Born in 1932 in what was then the town of Maryborough in the Queens County, I grew up in a small rented house that I shared with my sister, four brothers and our parents. A total of eight people in a two-bedroom house that had no bathroom, only one room downstairs used as kitchen/living room and a small scullery leading to a tiny backyard with an outside flushing toilet. The scullery contained a sink and cold water tap only — there was no running hot water. The house itself was cold and draughty throughout, with the exception of the kitchen fire — the sole means of heating and where all the cooking was done.
This fire, which burned mainly turf or sticks we gathered from the scrubs and countryside, was in a black iron grate with an oven on one side and topped by two hobs, on one of which a huge black kettle was constantly on the boil to provide water for tea making, cooking, washing or washing up. This room, which contained the only heating in the house, was used as kitchen and living room — its only furniture being a dresser, table and chairs and a hand-operated Singer Sewing Machine on which Mother made or mended most of the family’s clothes.
On Saturday afternoons and evenings this kitchen/living room took on the new role of bathroom. A large metal bath was placed on the floor near the fire, and then part filled with hot water from several fillings of the kettle for our weekly all-over-wash. As children we could sit or recline in the water and have a proper bath but adults could only stand in the bath and wash themselves best way possible. It wasn’t ideal by any means and involved much labour with filling and heating and emptying the kettle over and over again. Added to all this was the problem of emptying the bath, not just at the end of the evening’s washing but also between washes. As the bath didn’t have a plug hole with which to drain the water away, it had to be carried outside to be emptied with all the physical effort that that involved.
Also, as the house was devoid of electricity, at dusk an oil lamp was lit which was sometimes augmented by candles depending on the amount of light required. Of course, candles were cheaper to buy and were often used on their own in order to eke out the more expensive paraffin oil, usually reserved for Father to read his newspaper by, the children to do their homework by, or Mother when using the sewing machine. Candles flickered a lot, especially in draughty houses and could easily start a fire if knocked over, so in the absence of a proper candle holder, they were fixed securely in their own grease on a plate or saucer.
No electricity also equated to no vacuum cleaner, no television, no microwave, no electric cooker or oven, no toaster, no hair dryer, no electric curlers or rollers, no electric iron. The awful drudgery associated with ironing clothes then would have to be experienced to be fully comprehended. The actual irons (at least two were needed if you were to make any progress at all at reducing the ironing pile) were of weighty cast iron which were placed in the fire to heat and then cautiously lifted out with a damp cloth. The flat base of the iron was then spat on to test the amount of heat; if the spit rolled off quickly it was too hot; if it stayed on it wasn’t hot enough and the iron, or irons, went back in the fire until the correct temperature was reached. Spitting, of course, was frowned upon and was not to be encouraged. In later years public notices were posted declaring that spitting spread tuberculosis, but with the old cast iron it was useful for determining temperature — to pour water on the iron was messy and would not be helpful as it would cool it and it was certainly not advisable to judge the heat with your hand.
When the adjudged correct temperature was reached, the iron taken from the open fire would not be in a fit state to be placed on the clothes, so its dirty flat base would have to be covered with a spotless metal guard to protect the garments from stains or scorch marks and ironing could commence. Unfortunately the iron soon cooled and then with the metal guard removed, would have to be plunged back in the fire to heat all over again. This was when having a second iron was useful, as that could then be used while the first iron heated up again.
Washdays were just one step away from going to the river and bashing the clothes against rocks. At least one day a week was reserved for this physical and mental torture which was usually a Monday. In fact Monday washday usually started on Sunday when the dirtiest of the clothes were sorted and put in soapy water to soak overnight. Then with neither washing machine, biological soap powders or spin dryer or even hot water to help her, Mother would spend all day Monday boiling and washing the entire weekly wash. Having sorted the clothes into piles, the first pile was then put in a container of cold water and placed on the open fire to bring to the boil, ensuring all the while that the fire was kept burning brightly, an added task to further worry the poor washerwoman, unless she had an able assistant with whom to share her washday woes.
In addition to boiling, each soiled garment had to be scrubbed by hand and rubbed on a ribbed washboard, resulting in broken nails, chapped hands and sore knuckles for poor Mother. After all the scrubbing and boiling came several cold rinses, each one verging on slave labour with the amount of emptying and refilling of heavy containers devoid of easy means of either filling or emptying. A little blue bag (smaller than a cup) known as Dolly Blue was stirred around in the final rinse of the whites to improve whiteness and get rid of any hints of yellow. Then following the final rinse, a heavy iron/wooden mangle dating from the 19th century was brought in from the shed and required the assistance of two people — one to pass the wet clothes through the rollers while the other struggled to turn the huge iron handle that worked the reluctant mechanism.
Although the rollers were good at removing surplus water from the clothes, a great fault of the mangle was its tendency to stain or leave marks on the clothes, so valued or favoured items were generally wrapped in muslin or a plain white sheet to safeguard them as they came in contact with the mangle in their passage through the rollers. Shirt and blouse collars and cuffs had to be scrubbed and starched and if the weather was bad the washed garments would have to be dried near the fire — our one and only fire — and would hang about the house all week getting in everyone’s way. Other items used on washday were, a heavy two-handled agitating stick, known as a posser, used to whirl the clothes around in a zinc tub, a bit better than going to the river and beating them with a stone, but hard, manual labour for all that. And if it rained, there was a children’s rhyme:
Rain, rain, go away, this is Mother’s washing day;
Rain, rain, go away, come again another day.
Sunday, a day of rest from servile work, would see all the family attend church or chapel. All the laundry preparations carried out on the other days were geared towards having an abundance of clean clothes ready for Sunday. The rest of the week adults were at work and would certainly not be dressed in their Sunday best. Children, if not at school, would play out in the streets amidst all the dust and grime from traffic and the smoky chimneys that then prevailed: they too would certainly not be dressed in their Sunday best. Any old clothes were suitable for weekdays but a clean frock, blouse or shirt was essential for Sunday. If, in the unlikely event, one wasn’t available, well, like the rain on Mother’s washday, there was a rhyme for that too:
Janey Mac, me shirt is black, what will I do for Sunday?
Go to bed and cover your head and don’t get up till Monday.