Memories of Thundridge Part 3

Wash day, bath day and shopping

By Joan Woolard

  Premature heavy snow in the flat Lincolnshire fens in 2010 prompts memories of chilly, hilly Hertfordshire winters in youth. It must have been 1947 when the whole country was blanketed for months. Nine was both old enough and young enough to enjoy the fearless thrill of zipping down the steep slopes of a Thundridge meadow on a wooden sled. Reached through a five-bar gate off a footpath that led to summer strawberries, the field was ideal for such energetic activity. At the bottom hedge we village children would scramble off the toboggans and toil to the top of the hill again and again, flushed with excitement and exercise. Much to our wonderment and muted admiration Mr Jan Evetts appeared one day on skis. We had never seen such things before except in pictures of fashionable people on their annual skiing holidays in the Swiss Alps. Before package holidays and television our experiences of foreign lands and people were limited to school textbooks and the cinema. Jan was Dutch and a rarity.

 A bowl of steaming medication

Even rarer was a turbaned Indian who would arrive once a year with a large suitcase, knocking on doors to display his colourful merchandise. The contents of the suitcase always looked enticing but Mother never bought anything from him. We children were kept at a distance. Pester power didn’t exist! Occasionally a grey-bearded tramp would pass through the village looking for casual summer work; he was not regarded as any kind of threat. A more frequent visitor was our family doctor. Dr Stanley would breeze into the house, a cheery, avuncular figure, who always addressed us children with “Hello, you scallywags!”  Doctors made frequent house calls in those early days of the NHS. My yearly bronchitis was treated with pungent inhalations involving a towel over one’s head and a bowl of steaming medication, kill or cure; an extra hot water bottle might be provided if my hard-pressed mother could find time to do it. Illness always made us feel guilty. Antibiotics were not yet available and hospital was seldom an option. Except for childbirth hospital was regarded as the last resort. Snatches of conversation overheard in the shop suggested impending tragedy when voices lowered to utter the doom-laden words “cancer” or “hospital”.  What a long way we have travelled in six decades!  

Steps and stairs

 Generally our family enjoyed robust health. If exercise contributes to good health, No. 80, Thundridge, provided plenty. Built on the side of a hill, steps or stairs separated every ground floor room: one step between shop and living room, at least six from there to the kitchen, another three outside the back door, and between the shop and semi-basement store a good eight at least. “Those bloody stairs!” was Mother’s most frequent complaint long after the shop had been sold. Mother did not normally swear but the (bad) memories lingered like acrid smoke from an illicit bonfire. Without a bathroom there were chamberpots to be emptied and slop pails brought downstairs, fresh water taken up to fill jugs for washing every morning, not to mention coal and kindling to be carried indoors for the winter fires.  

A sepia world

Coal was kept in the wash-house outside (3 steps down) along with the earth closet. Cleaning out the grate every morning was a filthy job using dustpans and brushes, often amid clouds of sooty dust. No wonder houses were painted in dark colours! It is always an irritation to see dazzling white paintwork in television plays about life before or just after the war. It certainly wouldn’t have stayed white for long. Most people smoked too, so nicotine alone would have soon stained woodwork. It was indeed a sepia world.   Monday was Wash Day Paradoxically, sheets, towels and many clothing fabrics were white.

Monday was Wash Day.

Throughout the land every conscientious housewife did a weekly wash on Mondays. At our house this meant filling the large brick-built “copper” in the corner of the wash house with rainwater from the outside pump, progressing with time to the kitchen tap, cold water only. (Hot water came later, much later.) Many buckets had to be carried up and down the three steps before lighting a fire beneath the copper. Sheets, towels and clothes would be stuffed into it with washing soda and stirred with a wooden paddle as it boiled before being taken out and put through a mangle to squeeze out as much water as possible before rinsing in fresh water and mangled again. Clothes (and housewives) had to be tough to survive such treatment.  

Nothing was easy or laboursaving

This extremely hard work was made slightly easier when a small, movable boiler replaced the copper. Rinsing and mangling were still necessary, however, before further processes were carried out such as starching or “blueing” whites such as sheets and handkerchiefs. Men’s shirts had separate collars that always had to be stiffened with “Robin’s starch” from a small packet with a robin on the front. This powder had to be mixed carefully with boiling water until the starch “turned”. Whites looked whiter with a “blue-bag” in the rinse, courtesy of Reckitts.  After these lengthy processes everything was hung out to dry, weather permitting. Then came the ironing on the kitchen table with a heavy flat iron heated on the gas stove. Nothing was easy or laboursaving. In the absence of a hot tap, water had to be heated in kettles and saucepans. Who could blame the mother of a large family if their clothes were often grubby? Outlying houses without gas or electricity were at a great disadvantage.  Dishes were washed in boiling water whisked with a small, long-handled metal “cage” full of soap fragments too small for personal use. This ineffective method was replaced in later years by Rinso powder or Lux flakes, hardly more effective. Mother’s hands were always red and swollen, rubber gloves being not yet common.  

Weekly treat

Tuesday was Mother’s shopping day. Despite running a shop Mother still needed to take the bus into Ware, returning laden with bags in time for lunch. We children would watch anxiously for her head to appear above the parapet of the bridge, hoping for our weekly treat as she advanced from the Wadesmill bus-stop. Despite the bus ride it was amazing how warm fish and chips remained when wrapped in newspaper! They were always delicious.  

The local bobby

Thursday was early closing day. This old tradition had roots in market history and still exists in rural areas. Afternoon trips in the Austin 7 were a mixed blessing for a child prone to car-sickness and quite terrifying on steep hills when the little car would begin to run backwards. Wartime restrictions on petrol had curtailed such mixed pleasures not to mention the absence of cars in general among a rural population. Even the local “bobby” had to patrol with a bicycle. Police Constable Watson lived near the village hall in a police house and built caravans in his spare time. PC Watson knew everybody and would stop to chat with anyone he met. He learned about local miscreants through this very efficient “bush telegraph”. Another of his duties was to deal with accidents, of which there were several on the main road. As a trained First-Aider living nearby Pop was often required to assist. One evening he was called out to help a cyclist knocked down by a motor vehicle. Returning with hands dripping in blood, Pop told us the poor man could not have survived.    

Fresh hot water for each person was undreamt of

Saturday night was bath night. The large tin bath on the back wall of the house was carried up the steps into the kitchen and placed in front of the kitchen range. In winter a fire was sometimes lit for the occasion. Since the arrival of gas the black range was no longer used for cooking but its heat was welcome on cold evenings. Kettles and pans of steaming water provided about three inches (7cm) of luxurious warmth enjoyed all too briefly by each family member in turn. Able to bear the hottest water Pop was usually first. Fresh hot water for each person was undreamt of. A small electric fire was often used instead of the range. Compared with many village homes we were fortunate in having electricity. Gas mantles were still common, fascinating contraptions with little chains to regulate the gas supply to wall-mounted lamps. Paraffin lamps were a smelly alternative brought out when the electricity supply failed, which it often did. We children loved them, of course.  

A day of rest

Sundays were a day of rest for all of us except Mother who spent most of the morning preparing the roast dinner of lamb, pork or beef. Chicken was still a rare luxury. When very small the church Sunday School gave us the basics of Christian morality and Mother taught us The Lord’s Prayer, kneeling at the bedside. For this gift alone I shall be eternally grateful. Mother occasionally attended services but her faith waned with the years. This did not prevent The Reverend Sam. Luscombe joining Pop at the dining table to discuss the state of the nation over daily elevenses of hot lemonade and Ryvita with cheese prepared by Mother and later by me. As a parish councillor Pop had every opportunity to discuss local issues with customers and was instrumental in helping several families to be rehoused.  

Clean enough to be healthy, dirty enough to be happy

 Cleanliness, if not godliness, was achieved through the rest of the week by a bedtime sponge-down in the kitchen, faces scrubbed, ears washed behind and teeth cleaned. Mornings brought a quick splash of cold water to wake us up. These daily rituals kept us “clean enough to be healthy, dirty enough to be happy” and also, most remarkably, nit free despite our genetically luxuriant heads of hair. The school “nit nurse” rarely found infestations of head lice and these were always associated with poverty and ignorance. Large families in substandard accommodation were most at risk. There were also inspections for rickets, feet defects, eyesight and hearing.  

A terrace of mixed ancestry

After the war some of the East Enders had stayed in the countryside. The Irish O’Neils had six boys and everyone was amazed when a little girl was born. This rambunctious family lived in Back Street at a defunct hostelry, a former coaching inn with an archway from the street to the rear. This building was attached to the houses on either side forming a terrace of mixed ancestry along most of one side of the street. On the other side were two terraces broken by the school and a large, gloomy house of several storeys with a large garden backing onto the main road. There was an underpass from the garden to the fields beyond the road where horses were kept. The occupants of the house were rarely seen but had North African connections, once engaging my father to coach young Abyssinian princesses in English. We were kept at a safe distance where our curiosity could not intrude as Pop struggled to explain the difference between a verb and a noun to each exotic guest.  

Unheard of luxuries like ponies

Several families kept their children at a safe distance from the village and were seldom seen. These sequestered children attended other schools and had unheard of luxuries like ponies. They did not mingle in the rough and tumble world of Back Street urchins with their precocious sex games and foul language (although rustic innocence saved us from harm). After a cloistered upbringing that began with Nurse, then Governess until the age of seven, the village school would be graced with their presence. The Eleven-plus proved no obstacle but a natural rite of passage to grammar school and thence to boarding school. It seemed their feet hardly touched the ground except to descend from the saddle.  

A dyed-in-the-wool wimp

The crystalline, vocal precision of art critic Brian Sewell reflects the cut-glass accents of that ruling class, forging an instantly identifiable gulf between Them and Us. With its unassuming but supreme air of confidence this tell-tale badge commanded immediate respect. Intensely self-conscious and deeply aware of our inferiority, we doffed our caps and crawled. Even generously sharing their ponies on a daily basis failed to narrow the gap. This after-school activity was wonderful until I fell off, winded. Lacking the courage to remount confirmed my destiny as a dyed-in-the-wool wimp, one of the world’s workers.  

Meanwhile Ware Grammar School and “Hatfield Tech” lay with hidden promise beyond the horizon.      

This page was added on 24/01/2011.

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