Suburban Hearth and Home/The Hub of the Home

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Chapter IV: The Hub of the Home

The environment depicted in these writings - the living conditions, and social events, were lived through and experienced... they are little different from many other’s known by witness... they describe a world experienced by many.

All the family affairs radiated out from the kitchen - at the end of the hall, next to the larder. It was about ten feet square, and the core of family life. Most of our meals were eaten there… entertained by the ancient radio, with its fretted front, permanently tuned to the light programme. When first switched on the radio emitted a series of high-pitched screeches and whines, which lasted for about two minutes - until the valves warmed up. Woe betide anyone who fiddled with the tuner because once change it was a devil to get back. The radio rested on a wide shelf held up by substantial metal brackets one of which held all my fathers rods for caning us children. The rest of the shelf occupied by a row of graded saucepans and a large over-filled cupboard.

The whole kitchen, except for the ceiling, which was whitewashed, was painted in gloss - a drab mustard, not the most attractive of colours and not a suitable surface for a steam ridden room. Gas was used for cooking – mostly boiling the fruit and vegetable, and heating the water for washing clothes… These all contributed to the high humidity. The family’s clothes, ofter boiled in a aluminium tub, was hung to dry on an overhead rack, heaved up by a pulley arrangement. The family, during the war used the kitchen as a washroom, being the only warm spot in the whole house. [During the war the population was only supposed to fill their bath four inches high]. Yet considering all these adverse conditions it was a congenial, friendly place - warm, and free from petty restrictions. If you felt like putting your feet up on the front of the range you did so; you could sharpen a pencil in the hearth or whittle a piece of wood. A communal jigsaw was always on the go and most evenings were spent playing whist, cribbage or dominos.

Although there was a slate, damp-proof course, there was no cavity wall. Under the downstairs floors, was a void of about four feet, which collected rising damp, to the extent that it’s floor was permanently wet - in some places covered by a few inches of water… In the hottest summers, this never completely dried out. The ventilation airbricks below floor level and in the upper walls were religiously blocked-up by my father - to prevent draughts. Though blocked, the wind blew through the gaps separating the skirting from the floor… all windows and flooring provided with draught excluders made out of papiermache. Even so, it was a constant battle to save heat and prevent draughts. In winter, the upstairs windows had ice on the inside - this could last for days..., and when it did thaw out dripped on the wallpaper beneath the cill.

The kitchen range, patented as multi purpose, was a blackened iron monstrosity, which contained the back boiler and the bread oven. The bread oven, its door hinged at the bottom - opened downwards to form a shelf that never functioned for its designed purpose, but used instead to dry kindling. The family lived in perpetual fear that the whole lot might catch fire - which it frequently did. Above the kitchen range a mantle-shelf, its contents: biscuit tin, fire lighting spills, clock, candleholder, small box with drawers, letters, bills, cards and the day’s pipe, and tobacco pouch, each fighting for its own space. Mother’s weights cigarettes lay open upon the small box - within easy grasp. Strung under the mantle-shelf, a washing line, reserved for the current tea towel - above, a mirror, strung upon a very prominent nail... its face half obscured by ancient post cards jammed between the glass and frame, all long forgotten and yellowing with age.

Hot water from the tap was a luxury [practically a miracle], made possible by over-stoking the kitchen fire - until the boilerplate glowed red-hot, causing sparks to fly up the chimney. Everyone would draw back from the kitchen range not because it was too hot but because the boiler might explode or the chimney catch fire… often the wood drying in the bead oven did, to the consternation of all. It was normal to sit as close as possible to the fire to get the maximum heat, red blotches appeared on those parts of the body closest to the fire until knees and legs had a tartan look. In winter, chestnuts would be cooked on the fire using an iron shovel – to roast over the coals. The chestnuts split, and when cooked, passed around. The recipient tossed them from hand to hand to cool - sufficiently to peal and eat.

Whilst all this was going on mother darned, sewed, plied her hooked needles – crocheted, or knitted with two or three needles, she never just sat or read… being busy meant using her hands. My brother and I sat round the table that held the jigsaw puzzle. The fire was heaped up and the flickering flames cast its glow over everyone’s face. Later, bread or crumpets were toasted, as a treat. An alternative was, baked potatoes in the ashes with a dob of butter… The plates would be passed round and the potatoes dug out with a fork… trying to save some of the butter which was really margarine, from soaking in. The kettle would be put on for a cup of horlicks, ovaltine, or cocoa. It is difficult now to describe the enormously satisfying comfort and security obtained by sitting round a fire, as the wood’s crackling embers, spat sap - as the flames leaped higher up the chimney - on a cold winters night; with the wind rattling the doors and windows. The shadow’s created by the flickering fire dancing on the walls and the badly tuned radio drawing one ever closer to listen to H. G. Wells, ‘War of the World’.

The meals before and during the war were repetitive - the maximum use made from every scrap: from saving the beef dripping, stewing the meat bones - for stock and soups, to mixing butter and margarine together. The butter bought from Home & Colonial Stores – displayed on the marble shelf behind the counter. The desired lump, cut off, salted, blended with a wooden cutter, and patted into shape with butter pats leaving a fancy set of marks, before placed into a greaseproof wrap. During the war only two ounces could be bought per person per week. Coffee was never drunk, being a middle-class beverage. We had bottled coffee essence, which tasted nothing like coffee. All main shops had an errand boy who delivered the order by bicycle with a basket on the front to carry his load. When the sugar ration ran out saccharine or honey was used in its place.

Very few householders had a refrigerator – dairy produce and meats would only last a few days, depending on the weather, all larders had a marble slab which served as cold store. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding was the treat for Sundays. The cold beef used as cold cuts for Monday. Tuesday what was leftover was minced with onion, stale bread and carrots. Wednesday saw the leftover mince made into a cottage pie. Rabbit or stewing steak Thursday, fish on Friday and perhaps sausages on Saturday. Puddings, referred to as desert, seconders, or ‘afters’ was usually some sort of stewed fruit with custard – perhaps made into a pudding, turnover, or pie. Custard accompanied every meal even with the rice pudding, sago, samolina or tapioca. However, mother persevered in all things - which would save money, so puddings were inevitably apple from the garden. Next door’s garden held a cooking cherry tree, the other neighbour - an apple, both generously offered. Overhanging branches from trees - along the road, and gardens of bombed out houses were fair game.

Weekday clothes were bought second hand, patched repeatedly and darned - to the extent that the foot of a sock was more darn than not. However, Sunday clothes had to be special – to give a good impression. It was deemed most important to give the right impression to the neighbours and acquaintances – that all was fine – that money was not scarce, that father could look after the family financially and able to cope with government edict and local authority demands. Pride was seen as all important – to give a good outward impression was considered imperative.

To all the country, the wireless was the chief form of entertainment in the home. It was a liberating view of the wider world - something our parents had never had; it was also an exciting form of whiling away moments of leisure. Derek McCulloch, better known as ‘Uncle Mac’, produced the BBC Children’s Hour; this programme ended in 1964. There were many much loved programmes especially Out With Romany, written by Bramwell Evans in about 1938, who pretended to go out for countryside rambles with his dog Raq and two children. These nature-loving walks talked about finding birds nests, walking beside a stream, climbing over stiles and discussed how the weather affected the flora. All the interviewers and introduces were referred to as Uncles and Aunts. Popular plays were Toytown, read by Uncle Mac [Derek McCulloch] and C. E. Hughes, The Boy Detectives, Norman and Henry Bones, Castles and Their History, Young Artists, The Blue Door Theatre, Wind in the Willows, read by David Davis and Norman Shelley, and many other wonderful stories.

Certain radio programmes were extremely popular nationally - looked forward to with pleasure, and formed special moments of togetherness and companionship. Programmes such as Monday Night At Eight with Gillie Potter, Grand Hotel, Henry Hall’s Guest Night, Dick Barton Special Agent with Duncan Carse, Itma and Tommy Handley, Happydrome, Worker’s Playtime, and Boxing Matches commentated by Eamon Andrews; news readers such as Bruce Belfrage, Alan Howard, Stuart Hibbard and Alvar Lidell. I can still remember being told about a new tank battle in the Western Desert, which involved New Zealand troops and an enemy raid on Sidi Omar. “In Russia, the Germans still made progress towards Moscow and a small force of bombers attacked Brest and Cherbourg.” The Brains Trust with Professor Joab who always began each answer with “it all depends on what you mean by”?

During the war, to achieve maximum working hours, the clocks were put forward two hours - called ‘British double summer time’. Later, in the autumn, the clocks were only put back one hour to give ‘summertime’ hours – sunrise being about 9am in December. This arrangement continued for many years, even after the war, to allow maximum daylight working hours for workers on the land.

After the war, Saturday teatime, about five o-clock, the full-time football results would be broadcast straight after the news. The sing-song voice of the announcer, annunciating the scores in such a way that the listener could guess the final result, would relay the information for the population to take down the football results. Mother would generally do the marking up by giving one point for a home win two for an away result and three for a draw - counting the completed coupon for each line’s result. How excited we all were as the scores mounted. Then all the lines had to be totalled up. The family would gather round to hear the results. There were occasions when we came very close to the winning score. How my mother would have wished to be able to return to Tatworth and buy her own home. However, it was not to be, remaining a longed for hope, never to be fulfilled…! Quite often, father would go to MacFisheries fish shop to buy a pint of winkles – a small edible sea snail, for our tea. My mother would butter some bread and he would bend some pins – to winkle out the snail. They were lovely and we considered them a treat.

At the weekends one of the weekly jobs, was to saw and chop-up sufficient wood for the week, both logs and kindling. This was necessary for both the kitchen and sitting room fires. Large planks, and balks of wood, were sawn into logs using the family saw; this my father sharpened by bending every alternate tooth of the saw, then turning the saw over, repeated the process to the other side. If extra sharpening necessary, he would file the teeth… rubbing oil onto the blade eased its passage through the wood, and prevented the blade from rusting. To save completely sawing the wood through the log was smashed to the ground - to break it off the last inch or so. He would then chop the wood into pieces - for both lighting the fire and to produce smaller logs. If the axe or chopper proved difficult to cleave then a hammer was used to force it through the wood. The whole operation lasted a backbreaking hour. As with all jobs my father tackled, his aim was to complete the job quickly. With sleeves rolled up, and the wooden horse set into position - to hold the post or plank work… sawing continued at a fast pace. It was my job to hold the wood – to prevent it from slipping. My brother chopped the log - on a large block of wood. Behind the net curtain my mother, anxiously, watched her men-folk get on with the job. When it came to my father’s turn to chop the wood his arm action was a blur - as sticks flew to the pile awaiting collection - for stacking in the coal shed. The smoke from so many fires contributed to thick suffocating smog's that occurred every winter - sometimes making going out of doors dangerous and for the elderly lethal.

The backdoor, leading off the kitchen, lead to the back yard, and garden. It was built into the centre of the rear kitchen-wall, on one side a small window - dutifully clothed in its regulation net curtain, under which resided an ancient gas stove with polished brass taps. On the other side of the door, the butler sink with traditional wooden drainer, above which, a range of shelves contained toothbrushes and powder [just imagine the whole family using the same tin of tooth powder]. A whole range of, never to be disturbed, cleaning fluids and mugs… their own layer of clinging dust and debris added to, over the years. Underneath, hung on cup hooks, the flannel and dishcloth, scourer and bottlebrush… ever in the way, swaying and dripping, occasionally dropping into your bowl…

As you enter the kitchen by the hall door: on your left was the Welsh dresser and a narrow fitting broom-cupboard. This completed the back kitchen wall. Two glazed doors made up the whole top section of the dresser, the glass, covered by a decorative film, hid two shelves containing the tea and dinner service… the cups, hung on cuphooks, held back an assortment of letters and envelopes long forgotten, with curling corners and faded script. An assortment of odd cups, jugs, and pots filled the spaces. The final shelf was devoted to the family’s medicines: Beecham’s pills, Carter’s Little Liver pills, aspirin, Friars Balsam, calamine lotion, corn plasters, Band Aids, smelling salts, camphorated oil, cough mixtures, Vaseline, borasic powder, iodine, bandages, and slings: syrup of figs for tummy upsets caster oil, senna pods and camphorated oil. Epsom salts, various syringes and an assortment of safety pins.

Built into the bottom section was a large cupboard, which housed all our toys. Woe betide anyone who was foolish to open this, for if they did, a whole stream of toys, wooden bricks and books would come tumbling out. On wet days, mother would give us boys the job of tidying this cupboard…, which of course was never achieved, because we started to play with them as we discovered long lost playthings. Screwed onto the side of the dresser, next to the door, was my father’s pipe rack – holding at least six pipes and assorted spills and reamers, beneath perched an overflowing letter rack, which never seemed to shed its contents or had its correspondence answered.

Next to the dresser the broom cupboard - gave space to the mop, broom, dustpan and brush, dusters, candles, oil lamps, kindling for the fire, shoe-cleaning gear, cod liver oil & malt - and all the family’s - every-day shoes. During the war, my father’s rifle [key men were issued with a rifle to shoot German paratroopers, and guard prisoners] stood in the corner – next to his chair - whilst he polished his uniform. The gas pipes ran up the wall to the meter - perched on top of the broom cupboard. Nestling next to the meter a torch, and looped closeby, the radio’s earth wire attached to the lead pipe. Between the broom cupboard and the sink’s drainer was the black kitchen range - built into the wall. All the cast iron pipe work ran along the kitchen wall - from the kitchen range to the sink, up the wall… through the ceiling… to the bathroom; the hot water to the hot water tank - in the airing cupboard, and the cold water mains to the cold-water tank housed in the loft.

The radio relayed the fateful message that September. I can remember distinctly the concentrated silence – the whole house was stilled, as we all listened to the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, telling the Nation - Sunday, September 3rd. 1939, that we were at war with Germany. Just over six months later Winston Churchill assumed office; the retreat from Dunkirk began a month later. Then, a following six months later, in early September 1941, the London blitz began.

My life remained unaltered… I saw and felt no change, whatever; it was not until the first serious air raids in 1941, when the searchlights and anti-aircraft guns could be seen and heard... that began to focus all our attentions on what was happening. It was really the London blitz - after Hitler switched his forces from levelling Britain’s airfields and radar chain, that the war made its first impact on our life… then we could see and feel the difference. It took the victory at El Alamein and Stalingrad to mark a turning point, which lead to ultimate victory. Still, that was all in the future… in the meantime I attended school. Every day I marked the map - printed in the national newspapers, as our troops advanced, dropped back…, and advanced again…

Before the war all householders had to fill in a census form on 29th September 1939, detailing who lived in his or her house. This information enabled the government to issue identity cards, a National Registration Number, and a ration book… set by post to each person. The whole nation was informed: by radio, newspapers, and notices – displayed by poster in all local shops. The information directed how the system operated, how to register at local shops [the shopkeeper was to cut out the coupon, keeping the counterfoils]. It further detailed how to fill in the Ration Book: name, address, on each page, and told how the counterfoil was to be used. [The counterfoil needed the date, the shop’s name and address. The shop initially elected as ‘shop of choice’, retained for a period of six months]. Queues formed as soon as the shops opened… there was often a scrabble to make for the counter bearing what was currently in short supply. There was nothing slap-dash about the ration-book system. My mother never lost any of the books throughout the war and afterwards… she took a great deal of trouble to ensure we received the best food that was available, supplementing what she could - by what came out of the garden and hen house.

Any visitor to the house recognised the importance of the rifle, propped up in the corner in the kitchen. My father was dressed in army uniform and always carried a baton. He assumed his rank and office without fuss emitting confidence and authority. His frequent trips away were a trial to my mother. The installation of the telephone marked a change of routine - for my father… it was essential that he kept in daily touch with his Headquarters. Whenever he left the house, he took with him his service revolver and rifle. However, I was not unduly affected… home life continued governed by my mother’s preferences and capabilities - based upon her past rural habits and upbringing.

In front of the range, surrounding the hearth, a copper-sheathed fender was linked by two upholstered coal boxes – one on each side. An imposing brass railed fireguard kept the flying cinders from scorching the hearthrug. This served as a clotheshorse often draped with the latest washed garment – usually my mother’s apron. When young, we boys bathed in front of the fire in a tin bath - that hung outside the back door. The towels stretched out warming on the guard ready to dry us when we stepped out onto the hearthrug. The bath was too heavy for my mother to lift so the water had to be bailed out first into the sink.

Mondays were always washing day; the clothes placed in a large, galvanised iron, washing tub, over the gas burner; a convex bottom plate kept the washing off the bottom - from burning. The washing boiled with frequent turning and pummelling with a large wooden spoon. Soapsuds came from, soda crystals and shavings taken from a Fairy soap block. The washed clothes then taken out of the boiler and ferried dripping to the sink to be rinsed. A Rickitt’s Blue Bag used in the rinsing water for all the whites, whilst collars and cuffs, treated with Robin’s starch. Once rinsed, the clothes were taken out to the back yard to be mangled, and then hung to dry.

The mangle, like all the mechanical apparatus in the house, was never bought new – it was second-hand, and had seen better days. To press the maximum water from the clothes the tensioned roller springs were over-tightened by screwing down the tap-like screws at the top of the mangle. To then turn the rollers, using the crank-handle, needed the strength of ten. The machine would creak and groan, to spew out its charge flat as a board, sometimes with all the buttons split. The wrung out clothes shaken out and hung on crossed washing lines that divided the backyard. If it rained, they were hung on the airer in the kitchen or placed on the clotheshorse in front of the fire. Ironing day was hopefully done the following day – on the Tuesday, using flat irons heated on the gas stove… spitting on the iron to see if it was hot enough. The ironing was done on a blanket laid on the kitchen table. Father’s shirts, with their detachable collars and cuffs, had been dipped in starch, pressed and polished, using an iron. His trousers were ironed using an old, dampened tea towel, to stop polishing the nap and to act as steam cleaning, then using soap, from a thin bar, to run down the inside creases - then the whole ironed on the outside to give them extra sharpness. He always wore pinstriped trousers, black jacket and waistcoat, watch chain, black greatcoat and highly polished shoes, topped with a bowler hat… always carrying a pair of leather gloves, polished leather brief case, and furled umbrella - during the day, at night, a silver-topped walking stick.