns and villages as we could find, proudly displaying the portfolio and letting them know when the house could be visited without appointment. We thought, in our naivety, that this would do the trick but we were wrong. No-one came.

The only alternative was to put them into auction. This meant packing the numerous
items so that they could travel safely to the auction house where, hopefully, they would arrive unbroken. There, if we were lucky, they would be sold to cover the cost of packing and transport, lotting fees, commission and VAT. Sometimes they did, often they did not but at least we could say that we had honoured our undertaking to find them a new home.

Every other week I would collect a dozen large lidded and double walled banana boxes from my local supermarket where the staff seemed only too glad to be rid of them. After first checking for foreign insects I needed to glue a cardboard patch into the bottom section where there is a large hole but they were then robust enough to pack many of the household objects for moving with the great advantage of being stackable.

Books, clothing and bedding were relatively easily dealt with. The majority of the books went to a specialist charity bookshop at Harleston, about 25 miles away, where they raise funds for the air ambulance and a local hospice. A more local charity shop accepts both clothes and rags for recycling and we were able to take them many black sacks full. Sadly as a pipe-smoker many of the shirts, pullovers and trousers had tiny holes burned through them where glowing tobacco embers had fallen. They were still acceptable as rags and they were added to the piles of worn out underclothes that had been saved as household cleaning rags. Clothing that was still fit to wear was set aside and boxed so as to be available if he should ask for it.

My uncle and his late wife had their own papers and accumulated memorabilia to which had been added those of previous generations of the family. He had been brought up in Berkshire and my aunt in Merionethshire and so we started making separate piles of items from those regions which might eventually be of interest to the archives or public record offices of those respective counties.

We did hire one skip and filled it with unsaleable items, offcuts of carpet, vinyl and linoleum, part rolls of wallpaper, etc. Having both been teenagers during WW2 they had acquired the ‘salvage everything’ mentality of that time and in addition they had been early aficionados of recycling.

The problem with their interpretation of recycling was that the collected glass, silver foil, paper etc. were stored in quantity about the house rather than being fed back into the system, for example glass bottles and jars were piled against one end wall of the pantry and extended about eight feet back into the room. Carrier bags and suitcases full of neatly folded used Christmas wrapping paper, silver bottle tops and used envelopes as well as the more important papers such as the records of the basis of many years tax returns does tend to inhibit the search for share certificates. We also discovered that plastic carrier bags do not last forever and eventually reach a stage of deterioration where they disintegrate into a myriad of tiny pieces, rather like ‘Lux’ soap flakes (remember them?).

To be continued….

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