‘All mod cons’ during times of austerity

A dolly tub and Belfast skin.
A dolly tub and Belfast skin.

If you were lucky enough to start the Second World War with your house furnished and equipped, you might, with luck, weather it in reasonable comfort. If not, perhaps because you were bombed out or were just getting married and setting up home, then not.

Almost everything was rationed, and though bomb damage victims and newly-weds got furniture coupons, only ‘utility’ furniture was available. Coupons were permits to buy rationed goods — so called because they were cut out by the shopkeeper when you made a purchase. There was consequently a flourishing second-hand market, and with post-war austerity, nothing much changed for several years.

We had ‘all mod cons’ — mains electricity and gas, hot and cold running water, a bathroom and a flush lavatory.

I was born at my grandmother’s house, but my mother soon afterwards went to keep house for her brother, who was a widower with two daughters. His was a typical 1930s’ ‘semi’ on the outskirts of Leicester. He was an upholsterer and cabinet maker so it was both comfortable and furnished in good style.

Shortly before my father was demobbed, my parents bought a similar house about two miles away, and that is the one I most remember. Our kitchen was of the walk-through type. It led to the back door, which opened onto a purely functional back porch, giving access to the coal-house, lavatory and back garden.

Under the kitchen window was a Belfast sink. To the left of it was a wooden draining board, to the right a folding mangle, and next to that, an electric cooker rented from Leicester City Electricity Department.

Somewhere either underneath or between the other furniture and fittings were a dolly tub and an electric copper. Despite its name, the copper was actually made of galvanised iron, and was electric because my mother didn’t like gas.

My father came back from Burma with a packing case containing his possessions, including two matchets, one with a shiny, facetted blade, which he used to clear the wilderness in the back garden. He took the packing case apart and made it into a rack for my mother to stand on at the sink. This gave her an inch or so of extra height and raised her off the Terazzo floor, which was cold to stand on.

We had ‘all mod cons’ — mains electricity and gas, hot and cold running water, a bathroom and a flush lavatory. It was, however, only many years later that my mother had an upstairs one installed in the bathroom. The hot water came from a back boiler in the living room. We did not light the fire in summer, hence the need for a copper.

My mother worked so her wash day was Friday evening. The folding mangle, which served mostly as a table top, was pulled away from the wall and the top raised to bring the machinery to its working position. All mangles were made of cast iron, with rollers of white wood and a wooden tray to catch the water as it ran out of the clothes. The rollers were spring loaded, and my mother was always careful to slack them off when she finished.

The copper was used both for heating water and for boiling clothes. Larger things were washed in the dolly tub (Leicester people knew not of possers or poss-tubs), and smaller ones in the sink. The wet clothes were moved from one place to another in the washing-up bowl, which was enamelled, not plastic.

You put the dolly tub under the outlet from the mangle, half filled it with hot water, and added the soap powder. I don’t know if there was ever a war-time unbranded soap powder, but if there was, Rinso and Persil came back very quickly at the end of hostilities.

Rather strangely, we generally called the dolly the ‘copper,’ because apart from the wooden handle, it actually was made of copper. Well equipped housewives had two, a long handled one for the tub, and a short one for the sink.

You plunged the dolly up and down in the water to dissolve the soap, then put the sheets, or whatever, in and washed them the same way. The business end of the dolly was perforated, like two colanders one inside the other, so as to create alternate suction and expulsion of water.

I occasionally helped with dollying, but the novelty soon wore off.

As well as the dolly, my mother had what she called a copper stick — actually a hammer handle — for fishing things out without putting her hands in hot water more than necessary.

When they’d been worked sufficiently, the clothes were lifted out, roughly folded, and put through the mangle. Those from the sink were transferred in the bowl.

After the washing came rinsing, and I fancy she always did this in the sink. The process was similar. Once the things were sufficiently free of soap, they were again put through the wringer (i.e. mangle.) Small things you wrung by hand, twisting them to squeeze the water out. One of the things you had to be careful of, if you were wringing a shirt, blouse or anything with buttons, was to fold the buttons inside and make sure that they fed into the rollers flat. If not, you got broken buttons.

Another essential was the washing basket. This was wicker (no plastic then). The wrung clothes were shaken out and folded into the basket and taken out to the line.

We had a very long back garden. I think there must have been a wooden line-post that had rotted away so my father put up a new one made of re-inforced concrete. There seems to have been no difficulty in getting these necessary things, nor in getting clothes lines and pegs.

Wet wash days were deadly dull. There were no domestic tumble driers, nor even the simple electric drying cabinet. Instead, it was the clothes-horse: two or more wooden frames held together with canvas hinges that quickly worked loose so that the whole thing fell over.

If you had a good batch of coal, and the fire drew well, the clothes got dry quickly. But overcast weather with little wind was just miserable. You couldn’t get near the fire, and the damp clothes hung about for days.

You may wonder why we didn’t use the bleezer, the flat sheet of metal once common in north eastern households, which covered the opening of the fire-place and forced the draft upwards through the fire. Gentle reader, we knew not of them.

You could use a sheet of newspaper for the same purpose, so we understood the principle. It worked a treat, producing a fine display of leaping flames on the paper as the fire roared up the chimney behind, but you had to hold it in place all the time.

Finally, of course, ironing and putting away. Irons in 1945 had wooden handles, and from what I remember of the colour, I imagine the metal parts were nickel plated. There was no temperature control. You tested it by spitting on the sole plate, and switched it on or off as necessary.

The usual thing was to have a twin-socket adapter for the light. You plugged it into the ordinary bayonet socket, put the bulb in one outlet and plugged the iron into the other.

Danger? What danger?