My mother’s parents were nearly 70 when I first remember them.
My grandmother was born in 1876 and my grandfather in 1878. They had six children, and had a hard life. My grandfather was a sergeant-major in the RAMC, but had a lot of unemployment after the First World War, until he got a job as a baths attendant with Leicester Corporation.
Their house was old. It had water, gas and electric light, but only to a basic standard.
The front room and living room were comfortable, if old-fashioned. One of the attractions of the front room was a shelf of fine books, many of which my grandfather rescued from the destructor, a kind of boiler house next to the baths, where things like paper and old furniture were burnt to heat the water. A particular favourite was two bound volumes of a magazine called Bow Bells, which had beautifully printed coloured fashion plates inside.
All the rest of the house seemed, to me at least, quite cheerless. But whatever I may have thought of the old home, my mother always looked back on it with great affection, especially when she remembered the downstairs rooms overflowing with the two boys and four girls and all their friends and numerous cousins.
My grandmother was a good manager. To the end of her days, my mother remembered her going to Leicester market late on a Saturday afternoon and coming home with some material she got at a bargain price and making my mother and her younger sister two beautiful dresses for the Sunday School anniversary the next day. She was a clever seamstress and had a sewing machine, and, way back before my time, did all her own dressmaking.
The lavatory was in the yard. It flushed and was theirs exclusively, but there was no light, you had to go outside to get to it, and it was of a primitive design with a cone-shaped bowl rather than a pedestal. I always wondered, and still wonder, if it had an s-bend or went straight down into the sewer.
Their kitchen was actually a wash-house and scullery, the kitchen proper being the living room. You entered it from the living room down a high step, and it had an uneven brick floor almost on a level with the yard. The walls were bare brick, and though painted gave no sense of comfort. The only light was a single bulb with a Chinese coolie lampshade, which only added to the gloom at night.
In one corner at the far end was a shallow sink of brown, salt-glazed stoneware, little more than a slop-stone. It had an old brass tap above it, set high for filling buckets. This was the only water supply in the house. Stoneware sinks and faux old-fashioned taps are fashionable now, but the real thing, when you were used, as I was, to proper wash hand-basins, enamelled baths and chromium plated taps, was loathsome. If you wanted a bath you went to the nearby public baths, which had slipper baths.
In the other corner was the brick copper – we didn’t call it a set-pot – with a wooden lid on top and a stoke-hole at the bottom for feeding in coal and raking out ashes.
My grandmother actually had a washing machine in her kitchen. It was a square galvanised tub, about 18ins deep, tapering slightly towards the bottom, and mounted on a spindly galvanised iron frame. On top was a wringer, though whether it had wooden or rubber rollers, I can’t remember. It had a lid on top, on which was mounted a handle, bent slightly upwards to save your knuckles when turning it. It puzzled me that it would only go so far. It then stopped, and you had to turn it back again in the other direction, when the same thing happened. Many years later, I realised that this was a primitive agitator.
There was a gas oven in the kitchen, but like many other people then, my grandmother did most of her cooking on the black-lead range in the living room.
One of my aunts had a 1930s ‘semi’ with a living room range that she cooked on for many years. And our house, also a modern one, had what was called an Eagle Two-Room Grate, with trivets in the living room for kettles and saucepans, and an oven in the kitchen, fired by the living room fire.
My father’s parents were a lot younger. They had only the one child and were much better off. My grandmother had a windfall before the war that enabled her to buy her house, and since she was an excellent manager and my grandfather earned good money in engineering – he had been a chauffeur before the war – they were very comfortably off.
It was assumed in the plans drawn up before the war that there would be a flood of refugees from the hardest hit areas, and council officials came round asking if you had any spare rooms. So my grandmother was only too pleased to have my mother come and stay with her when my father joined the army, and that was where I was born. And since she had a lady lodger as well, a schoolmistress, there was no risk of having strangers forced upon her.
Hers was also a terraced house, but was, as she liked to say, a ‘mansion’, with two good reception rooms and a large kitchen. This was in the offshot. It had a black-leaded range at the end, on which she did most of her cooking. She had a gas hob near the sink, but no gas or electric oven. Everything was as neat, efficient and comfortable as money and the times could allow.
She had an instinctive sense for good quality, and when she moved house after the war to be near me and my parents, it was characteristic that she bought what had been the show-house. It was a semi with brilliant white pointing at the front, and the kitchen lined with white tiles to shoulder height.
In other respects her new kitchen was much like my mother’s that I described in our edition of February 25. The kitchen was walk-through, with cooker, sink, draining board and laundry equipment ranged along the window wall, and on the opposite wall a low cabinet with an enamel top.
There was no Formica in those days so this gave her a hygienic and easily cleaned working surface.
Her mangle was upright with an arched top. It was painted dove grey and lived in a neat lean-to in the back yard. She used it for pressing sheets etc after they were dry (this being the original purpose of mangles), as well as for wringing. Like all mangles, it had a cast-iron wheel with a handle, which acted as a fly-wheel once you got a good turning motion going. If you were feeding-in while somebody else turned, you had to be careful not to trap your fingers in the rollers.
Monday was washday. My grandmother always wore an apron in the house, but on washday a second, larger one. Then, if she had to put coal on the fire, she put a coal apron on over that.
When the washing was done, she resumed the one apron, and made something quick for dinner, like bubble-and-squeak, made with cabbage and mashed potato put aside from Sunday dinner.