Thursday, 31 May 2018
Wash Day Reminiscences
Monday was, without fail, always Wash Day even when it was raining, not just for us but for everyone around us as well. It wasn’t easy to opt out of Wash Day even if you wanted to, and not many would have wanted to. Even if the bedsheets were only changed on a fortnightly basis, and not many housewives would have admitted to such a housekeeping slip-up, it remained a fact that a family needed two changes of underclothing per person, per week. A regular wash day, therefore, was essential.
Along with the rest of England, Northfleet housewives were expected to wash on Monday and the neighbours might even enter into gossip if that didn’t happen. My mother would have definitely considered anyone avoiding the expectations of Monday to be slovenly which was a word she took to using a good deal. She might have described such a miscreant, as slummocky which had more of a ring to it and definitely conjured up the right picture in the mind’s eye. Either way, Wash Day was never missed in our house at least not as far as I can recall. And it started early both summer and winter before six with a fire lit under the scullery copper for the basic and necessary heating of water. Whites were churned vigorously in the copper, sheets, pillow cases and anything made from cotton. Little by little the modest terraced houses began to fill with the steam that would only begin to diminish by Thursday.
Each terraced dwelling had a copper in the scullery, every one brick-built with a small fireplace beneath and each came supplied with a wooden lid and a sturdy copper stick to aid the twenty minutes or so of churning. When I was small I was warned to keep well away from the copper when it was in use because it was considered a hazardous space. Dark stories were told of children who did not heed such warnings and reaped the terrible consequences. The only one I remember was the cautionary tale of the four year old boy who, when dismounting his tricycle, managed to lower his leg into the boiling water and thereafter walked with a limp. His name was Brian and I was told he had very nearly died of shock and so, for different reasons did his long suffering mother who had given him many a warning so when all was said and done, it wasn’t her fault poor soul; he should have listened.
While the whites were agitating, pans of water would be heated on top of the gas cooker for the dolly tub to be filled and the remainder of the wash to begin. Nightdresses, knickers, shirts and socks would now be rubbed against the washboard with the aid of Sunlight soap, bright yellow and looking fit for the job. My mother attired in a print overall, her hair covered in a bright checked scarf, sweat pouring down her face, would pause from time to time to sip from an enamel mug of tea. I would be sitting like a Good Girl on the scullery step and if the day was cold and the door to the backyard was closed, a great deal of the washday steam would have magically transformed itself into water that ran liberally over the walls but the scullery itself would be oddly, snugly, tropically balmy. So memorable was this Monday morning ambiance that on my first visit to Singapore decades later I was instantly, sharply reminded of York Road washdays past.
With luck on our side the arduous task of rinsing the soap from the piles of washing could begin by eight am when the Reckitt’s Blue Bag was added to the final rinsing water. It was a long time before I realized that the object of the Blue Bag was to make Whites appear as white as humanly possible before they were manhandled, piece by piece, into the terrifying jaws of the Mangle. Our Mangle, huge and made of wrought iron with wooden rollers, lived just outside the back door against the wall of the lavatory. In fact you had to pass it on every lavatory visit you made and it could be strangely comforting to bump into its solid hulk on moonless winter nights but on Wash Day it became a disturbing beast. It was a slightly complicated piece of technology in that the space between the rollers could be adjusted if you knew how. Nobody in our family had ever been initiated into the mysteries of fine-tuning its performance and I was constantly reminded of unfortunate children like Brian whose fate has already been detailed, wayward children whose fingers had been wrenched from their hands or flattened beyond recognition on account of foolish meddling with mangles. I lived in fear of joining their ranks and though I was a curious and often disobedient child, I curbed my enthusiasm for exploration of Mangles.
By noon, with a degree of sunshine and a modicum of luck the week’s wash would be tidily pegged to the line with pegs made by my grandmother from slim offcuts of willow that between washes I was allowed to play with as long as I put them all back in the peg basket when I had finished. As I grew a little older and was persuaded by my father to attempt to read difficult books like Little Women I learned that Meg had used a clothes peg nightly pinned to her nose in order to improve the shape. I found it strangely painful when I tried it myself and abandoned the idea when there was no perceptible change in shape on the third morning. Mostly I did not experiment much with the pegs and they were usually merely students in my School For Pegs or patients in my Hospital For Pegs. Later, as my brother grew older they at times became soldiers defending Kent from Roman invaders. We were not possessed of many toys.
Usually on Mondays, unless the day had been excellent for drying, we ate our tea of toast and dripping amidst still damp sheets and shirts hung from cords that criss-crossed the kitchen and forced us to duck and dive in order to avoid them. By morning with a degree of luck the Monday wash would be ready for ironing and by the time I was seven years old our family had become the very proud owners of an electric iron. As far as I can remember this enviable and convenient aid to modern housekeeping was proudly purchased from Frost’s in Northfleet High Street by my father to mark the birth of my baby brother in April 1947. It was definitely a step up from the flat irons of my earlier childhood. Nevertheless, rather inconveniently it had to be plugged into the light socket above the kitchen table which entailed mounting a chair and first removing the light bulb. This in turn meant that ironing could only take place in daylight hours and so it usually took place on Tuesday mornings. It was a hazardous process and sturdy shoes needed to be worn because somehow or other my mother had come to believe that shoes would protect her from death by electrocution. My cousin Margaret, ironing a school blouse was once thrown across the kitchen in Iron Mill Lane, Crayford simply because her feet were clad only in cotton socks. She could very well have been killed, at least that is what I was told and from that moment on, I also had a healthy respect for electric irons and to this day wonder if I should change my footwear before beginning the task.
Even though by Tuesday evening the week’s ironing was completed, the regular washday ritual was not totally concluded because the sheets and shirts still had to be aired and so they once again hung above us on the improvised indoor lines until they were safe to use. My mother believed that the consequences of wearing a damp liberty bodice would be dire and pneumonia would most likely result. Thankfully I have not inherited this particular conviction and my own children happily donned damp garments without noticeable health problems throughout their childhood.
In the 1940s, Wash Day and its aftermath was an exhaustive undertaking and considering this it was not entirely unreasonable that our clean clothes were rationed. Until I reached the age of not quite sixteen and was about to leave school I was never allocated more than two clean pairs of knickers and socks weekly and it simply did not occur to me to protest. One pink floral wynceyette nightdress was donned after each Saturday evening bath and not discarded until the following Saturday and when I grew older and attended Colyer Road Secondary School and Wombwell Hall, I was granted just one clean blouse weekly. This latter garment was decidedly grimy and slightly smelly by Thursday each week which was understandable as not much mid-week washing of necks and underarms took place. On the other hand back then most of us smelt the same, even those boasting brand new bathrooms on spanking new housing estates because old habits die hard as far as general cleanliness is concerned, at least that’s how it was then. And if this appears just a little distasteful from a modern viewpoint it helps to consider that a hundred years earlier the situation would have been even more dire and two or three hundred years ago simply doesn’t bear thinking about.
In 1952 at Colyer Road Secondary School during a history lesson that these days would more likely be called Social Studies, the enthusiastic young Supply Teacher urged us to speak with our grandparents about how life had changed over decades, ask our grandmothers what household tasks had been like when she was a young mother herself. I wasn’t all that keen so rather half- heartedly enquired of Old Nan what her own Wash Day had been like in those years before the first World War when she already had half a dozen small children. She said it had been not much trouble to her on account of The Bagwash. I never found out exactly what The Bagwash entailed and lacked the confidence to enquire how many clean underclothes she doled out weekly to her brood. I strongly suspected changes of clothing were few and far between.
There’s no doubt at all that the emergence of modern washing facilities in the form of modern bathrooms and automatic washing machines and dryers in every home has transformed the ease with which we can now monitor bodily odours and how many clean pairs of knickers we allow ourselves each week.