I lived for the first seven years of my life in a hamlet on the western fringe of Salisbury Plain. At about six hundred and sixty feet above sea level it was a fairly bleak spot in winter but we kids could always find a sheltered spot to play Later we were to move down to a village in a sheltered valley a few miles away. I was told that we were high enough to see over the top of Salisbury Cathedral some fifteen miles away.
The house was a small end of terrace cottage that had been, as it was lying empty, requisitioned from the local estate by the council under The Defence Regulations of 1939.
There was a small passage or lobby inside the front door, ahead was the door to the kitchen with its blackleaded cast iron range and to the right the door to the living room. The living room had an open fire, a small pantry off and a door to the stairs. Upstairs was a tiny ‘box room’, and two bedrooms. There was a fireplace in each bedroom but these were never used.
All rooms had lino flooring, cold to the feet on a winter’s morning but great for sliding on when it was new. I can’t remember any rug except one in front of the fire, certainly no carpets. In those days a rag rug made from old clothing scraps worked into the mesh of a hessian sack was about as posh as it got. Each external door had a folded up sack as a doormat.
Outside at the back was a brick paved path which, being dished, doubled up as a drain from the standpipe tap outside of the kitchen door. A path led up to the wash-house and woodshed and an attached privy, behind was a large vegetable garden and chicken run.
Nanny and Granddad lived just along past the other end of the terrace and refuge could be reached along the brick path, useful on wash day when Mum tended to get a bit irritable.
Washday involved an early start to light the fire under the ‘copper’ which was a cast iron circular tub with a domed bottom set in brickwork so that the flue from the fire wound around the tub and on into the chimney. Water was brought up in buckets from the tap about thirty yards away. I remember using a bill hook and chopping block to split logs to make kindling, and sawing the logs or board off-cuts. I can’t imagine many parents giving those jobs to a six or seven year old boy today. I did manage to get through childhood with a full complement of fingers.
Soap flakes were added to the wash water and when it was boiling the clothes and bed linen were put in and poked swished around and prodded with the copper stick. The copper stick was the nuclear deterrent of the age, any detected crime would result in the threat of the copper stick, a piece of ash about two inches diameter the end of which, due to constant boiling, was very flexible. It hurt as I found out when not making it safely to Nanny’s place of refuge in time. When the washing was boiled sufficiently it was lifted out into a galvanised bath tub where it was scrubbed on a flat board which was bleached white from use. Bar soap was rubbed on stubborn stains and a scrubbing brush applied with vigour. It was a ‘copper stick crime’ to ever get this board dirty when playing in the shed. When scrubbed the clothes were rinsed in another bath with more water carried up from the tap. The mangle was then brought into use, this cast iron framed wooden rollered device squeezed the water out of the cloth while crunching up, or mangling, any buttons that hadn’t been made rubbery by boiling. We were officially ‘never to play with’ the mangle as trapped fingers would result. Anyone who can remember the bra-less pinny-clad Grannies, ( think Les Dawson) can appreciate the expression ‘never laughed so much since Gran caught her tit in the mangle’. Clothes were then hung out on the clothes line to dry, or if wet, on lines all around the house.
The privy was of the ‘bucket’ type under a wooden bench seat with room alongside the hole for a stack of squares torn from The Daily Herald. Newsprint was coarser and more absorbent than it is today and was preferable to the Izal we had at school. Those who rave about old fashioned ‘organic’ cottage garden vegetables should consider why the plants grew so well.
Cooking was done on the range in the kitchen although if several pans were required a kettle or saucepan was placed on the open fire in the living room too. In extremis such as at Christmas, a Primus paraffin stove would be used too. I cannot remember any child ever getting burnt or scalded, perhaps the certain knowledge of a clout round the head for disobedience was cheaper, and worked better, than guards. Mum never had neither weighing scales, nor a thermometer on the range oven so perhaps she could be excused her dreadful pastry. I remember the click click of her wedding ring on the bottle she used as a rolling pin.
Ironing was done with flat-irons, they were heated by standing them on a ledge in front of the fire in the range. The heat was tested by a quick spit onto the heated iron, the iron was then rubbed over a piece of brown paper to remove any soot before ironing started. There was no ironing board, just a blanket and old sheet over the kitchen table.
The galvanised wash tub was used, on the table, as a bath for us children. Water was heated in kettles and saucepans on the range. There was a bigger ‘bungalow bath’ which my parents used in front of the fire, I assume such, children never saw adults in any state of undress in those days, not even family.
Lighting was by candles upstairs, a hurricane lamp and the light of the fire in the kitchen and an oil lamp in the living room. I still have the lamp. I demonstrated the effectiveness of it to my grandchildren, they were amazed at what little light we managed with.
The shaded standard lamp below has a modern 18w energy saver bulb and is only an auxiliary light in the room.
The lamp was ‘never to be touched’. I remember my big brother in a reckless mood throwing something across the room; the glass chimney of the lamp was knocked off and smashed. Retribution followed, not ‘copper stick’ but ‘wooden jam spoon’ as it was nearer. I remember doing jigsaw puzzles on the table under the light of that lamp, if you dropped a piece on the floor it would stay un-found until daylight the next day. Reading, playing cards or board games such as Ludo passed the time before early bed.
We listened to the ‘wireless’, being working class we had the ‘Light Programme’ whereas Granddad always had the more serious ‘Home Service’. The wireless was in a large veneered cabinet and was powered by a large dry- cell battery, about nine inches square from memory , and was made of many AA type batteries, it had various holes in it where a jack plug could be inserted to select the right voltage for the circuitry, a two volt ‘accumulator’ was also needed. This was a square glass jar with a carrying handle, inside the glass were electrodes and sulphuric acid. This device needed to be charged regularly by a chap with a van who called around the villages. The wireless needed a wire aerial which was trailed via some poles to the apple tree near the wash house and an earth wire which went to a copper rod driven down into the ground outside. Sometimes if a signal couldn’t be found, it happened in dry spells, then the call went out for someone to go and wet the earth by the earth rod. Small boys are designed for this job, I don’t know how families of girls got on, they probably had to carry a jug of water. The wireless had to be switched on minutes before ‘the news’ or ‘football results’ so that it could warm up. The only time Dad got really cross was if anyone made a noise when these were on.
I mentioned earlier the approach to safety in those days. We knew of certainties, two of these came together on the ‘carrying of the accumulators from Nanny’s house to the van’. To do this I had to cross a wide concrete path, it was a certainty, as we were assured by Mum, that you would ‘break your neck’ if you fell on concrete, it was a certainty too ‘that the acid would burn you to the bone if it got on you’ I hated that job, I used to wonder which would come first if I should trip ? Would I die instantly from the broken neck ? Or have to watch my legs being eaten up as my life ebbed away ? It seems silly now but it was a very real fear, It’s a cruel thing to frighten children. I get cross with people who scare kids with climate change scare stories and suchlike, children really do believe what adults tell them.
There was so much to do, so many places to explore, so much to find out. We, of course, knew certainties that all children knew, that bats get into your hair and you have to have it all cut off. The girls would run home screaming when the bats came out in the evening. We learned that adders could move faster than you could run, that wasps and adders stayed poisonous until sunset even if they were dead and other essential stuff. The children of the village used to pass such wisdom about as we sat at our meeting place, under the big beech trees down at the lane junction which were known as ‘The Clump’. The dense canopy of the trees gave us shelter from even heavy rainfall during spring and summer and the base of moss and leaf mould under the trees was tolerably comfortable to lounge about on when tired of climbing or swinging on the branches.
Happy days, we were treated like children but were truly free to be children.
I had intended to write about my early education too, apart from that I got in the village, but enough for now; next time. ………’How I fell in love with Miss Phillips and Learning’.