29. Aug, 2017


It has struck me that the overwhelming majority of you good people who read my blogs have never known a house without a washing machine let alone that workhorse of the fifties, the twin tub.
We children of the forties and earlier grew up with neither; so cannot take for granted these basic pieces of household equipment.
Monday in my childhood terraced cottage was typical of millions across the country. It was the traditional washday, all fabrics being of natural fibre- cotton, wool, flax. Nothing was then drip dry .
The Copper
The day’s operation took place in our tiny 8 x 6 feet scullery. As you entered from the living room door, there was the outside door to the right, then a butler’s sink and next to that, the villain of the piece…the copper. This was a brick built cube in the corner…and was so named after the inverted dome made of copper that would hold the water boiled by the underneath coal fire.
First off the copper had to be filled with bucketfuls of water from the tap. Once it was full, the fire had to be lit…newspaper, laths of chopped wood and then once it was going, coal.
The Kitchen Range
Next came the lighting of the black-leaded kitchen range to enable the boiling up of two saucepans and a kettle to fill the half size galvanised bath put into the sink for the scrubbing and rinsing processes. Fabrics were split into coloureds and whites. Only then and once the kettle had come to the boil could a quick tea and buttered bread breakfast be snatched.
The Housewive’s Prayer.
At this stage every housewife offered up the same fervent prayer…”Please may the copper not burst!” (It happened once to ours with boiling water going everywhere. Fortunately no one was near it, but it threw the household economy out of kilter with the dirty washing piling up until a tinker could be found to mend it).
Once the water was boiled, and the detergent (probably “Oxydol ) added, in went the whites-no revolving drum then, just either a dolly or in our case a copper stick (also doubling as an ideal implement for tanning many a backside in times of stress…) Stirring or agitating the washing in the copper of boiling water called for quite considerable strength. It meant working in a restricted space calling for concentrated arm and shoulder physical effort.
It was then time to empty the two saucepans and kettle from the range into the waiting bath. The former then had to be refilled and carried back for re-boiling. All the time, an eye had to be kept on the fires in copper and range to keep them refuelled and burning.
The whites were then hauled out of the copper by means of either copper stick or wooden tongs and put into the bath of now cooling water. They would be replaced in the copper by more whites if necessary and if not by the coloureds.
Then came the scrubbing of the whites in the bath while the coloureds boiled. This was done on a wash board of either thick stippled glass or of wood and a stiff brush.
It is hardly necessary to point out that all of this would have been performed in a small room full of steam and heat from a coal fire in a brick container.
Wringing out
This process would then be repeated with the remainder of the washing. It was then time to empty the scrubbing bath and begin the wringing out in the sink-hardwrist and hand work. We had some analogue help at this stage in the form of a very heavy duty all iron mangle. If I was available I used to earn a whole sixpence(!) for turning the big wheel as either my mother or nan fed the washing through the big rollers.
Hanging out
The week’s washing was done but the anxiety was just beginning. It had to be hung out on a long line in the back garden, the sag being prevented by the clothes prop- a long length of wood with a “vee” cut into one end.
Eyes were now sky-cast and earnest discussion broken out between housewives over backgarden fences…”Do you reckon its going to rain?” The rest of the day was then spent in constant vigil. The first drop occasioned a series of sprints, that would have not disgraced an Olympic champion, to snatch washing off lines. Continuing rain created another problem. To dry, even partially, the still wet fabrics had to be hung up indoors thus festooning scullery and living room.
Once the rain stopped they would be taken out and re-pegged back on the line. There were no plastic pegs, just those made out of two pieces of carved stick and held together by a tin band. These were bought each spring and autumn from the travelling people.
Declaring the washing to be dry brought a weekly response similar to that of “Harvest Home.” However, the washing was far from over. There was still the ironing.



Then came more analogue help…an electric iron! Plugged into the light socket via an adaptor it was a housewife’s boon. We still retained the literal “irons” that had to be continually reheated in rotation on the kitchen range. Assuming that the weather had been kind on the Monday and there had been no accidents such as, heaven forbid, the washing lines having broken, then Tuesday was ironing day with a vengeance. If something had gone wrong then it would have to be stretched into Wednesday as well.
This would represent three days of hard domestic graft interspersed with cleaning, shopping, juggling ration coupons, period poverty, cooking, mending, seeing to the children, probably nursing an elderly parent, doing a part- time job to make ends meet and providing sexual services. Moreover, in herring fishing communities like ours with the men away , such wives had to be left to cope on their own for eight months of the year.
Never mind Churchillian speeches, it was steadfast women like these with fixed moral compasses that saw us through the war on the Home Front and afterwards during the real austerity of rationing and the export drive.