As you will know if you’ve been to this blog before, I’m a bit of a history nut, and in particular I love the history of the private home. I mainly write mysteries set in the 1930s, although I set my books in other eras too from time to time.
But the few short years between the World War I and World War II bewitch and intrigue me. These were the years that really created the world as we know it now, and the legacy of those years is still widely felt and experienced today. (To read a bit more about how I see this era, please click on this link to read a blog post from last year)
Because of my daft preoccupation with the first part of the twentieth century, I visit a lot of English country houses and I take LOADS of pictures. I’m particularly interested in the more ‘basic’ aspects of life. I want to know about how meals were created, how houses and clothes were cleaned, and how people cleaned themselves. So I thought I’d tell you a bit about my childhood, and also next week, a bit about the rise of the modern domestic bathroom.
I was born in 1960 in the South of England. Contrary to many peoples’ view, this was not a time of universal comfort and modernisation. Not that I was particularly aware of it as a child, but looking back now, I can see we were very badly off by modern standards. Yet we were not alone, and I doubt if our experience was a rare one.
From when I was about three, or a little younger, we lived in what can only be described as a bedsit, though in those days we gave it the grander name of a one-room flat. Mum and I slept, cooked, and relaxed in that one room in an old house, with many other such rooms. If you read books written in the 40s, 50s and 60s, you will often come across mention of these grand old houses gone down in the world and divided up into flats or bedsits. Larger private homes became unmanageable without a staff to run them, and after the first world war, wages rose, and labour was scarce, lured away by the higher wages and often shorter working weeks in the factories. We lived in one of those grand old houses, a handsome very square, white-washed Georgian villa over four floors.
We were on the first floor ( second floor to you guys from the States), and our room faced out the back where there were the remains of a beautiful garden. Our neighbours on the same floor were two men sharing a room. They were British but called themselves Pierre and Rene, and they worked as hairdressers. They were young, noisy and seemed to have a lot of fun. They gave me gifts and sent postcards whenever they went away. I realise now they were a gay couple. But not then. Then, we thought they were just good friends. Really good friends…
Next door to them was ‘Uncle’ Harry, an elderly refugee from the former Yugoslavia. He’d been living there for fifteen or so years, since the war ended. He gave me tinned fruit and cream as a treat, and told me stories. I think he was lonely. He had lost his family in the war. He proposed to Auntie Zonya regularly but sadly she always turned him down. It was normal for children to call adult friends Auntie or Uncle, even if they were no such relation.
Across the hall was Auntie Zonya. I adored her. She was a strong influence on my early years. I have written a number of short pieces about her, including Jazz Baby, Patrick’s Irish Eyes, Big Knickers, and others. More importantly, she bought me my first cat.
There were others too, who were out for most of the day or kept to themselves, so we didn’t know them so well as these four. Upstairs in what used to be the servants’ quarters in the attic, was Miss Lilian, who was the owner of the house, and I was always told to behave and be polite when she came down to our floor, as she had the power to throw us out onto the street. I remember her as seeming incredibly old, with very white wavy hair, and not much taller than me. I’d love to know more about her life and whether she remembered the house in its prime, when it was all for one family. There’s never a time machine around when you need one.
There were people who lived downstairs in the basement too, but I only slightly knew the couple with the little girl who I played with occasionally. They had windows that were below the level of the garden, with little dug-outs around them to bring in the light. These were presumably the old kitchen, scullery etc of the house when it was in its heyday.
There was a shared bathroom on each floor. I remember we shared our bathroom with at least three and sometimes more other families, though usually these families consisted of single people or couples.
It wasn’t unusual to be on the loo or in the bath and someone else needed to use the facilities. It wasn’t unusual for there to be no hot water because someone else had used too much for their own bath. (No shower!) Most of the time when I was having a bath, someone would come in to shave, or wash, to rinse some clothes, or to use the loo–not a pleasant experience for either of us!
One friend in the house–my Auntie Zonya–used a chamber pot until well into the late 60s. I found it (empty I hasten to add) under her bed once and thought she was putting out cups of tea for an invisible giant. (I was an imaginative child) I only found out what it was when I asked her where the saucer was, as the ‘cup’ was shaped and patterned just like a huge teacup. I’d say that the fact that I didn’t know what it was shows that usage of chamber pots was in decline by the 60s, although clearly not completely done away with.
Even when we moved from there to a house–one bedroom upstairs and a kitchen/sitting-room downstairs, with a toilet in the backyard under a lean-to roof and with no light and loads of spiders–we still had no bath of our own. That was around 1966 or so. But it was private, and cosy, and I remember I loved that house. I was about 6 when we moved in, and only about 7 when we left, so we weren’t there as long as it seems in my memories. It’s gone now: that and the house next door–that belonged to a blind gentleman who was a piano-tuner–were bulldozed to create something a bit nicer. Auntie Zonya lived in the house after us, when we moved on. She said the piano-tuner’s house was haunted. Then again, she said that about everywhere.
Hot water had to be boiled. Baths were not available at all–we didn’t have one of those old-fashioned baths you see in period dramas. We had a plastic washing-up bowl and used to put hot water in it, stand in it and wash ourselves down. I had long hair. Washing that was a nightmare. We used to take a torch out to the loo when we needed it. As a lean-to shack, the loo had no light, no windows, and was freezing cold – even in summer. And the spiders…
When we moved into a council flat (again, for those from outside the UK, I mean an apartment complex in social housing/government housing for the needy/low-income families) we had a big dining/sitting room, a separate kitchen, two bedrooms. AND–drum roll please–a bathroom!!!!!!!! Not to mention under-floor heating. (That was blissful) We had to go to the flat to clean it the week before we moved in as the previous occupants had left it dirty, and this gave us the perfect excuse to have a hot bath, which seemed to us the height of luxury and I can remember it even now, more than fifty years later.
The most exciting part of this house, apart from the bathroom, and the two bedrooms, was the coal door next to the front door. Basically if a thief timed it right they could get into the flat through this coal door and take whatever they wanted (not that we had anything!) and leave by either the front door or the coal door. Not a great feature from a security point of view. As an avid Famous Five reader, I loved the idea of the coal door giving absolutely anyone access to our home.
From there, we entered the modern world of running hot water, central heating and baths, then showers, of washing machines, then tumble driers, fridges, freezers, microwaves, toasters and colour television, computers, the Internet, eBooks and self-publishing…
But long before I came into the world, the common approach to washing, going to the loo, and in personal grooming had undergone massive changes. Read more next week!