I WAS listening to a conversation on the radio recently about people being washed in a tin bath in the kitchen back in the day.
A contributor to the programme was explaining how, before bathrooms became commonplace, the bath was brought into the kitchen on bath night. It was placed in front of the fire and the kids were washed in turn.
Listeners were texting and tweeting the programme in their droves because they couldn’t believe their ears. They were horrified that several kids were washed in the same water and, in the kitchen of all places, where privacy had to be an issue with people coming and going.
I was laughing to myself but I found it strange that so many people were astonished at this carry-on and they were commenting as if this was something that happened in the dark ages. It surprised me because I remember those days clearly and they weren’t that long ago.
We had a tin bath at home with a handle on either end, and it used to hang from a hook on the wall in our back yard. It was light and easy to carry, and it would be brought into the kitchen, usually on a Saturday night, and placed on the floor in front of the range where it would be filled with pots of hot water from the stove.
Using the same water to wash several children was a difficult concept for some, but the reality was that it took a big effort to heat enough water to fill the bath in the first place, so they made use of it while they had it.
We lived in a small terraced house, so privacy would have been difficult at the best of times. Space was at a premium, but it wasn’t an issue for me because I was only a child. I don’t know what the adults did or even if they could fit into the bath because I don’t remember it being that big.
That got me thinking about what else younger listeners might have found unusual and I immediately thought of the outdoor toilet. I remember ours was in the corner of the back yard, so you had to go out through the back door and down some steps to get to it. It was a small space, with white-washed walls on the inside and a bare light bulb that came to life when you pulled a string.
It had a corrugated iron roof which didn’t do anything for heat retention and when it rained it got pretty noisy in there.
The cistern was overhead and to flush the toilet you had to pull a chain with a wooden handle attached to the end of it.
There was a flimsy timber door on the loo that closed with a simple latch but the bottom of it was about seven or eight inches off the ground so there was plenty of room for all kinds of creatures to get in. And they frequently did.
It was a challenge going out there on a cold, wet, windy, winter’s night and the howling gale coming under the door would guarantee that your visit would be a short one. There was no triple-ply soft tissue paper either, but we won’t go there.
For a child, it was no fun going to the loo in the dark, especially if there was any mention of ghosts and things that go bump in the night. I’m sure my mother often had to stand guard at the top of the steps until I was ready to come back indoors.
There was a scullery, just outside the back door, which was basically a small porch that was used as a kind of cold storage area. There was a small press on the wall that was covered in wire mesh and that’s where the milk and butter were kept because there was no fridge either.
Brown bread was always being made in the kitchen and other loaves were delivered by the bread-man, who made his rounds on a horse and carriage from O’Reilly’s bakery. Bottled milk was delivered every morning and it had to be brought in straight away before the birds pecked through the foil top to get at the cream.
The milkman was a useful alarm clock too because you couldn’t miss the sound of the bottles banging off each other as he went from door to door.
There was no such thing as hot running water, only a cold tap that sat over a large white ceramic sink that weighed a ton.
If you wanted a cup of tea you had to boil a kettle on the range. The range was constantly on the go and was rarely allowed to go out. It would be banked down with slack at night so it would be ready for action again first thing in the morning.
Slack was like coal dust with little scraps of coal in it and that went on top of the fire to form a kind of crust that would keep the fire ticking over for the night, as long as the door was closed on the range so the air couldn’t get at it.
Before central heating came into fashion, the fire was the main source of heat so the only part of the house that was warm in the winter, was the room with the fire in it.
If we were sick in the winter time, my mother would light the fire in the bedroom and that was a real treat. I can’t imagine the parents of today carrying a bucket of coal upstairs somehow.
It all sounds strange now, but it doesn’t seem that long ago either. Or maybe I’m just pushing on.