Our kids think we were born in the stone age because so much changed in the quarter century between my childhood and theirs. Less has changed in the gap between their childhood and our grandson’s. Computers and space flight were the stuff of science fiction. The street lamp outside out house was powered by gas. (I remember it being replaced with an electric one.)
I grew up in a rented house which had coal fires as the only source of heating (and they were only lit in the bedrooms if someone was ill). Winter was cold, inside and out. A glass of water by your bedside would sometimes freeze solid in the night. You wore an extra layer of underwear to compensate. (Hands up all those who remember hating liberty bodices when they were at primary school.)
The coal fire in the kitchen also did the cooking and heated the household’s hot water. We had no cooker, just an oven which used the heat of the fire (as did the hot water system in the house). We had a black kitchen fire-oven range when I was very young, but I remember it being changed to a modern beige enamelled one. To supplement the coal oven we had a double-burner gas ring on the draining board next to the sink (and a coin-operated gas metre under the sink).
Anyone working in the mining industry (like my maternal Grandpa) got four free tons of coal a year, which was one advantage, but coal fires had their disadvantages. Fogs turned into smogs, and you’d have to wear a scarf wrapped over you mouth and nose to filter out the sulphur-tasting smog. Walk the ten minutes to school in a smog and when you got there and blew your nose into your nice clean handkerchief the result was black snot from the coal in the air.
We had an upstairs, indoor bathroom, which was modern, though getting bathed in winter was torture. The room was too cold and to compensate, the water was always too hot. Various methods of heating the room failed miserably. The open bar electric fire had to be taken out of the room before you could run the water (and the heat dissipated almost immediately because the single-glazed windows (metal windowframes) had no element of insulation). The paraffin heater stank. (Remember Esso Blue, anyone?) My grandparents still had a loo in a brick privy (shared with the neighbour) halfway up the back yard, a tin bath hanging on the back of the door and a chamber pot under the bed for night time.
Mod cons? I remember getting our first fridge. Before that milk lived on the stone slab in the pantry.We didn’t have a washing machine, but Grandma did (a tub with a wringer), so we took our washing to her house – three miles away (on the bus). The only phone was the call box at the end of the road, but since no one else had a phone either, you only needed the telephone for emergencies.
Mum recalls having to be very careful with the budget, making out a shopping list and sticking to it. Trying to decide whether the bar of soap in the bathroom would last another week.The co-op at the end of the road was that most modern of things, a self-service supermarket, though butter still had to be carved from a block and sugar weighed out into bags of dark blue sugar paper. Meat wasn’t pre-packed. You had to go next door to the co-op butchers for your meat. In Grandma’s village the co-op was still counter service, all bare wood and brown counters, with welly-boots hanging from the rafters. I guess it still looked the same as it did in Victorian times – much like the one at Beamish Museum
Entertainment? No TV for most ordinary households, and when TV did come it was a tiny screen in a huge wooden box – and only had one BBC channel, black and white, of course (with interludes). Grandma was the first person in her village to get a TV (for the Coronation, I think) and I remember Flash Gordon being shown on Saturday evening along with the football results. (Grandpa did the pools but never won anything.) There was, however, the Picture House in Grandma’s village, and Mum and Dead went most Saturday nights (and as I got older I was allowed to go too if the film was suitable). They had the most delicious chocolate ince-cream lollies for threepence (old pence, of course, so the equivalent of slightly less than one and a half current pennies). Sweets at the local shop were four ‘fruit salads’ or ‘balckjacks’ or ‘foam shrimps’ for an old penny.
The past is definitely another country.
Yet, despite all this we had a functioning National Health service, free school milk for all children, a library service, a funded higher education system, nationalised railways that exhibited joined-up-thinking, and the kind of full employment that meant a person could walk out of one job on a Friday night and into a new one on Monday morning.
We have so much now, but we also had a lot to be grateful for, then, too.