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Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Looking Back

It's a dismal grey and damp day here today and we are in the throes of having the kitchen floor tiles professionally cleaned and sealed so have no access to the kitchen and I am reduced to an electric kettle and the tea things in the conservatory and to washing up the cups in the cloakroom and as I was doing just this earlier today I thought that in spite of it being somewhat difficult it was a whole lot easier than our everyday life at Grandfather's where we didn't have the luxury of an indoor tap nor of electricity to boil the kettle. I thought it's been a while since I published any of my memories and that you might perhaps like to read a piece I wrote about our day to day living back in the 1950's whilst living with my grandfather especially if you too are having a dull dismal day with not a lot to do?  If so read on.....  Since I don't have any photos taken at the time I have illustrated this piece with some of the flowers I remember from childhood days.

Even everyday living was different at Grandfather’s. For a start we didn’t just get up, make a cup of tea and have a shower and eat breakfast. Before either a wash or a drink was possible the fire needed to be got going again – it would have been banked up overnight with small coal and maybe potato peelings or something like that. There was an art to banking up a fire – too much and it went out and too little and it burned through during the night and again went out both of which would mean waking up to a cold house and the necessity of starting a new fire from scratch. It takes time to get a fire going sufficiently well to boil a kettle so the last thing one wanted was for the fire to go out overnight! Then there were the ashes to be riddled out and disposed of – I think these went on the garden and the cinders were used on the path which wound behind the house to the toilet.

This range which I photographed at Sherborne Garden centre is similar to Grandfather's
Then of course there was no filling the kettle at the tap over the sink as we do without thinking these days. The big black kettle had to be filled with a jug from the bucket of clean drinking water and would have been refilled before going to bed and left on the hob at the side of the fire ready for the morning. Once the kettle had been put over the fire and had boiled and the tea made it could be refilled and boiled again before washing could begin. With no separate bathroom it was difficult to arrange for any privacy whilst washing. No showers then but a wash down with some of the hot water from the kettle topped up with some cold from the bucket on the table – being careful not to use too much or there wouldn’t be enough hot left for the next person. I remember Camay soap, Knight's Castille, there was Imperial Leather with its little rectangular metallic label or sometimes Pears since I was “preparing to be a beautiful lady” as their ads used to say!. For washing of hands during the day, in the bowl of cold water left for that purpose and probably the leftovers from somebody’s wash, a bar of carbolic soap would be used maybe Wright’s Coal Tar a deep yellow bar with a strong pungent smell or even a block of washing soap such as yellow Sunlight or green Fairy which could also be used for the weekly wash.

Bath night (usually only attempted once a week and on an evening when grandfather had taken himself off to the Royal Oak!) was a real ritual since it required that the tin bath be brought into the house from the shed and its complement of insects evacuated. The bath would then be placed on the mat in front of the fire especially in winter but even in summer since the hot water would be from the kettle on the fire so the shortest distance from the fire was sensible. Hot water would be added to a bucketful of cold in the bath and then we took turns at having a stand up wash in it. It wasn’t big enough for an adult to sit in but I was able to wash top down and then bottom up and finally to sit in the water with my legs over the side but Mother and my aunt had to make do with washing whilst standing in the shallow water. I am not sure when or how grandfather bathed – I certainly never saw him doing it!

Hair washing was no simple matter either and involved pouring water from a jug over your head whilst leaning over a bowl! The water was then scooped back into the jug and poured over again and again. I seem to remember a shampoo called Drene was the preferred one then. The only difference here was that the water used was often rainwater from the water butt as this was meant to be better for the hair and it was heated in a saucepan and not the kettle, which was kept solely for drinking water from the tap. It was obviously necessary to replace the water in the bowl at least once during all this procedure as there is not much point trying to rinse soap out of your hair with soapy water! The change of water usually meant that your soaking wet hair dripped all over everywhere as you attempted to pour the used water into the slop bucket and to refill the bowl with more clean hot water from the pan and add cold! You can see why hair was washed no oftener than once a week!!

After bathing or washing of hair the used water had then to be got rid of – no sink with plughole of course. Nor any drains down which it could be tipped. It had to be tipped into the slop bucket – usually several bucketsful and taken to the toilet for disposal or flung over the garden so again not something to be relished after a nice bath in front of the fire especially if it was cold and raining!

The only heat in winter was from the range in the kitchen so everything happened there and getting dressed or undressed at the end of the day was usually done in front of the fire where one’s clothes or pyjamas had been warming in readiness. In winter our beds were warmed with a hot water bottle – grandfather still had a couple of those old fashioned stoneware ones which were heavy as lead when filled and boy did they hurt if you accidentally stubbed your toe on one in the bed! Beds were thus warm as toast in a small area and like ice everywhere else! With no electric lighting moving from one room to another was also not straightforward since it involved lighting a candle and taking it with you care being taken not to move too quickly in case it went out in the draught nor to allow spots of wax to fall on the furniture or floor and not to let it catch light to anything en route. Just as well perhaps there were only 2 rooms up and 2 down then. When you are used to just flicking a switch at the doorway you cannot imagine how complicated it all was and how little light one candle gives!

There was of course no television and grandfather didn’t have a radio either since they required electricity too – portable transistor radios came in later in the 60s I think. We did however rent a radio in time for the coronation and this was powered by an accumulator – a big heavy type of battery made of glass which needed to be recharged at the shop regularly. Imagine carrying a small car battery to the shops every Saturday and you get the picture. So we did hear the news of Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tensing’s conquest of Everest on 3 June 1953 before going to a neighbour’s to watch the coronation on their television!

Cooking was done on the range and it was a real art since there was no temperature control – the temperature of the oven depended on the state of the fire which In turn depended on the direction of the wind and on what was being burned at the time, maybe best quality coal but more likely the cheaper nutty slack or even bits of old wood or rubbish. So making anything for which the temperature was critical, such as souffl├ęs (fat chance!), was out – my mother used to make what she called a “rub up cake” or rock buns rather than a sponge cake for example. Casseroles and milk puddings which needed a lower temperature were easier than pastry although my Aunt Win’s pastry was legendary. Occasionally I find these days that the menu I have planned requires 4 saucepans to be in use on the hob at the same time – that would never have been possible since there was room on the fire for one and on the hob alongside for another and that was all. The oven was tiny – perhaps 12 inches square so no turkeys ever got cooked in it – not that turkeys were affordable or available anyway! I cannot imagine how my grandmother managed to bring up 6 children and feed them all with such primitive equipment.
Washing must have been a nightmare for my mother and aunt – no bunging it in the machine of course - it was all done by hand in the bath, the same one we used for bath night, using Sunlight soap or perhaps Omo or Tide washing powder and the whites were usually given a dose of Reckitts blue in the final rinsing water in an attempt to keep them white. There was a boiler in the lean to next door but that needed a fire lit under it and I don’t recall my mother or aunt using that. Mangles were in use then but I don’t think Grandfather had one so the washing was wrung out by hand – my mother had an incredibly strong twist - and was then hung on the line outside or spread over the bushes to dry. I don’t remember what happened in winter – I suspect large items like sheets and towels were not washed as often as would be the case now and then only if it was a good drying day as they would otherwise have had to be hung indoors and would have been in the way not to mention making the whole house damper than it already was.

Elderflowers were collected, dried and used to make a herbal tea by Grandfather which served as a cure-all!
Having got the clothes washed and dried – no mean undertaking as you can see - ironing was done using a flat iron heated on the range. No ironing board but a folded blanket on the end of the table, although this was my mother’s preferred option even when an ironing board was available to her later. Man-made fabrics were not in common use then so most of the items would have been made of cotton or wool and would have taken ages to dry and most would have needed ironing. Two irons were needed, one heating on the stove and the other in use. And unlike today when I normally start off ironing on a lower temperature and increase it as I go along then it would have been necessary to do the things that needed a hot iron first as the iron would get gradually cooler. I think one tested the temperature by spitting on the iron and if the tiny blob of spittle danced over its surface and disappeared it was hot enough! Very technical!

At least with no fitted carpets or rugs there was no need for a vacuum cleaner – just as well with no electricity! Carpet sweepers were often used by those who had carpets and when I was first married in 1972 we had one until we got a Hoover later. The flagstone floors were swept daily and washed regularly too although in winter they’d have taken an age to dry what with the damp in the atmosphere and the damp coming up from below due to the flagstones being set on the bare earth with no damp course beneath. With the only entrance to the house opening straight into the front room wet footprints must have been a constant problem during winter months but at least there were no carpets to worry about!

The range was black leaded regularly using Zebo polish – although as the fire was hardly ever allowed to go out I don’t know quite how this worked. With the coal fire and the need for everything to be carried through the house there must have been an enormous amount of dust and dirt and cleaning and housework must have taken up a great deal of time. And since all the other chores took much longer then without modern equipment it’s not surprising that women at the beginning of the 20th century didn’t usually go out to work!!

Spring cleaning – spread over a week or more - was a major undertaking and you can perhaps see why since winter cleaning was so difficult. First of all the chimney was swept with a long brush the fire having been allowed to go out of course. Then a bright windy day usually in March or April would be chosen and blankets would be washed and hung out to dry. Woollen blankets were used on the beds along with eiderdowns if available since duvets had not yet been introduced – I imagine they came in after holidays to Europe became more common. The floors were scrubbed and the wooden ones given a coat of something called permanganate of potash – whatever that is or was. I only know it was some sort of crystals dissolved in water and then sloshed over the wood and it gave it all a dark stain.  (I checked this out on the internet and apparently it is used as an antiseptic as well as giving wood and other materials a stain) The walls were treated to a coat of distemper – mixed in a bucket and painted on with a wide brush. Sometimes we might be able to rise to a roll or two of border paper and then the walls would have a strip of this pasted about a foot from the ceiling to finish off the look. I remember one year we went very avant garde and painted the kitchen walls eau de nil which was a pretty soft green as a change from the usual whitewash. The woodwork was varnished so didn’t need doing every year. Curtains were washed, ironed and rehung and all the spiders who had been hiding in corners here and there were evicted! Pillows were taken outside into the garden and emptied onto a sheet spread out on the grass – obviously a fine day without wind was chosen for this chore and the feathers allowed to air in the sun whilst their cases were washed and dried and later restuffed with the now fresh smelling feathers. Presumably the sun was considered to act as a disinfectant in some way. Windows were opened as wide as possible and the front door stood open all day and there was a general feeling of thanksgiving for having survived the winter and an anticipation of easier days to come with the arrival of the warmer weather.

If you are still with me well done and congratulations on your stamina. Thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings.  I know how many of you enjoyed my recent post about things remembered from the past so hope that some of you will have liked this post too.  I promise my next one will be less verbose!


  1. That was absolutely fascinating. Our grandchildren will never know any of the hardships of growing up in the post war years.
    I remember my grandmother using a funny littl cage of soap bits, which was swished around in the washing up such thing as Fairy liquid!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this Jane, so very interesting and informative especially on a fold wet dull afternoon.

  3. That was great Jane!
    I remember Wright’s Coal Tar soap, it smelt awful, I also rememeber the fire being banked up with damp slack to 'keep it in'.
    I loved the 'spitting on the iron' to see if it was hot enough. :)
    Vivienne x

  4. Good grief, you have almost written the story of my childhood! Two things we had that your Grandfather didn't - a very primitive electricity and water indoors thought the toilet was in a separate lean-to. No carpets but we had sisal mats in the living room and scullery. I remember it all so well especially the Zebo-ing of the grates and the bathing in the tin bath.

  5. So informative Jane. I really enjoyed reading it, and felt very grateful that growing up in the 60s in Australia was absolutely nothing like that. It really brings home how lucky we are to have what we have now.

  6. Beautiful, sobering, and a good wake-up call for anyone of us when we are feeling sorry for ourselves.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

    Dare I admit I had a craving for coal tar soap when pregnant with my first child?


  7. I do thoroughly enjoy reading these posts. No actual experience of these things, but a real love of them, well of reading about them

  8. A fantastic post Jane. I remember my mum using flat irons too. She had the stove going all day so it made sense to use the heat for ironing.
    Anne xx

  9. So evocative. Walking on crunchy cinders, whitewashed walls on outside loos and the draught under the door, spiders with tiny bodies and long 'fuse wire' legs...luckily in other people's houses!

  10. So much of this is familiar to me - you only have to say 'distemper' and I can smell it - it came in green, pink and acid yellow. We did have a bathroom but baths were still not taken everyday as it was filled from a gas heated contraption which was costly. Lifebouy soap was the general one in our house and Pears for small children and faces!

  11. Oh Jane,
    My Mum always said Camay was soap for posh people and we always had Lux! My gran used to keep her soap in he routside toilet, thick chunks of red strong smelling stuff to go with the IZAL toilet paper. Some of these things like lighting the fire in the morning are even part of my early
    1950's childhood. You have a wonderful gift of bringing these memories to life in these posts. I love reading them! Lesley x PS Hope you can now get back into the kitchen?

  12. A great read Jane! I still see Wright's soap in the odd nostalgia type shop and I must say it wouldn't be my first choice!
    Looking foward to the next chapter!

  13. Sounds like Lesley's gran had good old carbolic in the outside loo then........... I loved this post. My dad always insisted on Imperial Leather and used to say it was the only soap which the label stuck onto right until the end. I clean a farmhouse and love going there because they have Imperial Leather in the bathroom and it reminds me of home. They also have Coaltar Soap in the downstairs handwashing area and I love the old fashioned smell of it.

  14. I really enjoyed that! I was born in the mid-sixties and clearly remember my mum washing everything by hand for the six of us and mangling it in the yard. In about 1970, she got a spin dryer and I remember thinking how wonderful it was and how much work it saved her!

  15. I remember helping my grandmother with the washing in the shed out the back, she had a boiler to wash the clothes and a mangler that was attached somehow, my grandfather used to help with the washing too, it was a pleasant memory, we would be laughing and chatting, they were happy with their simple life, but grateful for the modern appliances when they arrived!

  16. Oh Jane, and they call them the good ol' days ! I'm so thankful for all my modern cons when I read all this. I have a friend whose mother used to say "Wash from your head down as far as possible and from your feet up as far as possible -- and don't forget possible !!!"

  17. How times have changed! I remember Wrights coal tar soap as a child as my auntie nell's house smelt of cabbage and carbolic soap! I bought a bar of the soap the other day to sniff now and then but my husband and son won't let me use it. They hate the smell!!! x

  18. Hi Jane,

    Gosh that brought back lots of memories of my childhood to.
    How on earth did we manage? I don't know about you I thought nothing of it, did not know any different I suppose.

    Could you imagine young people having to do that today :)
    I can imagine the reaction.

    Tks for the read. The grandchildren have just left, so it was nice to sit and relax.

    BTW Did you see any medlars in France.
    Apparently there are groves of wild medlars in parts of France.

  19. That was such an interesting read Jane! I sometimes think of how people used to keep house in 'the old days' and when I do am always grateful as I plug in the hoover or stuff the washing in the machine! A lovely read, thank you for sharing your memories.
    Have a good weekend.
    Helen x

  20. We take so much for granted now! It is very interesting to hear how difficult it used to be just to keep clean!
    Lucy xxxxxxxx

  21. Life was so hard then, wasn't it? I can honestly say that I never take our modern gadgets for granted - my life is so much easier than even my parents' was at my age. It means I can spend more time with my husband and kids, and do things I want to do - like arting!

    Great read, thank you!


  22. So glad you're compiling this record. it's the smaller details that are often neglected in historical records.

  23. Thank you so much for sharing. I just love the stories of your childhood. I was also surprised that I was familiar with all the different types of soaps you used!
    Take care,

  24. Hi! Nice to meet you. When visiting Sherborne (first visited in 85) we were staying in a converted village school in Donyatt, Somerset.

    Well on your post you were writing about my life around the age of 5 -6. The only difference was that we had running cold water in the kitchen and an oven shelf from the range wrapped in a towel was a hot water bottle.

  25. Wonderfully remembered! It's astonishing to look back and recall how we were back then and contemplate the 'progress' made in the last 50 years. Dizzying!

    My dad still insists that washing with Lifebuoy carbolic soap stopped him getting colds....

  26. Just so enjoyed this very much, Jane. Thank you so much for sharing. I know life was physically more difficult then, especially wihtout electricity, but it seems that one had time to think, to relate to those around them, as folks were not on the computer, cell phone, or glued to the TV.


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