My Grandmother’s House – Part 2

Dolly Tub 2As I said, I loved my grandma and her house, but I didn’t mention my grandfather, Harry. Harry had been a tailor, but he had also owned his own sweet and tobacconist’s shop after the war, run a snooker hall in Chapel Allerton and his favourite pub was the Nag’s Head. My grandfather, like my grandmother, was short and had a bit of a pot belly and his kingdom was the front room. The house consisted of a kitchen and a lounge, two bedrooms and a cellar. There was no bathroom nor toilet when they first lived there and the bath was a galvanized metal tub that hung on a hook on the wall of the steps leading down into the cellar.

Here where I now live in Western Australia, the English have a reputation for being shy of soap and not bathing regularly. In Perth a minimum of two showers a day and more in the very hot summer weather is the norm, but in the cold English climate, it takes courage to shed one’s clothes. Certainly, in the days before a bathroom was fitted, bath time was a once a week affair. There were only two sources of hot water in the house and initially only one. The kitchen was dominated by a large black iron range. For the uninitiated, a range was a fireplace cum oven and it had hot plates on either side. Kettles, and pans could be heated from the fire of coal that burned at its centre; meals could be cooked and it was the equivalent of a working class Aga.

On bath night, the bath would be brought out and placed centre of stage in the kitchen. Water was heated and the bath filled. My grandfather would have been first as men were dominant. He would soap himself with a bar of carbolic soap and then rinse himself with a jug of hot water. I believe grandma would have been next, using the same water, as it was too time-consuming and costly to heat fresh. In younger families the children would have followed on in chronological order, all using the same water. Oh, the joys of being the youngest in a large family!Tin Bath

I never experienced the tin bath, as grandma had another delight up her sleeve for us and that was the sink. I can’t quite remember if it was a stone sink or just a heavy duty porcelain one, but if we needed a bath, and grandma was the decider on that, we were stood in the sink, naked to the world, and I mean the world, as the sink was adjacent to a window and we were scrubbed mercilessly. As the saying went, ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ and so we must have been very pure. We were rubbed until we were bright pink and the drying process was no better. The towel would be coarse and rough and this added to the lack of skin on the finished article. Grandma seemed to want to particularly dry us ’round the houses’, which was her euphemism for the more delicate regions. Delicacy was not in my grandmother’s vocabulary, but the term “round the houses’ has stuck and I used it for one of my music album titles.

I am sure that  a number of the passing residents  Mrs Orange or Miss Clarkson, would have looked in, and given their seal of approval over the thoroughness of my grandmother’s technique. I suppose it was a bit like having a well scrubbed doorstep, a well-scrubbed grandchild was another mark of social standing.

Dolly Tub 1The front room or parlour was a dark and a bit damp room, probably because the fire wasn’t always lit, whereas the one in the kitchen was. Originally I remember the fittings for gas lights on the wall, but I don’t think I was born when they were used. The house had electric lights, when I look back. There was a piano for a time, but I don’t know if anyone ever played it. It was an upright and had still got candle holders on each side of the front. The room did have some things that captured my young imagination. Firstly, the fireplace housed an open fire and the lighting technique involved wood kindling, rolled up newspaper and then large chunks of coal. This was not smokeless at this time and it was primitive chunks of shiny black fossilized wood. To enhance the lighting process a large sheet of newspaper was placed across the front of the fireplace to cause an updraft of air through the bottom, causing the fire to roar with the additional oxygen. The flames illuminated the sheet of paper and if not carefully managed, it would burst into flames. The fire was magic, it had a strong smell of wood, smoke and dustiness. I would sit entranced as the coal burned, little geysers of coal-gas would burst out of the coal and in my imagination it was hell fire, another planet. I remember watching it for hours. The greatest thrill was being able to break the coal and stir it using the metal poker. It was only when I was older that I was allowed, but I used to watch my older brother do it. Even the cleaning out of the fire, when it was cold, was magical. The ash was white and so fine. There was a little brass set of brush and pan, just for the job and a matching poker. The tiled section in front of the fire had to be carefully swept and the dust and coke, placed into the metal dustbin outside.

Sometimes when I was in the house the coal men would arrive. The truck barely managed to reverse part way down the narrow lane and dirty men with leather aprons and jackets would carry sacks of very heavy coal and tip them down a chute that allowed the coal to slide into the cellar. It would fall upon my older brother and I to go down into the cellar and move the coal heap into a separate section of whitewashed cellar where the coal was stored. It always seemed a mystery and still does, why cellars were white-washed, but they all were, or so I believe. Particularly large chunks had to be broken up with a sledge hammer and then together we would carry up a metal bucket, struggling with the weight, back up into the kitchen.

The cellar was only small and during the war would double up as an air-raid shelter, I have been told. The air was cold and it was always damp. At the top of the steps down was the tin bath, but facing you as you turned a corner was a meat safe. A meat safe was an equivalent of a fridge. It was a pink metal box with small holes for ventilation. The safe was where meat, milk, butter and other perishables were kept for short times. I believe it was made of metal to prevent rats or mice gaining access.

Down in the cellar was also where the washing took place. I can still recall a corrugated galvanized tub like a large barrel and there was a wooden thing called a dolly. It was like a small three legged stool with a pole from the centre of where the seat would have been, with a cross bar at the top. Originally, washing would be put in the filled tub, soap added and then the dolly would be placed into it and rotated from side to side. This acted as a washing machine agitator, but was all physical exercise and woman-powered. Wet washing was pulled out, rinsed and then run through the mangle. The mangle was two rollers which turned with a heavy handle. The iron contraption was very effective. The clothes were fed in between the rollers and as they turned they squeezed the water out of the washing. The water ran back into a bucket and, in more modern versions, it was housed over the tub and the water just flowed back in. I loved to see sheets and shirts go in. The air could get trapped and the sleeve might blow up like a balloon before the air and water were forced out and the flat, stiff washing appeared out the other end. Over the years I visited my grandmother, technology came into the house. The dolly was replaced by an electric tub with an agitator that worked by electricity. Mangles became electric and finally the twin tub, with separate sections, one for washing and the other housing a spin dryer. My grandmother must have been delighted and blessed electricity.

Another use for the range was for heating irons. Irons in those days were exactly that. Small, but heavy, they were a similar shape to the electric iron, but there were solid and had to be heated. As a result, they worked in tandem, one being heated on the range whilst the other was being used. It took great skill not to burn the clothes, but I suspect there were failures over the years. One major difference in the clothes my grandfather wore were the shirts. Shirts had detachable collars that buttoned on and off. This allowed a well-dressed man to wear a clean collar everyday. The shirt remained the same all week, but a clean collar was essential. The other fashion difference for the working man was that a suit would be worn, but for some reason the trousers came up to almost the armpit and a belt or braces would hold them in place. Shoes were always well polished and no self-respecting man like my grandfather would be seen out with dirty shoes.

Whilst I am writing this so many memories that I had forgotten have come flooding back and added to the joy of the times I had with them. They were a funny couple, but I adored them and they always spoilt me and my brothers. After Part 1 my younger brother reminded me about the cutting of the lawn, but that will have to wait for another day. I didn’t think I would have much to write, but as those who know me can attest to, I am never short for a word to say.

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