Monday, 2 June 2014


Today we live in a world of indoor plumbing, central heating, electricity, to say nothing of the technology which seems to have overtaken us. But what was it like for poorer people in Britain years ago? Even fifty or sixty years ago, people seemed to be living in the 'dark ages'.

Modernisation came slowly to rural areas. My grandmother lived in a cottage in the Essex countryside in the fifties with no electricity. She had gas-lighting. She had to pull a chain on it to start the gas coming through, and put a match to the 'mantle' a small dome-shaped mesh (about an inch or so across and perhaps an inch and a half long) which over time would disintegrate and have to be replaced. You would have to get a new one (came in a box of six) from the 'ironmongers'. They were so delicate that when they had been used once, if you touched them you would put your finger through them. I always worried that Gran would gas herself, or us (in the days of coal gas, you understand) or that she would blow us all up! It used to make a loud 'poof' as it ignited! But it seemed to work. The gaslight had a peculiar smell which never seemed to dissipate. Makes you wonder how they didn't all asphyxiate from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Of course, there was the open fire. Everyone had an open fire. In London the accumulated smoke from domestic and industrial use of coal combined with certain weather conditions to produce a thick smog. I can remember my Dad having to follow a bus home one night, because you just could not see further than ten feet ahead! 

Because you had just one coal fire in the house, you lived in one room and spent the evening huddled around a minute black-and-white television with a screen no bigger than a tablet today. The bedrooms were unheated. Net curtains stuck to the windows with frost in the mornings, and you could see your breath. Everything was done in the one living room - you washed in the adjoining kitchen, and you dressed in front of the fire if you did not want to catch pneumonia. The 'front room' which was supposed to be 'posh' was not only unheated, but also abandoned, and became the dumping ground for everything no-one knew what to do with. 

Later, we graduated to a sparkly new gas fire. But when that new-fangled thing called central heating came in, many people avoided it, not just because of the expense (all that money to install a lot of radiators!) but also because they thought it was unhealthy! This at a time when everyone smoked, and we kids were almost kippered from the smoke of the fire! People also thought that sleeping in a heated bedroom made you weak. You needed to be toughened up! And everyone knew that running gas central heating was so expensive. Well no. The cost of running it was on a par with running a gas fire all day! I did not experience central heating until long after I was married when my husband and I moved to a new house in Norfolk, which was in 1979. And we were the exception then.

Gran in the cottage had a toilet at the bottom of the garden in a shed full of bits of wood, spiders and their huge webs, to say nothing of the mice and rats. The toilet consisted of an oil drum (a large round tin can about 3ft high, rusting and really unlovely) with a toilet seat perched precariously on it! I wouldn't go down there if I could help it! What did they do with the contents of that oil drum? Well, some people dug a hole in the garden and buried it! Ugh! In Norfolk they had the 'honey cart' which came round at night and collected it. I wouldn't like to say what happened to it then. 

In our small Edwardian terraced house in London, we had the luxury of a fully flushing toilet (with the cistern suspended above your head and a long chain for the flush).  However, it was 'outside'. Thankfully we had a 'lean-to' or glass conservatory-type building to keep the elements off, which was a luxury our neighbours did not have, but it was still perishingly cold in winter. Most people thought an indoor toilet was 'unhealthy'. More unhealthy than constipation because you couldn't sit there long enough because it was so cold? People had a chamber pot (affectionately called a 'guzunder' because it goes under the bed - get it?) for night time.We had running hot and cold water, but no proper bathroom until Dad built an extension on the house. We kids were washed in the kitchen sink. And the toilet stayed outside.

Grandmother didn't fare so well. She had a tin bath. I don't know if, at her age, she ever used it, but tin baths were usually placed in front of the fire in the living room, or in front of the range in the kitchen if there was room. Water was heated on the range and tipped into the bath and the family would start with the youngest child and work up to Father. He probably came out dirtier and smellier than he went in! Hair was washed in the kitchen sink, teeth were cleaned in the kitchen sink. All washing of bodies and clothes was done in the kitchen sink. Clothes were wrung out using a mangle, which fascinated us kids!

My husband and I moved out of London to Norfolk in 1979. A friend of mine brought up in King's Lynn, Norfolk, also in the fifties, did not even have running water. Instead they had a pump at the end of the street. Mind you, we still have a saying in Norfolk that the county is at least ten years behind the rest of the country! I wonder if that is still true? Technology is creeping in even here.

Sometime in the sixties, my grandmother moved out and the cottages (which were probably extremely picturesque and would be worth a fortune today) were demolished, and she went to live with my aunt and uncle, being deemed to old to care for herself. She died aged 79 in 1962.

Ah! Those were the days! The good old days? Give me modern conveniences every time.

Evelyn Tidman is the author of GENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE The Adventures of Bartholomew Roberts, Pirate and ONE SMALL CANDLE The Story of William Bradford and the Pilgrim Fathers available from Amazon in print and in Kindle: US   UK   Australia   Canada . For other countries please see Amazon.
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  1. Very earthy, Evelyn! Though we are the same age, my memories are more pleasant. Well, the houses were built some centuries after those there. My grandmother's apartment was Victorian and absolutely beautiful (though old and modest) and included a bathroom with a footed tub. I could smell the wood--meaning dark, carved wooden trims and brass-and-wood handles on things. Perhaps that is one reason I love history.

    1. Actually, looking back, I am surprised at the discrepancies across the country. My Gran's cottage was obviously harking back to at least Victorian times, and I don't think it had ever been updated! It really was like living in the 19th century. Yet she was less than twenty miles from London. But when my friend told me about fetching water from the pump in King's Lynn, which is a town, at about the same time, I was appalled. At least my Gran had running water in the house! Now I could not hazard a guess at how old Gran's small cottage was.

      Thanks for your comment, Debra. Your grandmother obviously had an updated Victorian house. Ahh! The memories!