A few weeks ago I was remembering how my father had modernised our house and so many other aspects of our lives have changed during my lifetime.
My Grandma’s house, 6 Regent Terrace in Chapel Allerton, had the most basic of facilities. The house had no bathroom, the toilet was one of a row at the bottom of the lane, there was a range in the kitchen and the old gas lights were still there. I quite liked going down the lane with a key and using the toilet, but there were no lights and I wouldn’t have wanted to go down there at night. I am not sure whether the toilets were joined to the sewerage system, septic tank or night soil.
Grandma used to tell me tales of Knocker-Uppers who would come to the house with a long pole and knock on the window to make sure that you were awake. I thought she was making it up, but this was a real job, an early form of alarm clock.
The house had two bedrooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs, the kitchen and the parlour. There was also a cellar that I spent many an hour whitewashing with my older brother. I have no idea what the reason for painting a cellar white was, particularly as it also had a coal store, but we used to do it with initial enthusiasm that waned quite quickly. My wife suggests it might have something to do with pests, but I don’t know. I know the navy did it in ships to improve the light and reduce bacteria. The house is still there, but it has now been modernised and I am sure is a very different place. When I was very young electricity was installed and within a few years the Government paid for one of the bedrooms to be turned into a bathroom which included a modern flushing toilet, and the toilet block was removed. Night time needs were met by the use of a Guzunder. These were ceramic or enamel pots and were kept under the beds and were like adult size babies’ potties.
Before the bathroom was installed, bath-time meant a tin bath being brought out of the cellar and water being heated using the range. The bath would be filled on the kitchen floor and when it was ready Grandad would have a bath and then Grandma would use the same water. When my mum and aunty were little girls they would have then taken their turns with the same bathwater. They were brought up in the British Workmen’s Institute (Snooker Club) in Chapel Allerton, not far from Regent Terrace. Bath days were usually once a week. The chimney had a water tank and the burning of coal on the range heated the water, heated the house and was used to cook meals in the built in oven and boil water in pans on the top. It was a blessing in winter as it was, with the open fires in the parlour and bedrooms, the only means of heating the house. I well remember the ritual of lighting the fires. The old coke and ashes were removed with a small shovel and brush, and when it was clean, pieces of newspaper were rolled and twisted to make fire starters, small kindling bits of wood were added on top and then pieces of coal placed over the top on the hearth. I loved helping Grandma start the fire and she was happy to supervise the process and let me do most of it. When it was ready to light the matches came out, Swan Vestas were the usual and there was a supply as Grandad needed them for his pipe. A large sheet of newspaper was on hand to draw the fire. The kindling was lit and the sheet of paper placed over the front of the fire. This shut the air off from the top of the fire, but drew air through the space at the bottom. The fire used to roar up and I loved watching the light through the paper and, within a short time, it began to scorch with the heat and sometimes a circle of flame would burn from the centre. Grandma would then use tongs to place the newspaper safely in the fire. Without the sheet of paper drawing the fire, the flames would subside and hopefully the fire would be well lit. Sometimes it took a second go to draw the fire and get the coal properly alight.
Originally in the house the range did everything and the black iron oven was an essential part of life in the little terrace cottage. I can still remember the street light in the lane that was gas, but with the installation of electricity it was modified and an electric light illuminated the street. Gas was originally the source of lighting and the upright piano in the parlour had candle holders, but they were never used when I was little. The gas lights were, though, and they had to be individually lit with a wax taper (A long very thin wax candle). There was a little fabric cover called a mantle and that would glow incandescently and then over that was a glass shade. There was a little gas tap on each light and the brightness could be controlled by turning the tap up or down. Gas was not the natural gas we use nowadays, it was coal gas (Town Gas) and unlike modern gas where the smell is added, it had a strong smell and was poisonous. Gas works heated coal to produce the gas and it was stored in large barrel-shaped metal containers where the top half would move up or down depending on the amount and the pressure of the gas stored. These were gasometers and formed part of the urban landscape since their introduction in the Victorian era, along with the gasworks.
‘The telescopic gas holder was first invented in 1824. The cup and dip (grip) seal was patented by Hutchinson in 1833, and the first working example was built in Leeds.’
The tales of people putting their heads in the oven to commit suicide were true because the gas was toxic, whereas nowadays natural gas may well explode, but the fumes alone would not kill you. The Town Gas was replaced with Natural Gas from the North Sea in the middle 1960s onwards.
When electricity replaced gas lighting, gas had to find a new market and heating and cooking became its main use. The gas lights at Grandma’s were taken out and a gas cooker was installed into the kitchen, along with an instant gas geezer next to the kitchen sink. With the installation of the bathroom and electricity life for Grandma and Grandad was greatly improved. Water was still heated in a tank in the chimney, but I believe it had an electric booster and now bath time became more regular and much easier.
Down in the cellar was the coal store and outside on the lane pavement was an iron plate that slid across to reveal the coal hole. I well remember the coal trucks coming to the end of the lane and the burly men backing up to the truck laden with hessian sacks full of coal. The men had strong leather aprons or waistcoats and as they backed to the side of the truck another man on the truck would position a hessian sack of coal. The man would take hold of the top two corners and lift the hundred-weight load onto his back, walk down the lane and tip it down the hole to the cellar. Depending on how much was ordered this may be two or three trips and there was this tremendous crushing sound of the coal sliding down the chute and collecting at the bottom. The faces and hands of the coal men were black and I hate to think how they got clean, or what the state of their lungs would have been in. To add insult to injury the cheery men often smoked whilst working. I remember them collecting the money for the coal and taking the order for the next delivery. When the coal had been delivered it was my brother’s and my job to sort out the coal. We went into the cellar, which was always cool and damp. We had to shovel the coal back into the store and then break up some large bits with a sledge hammer and then place them in a tin bucket and struggle to carry it up the steps for the fires. The coal was magnificent, shiny black chunks and when they burned little pulses of gas would come out of some pieces and catch alight and dance with a blue flickering flame. I watched the fires for hours and imagined a world of magical volcanoes, dragons. It was much better than the TV.
The coal was definitely not smokeless at first. The Great London Smog of 1952 killed 4000 initially and a further 8000 in the following weeks and months due to illnesses caused by it. The result of this was The Clean Air Act of 1956 and later 1968 which saw the introduction of smokeless fuels. The major problem with this is that smokeless coal production still released the toxic gases and carbon to the atmosphere, but it did it where the coke was produced and not where it was burnt in the cities. By the 1960s there was a move to electrical and gas heating which reduced the amount of coal being burnt in homes but, in the case of coal fired power stations, not the overall pollution.
Also located in the cellar was the washing machine of the day, the dolly tub. This was a large galvanised barrel that was filled with hot water and there was the dolly which looked like a small wooden stool with a long handle and crosspiece through the seat part. Washing was placed in the tub and the agitation was done by placing the dolly in the tub and energetically turning the handle back and forth, violently stirring the washing. It must have been really hard work for grandma, but it wasn’t finished there. The washing would be pulled out and rinsed and then fed through the mangle. The mangle was a cast iron frame that held two rollers. There was a large handle and the wet washing was fed in between the rollers when it was pressed together, and the water forced out. I loved to watch it as bubbles would form in the sheets or the shirts, and stiff, much drier clothes came out the other end. When the electricity was installed the mechanical dolly tub was replaced with an electric one. The early washing machines were not very different, but now powered. The mangle was still fascinating, less strenuous and more thorough. Grandad’s shirts had never looked so clean and the shirts with the removable collars started to be replaced with built-in collars. Carbolic soap was used to scrub the grime off the collars and Pears and Fairy soaps became popular.
These changes happened over a very short time period and the better heating, sewerage systems and cleaner air made a great difference to public health, but further changes would see society transformed in ways my grandparents couldn’t have imagined.