Section One of Six
Putting things in context - Britain
in the late 1930s
I was almost two years old in the summer of 1939, and vividly remember
being told off for fidgeting while we waited in a queue to be fitted with
our gasmasks. Because I was under
five, they gave me a 'Micky Mouse,' made in bright red and blue rubber,
with huge 'ears!' It felt much too tight when properly adjusted, and smelled
dreadful. I never wore it again, though they made me lug it with
me wherever we went. I spent a lot of the war fidgeting in queues. We had
to queue at the butchers, the fishmongers, the grocers, the bakers, the
greengrocers - at least the milk and the newspapers were delivered!
There were no supermarkets then, just small shops. We had to shop most
days, because we didn't have refrigerators or home freezers. We kept milk
fresh in hot weather by storing the bottles in a bowl of cold water covered
with a wet cloth.
In those days, there was no frozen food, sliced bread, instant coffee,
or tea bags. No McDonald's, KFC, or Burger King either, but fish and chip
shops, jellied eel shops, and shops which sold hot pies, faggots,
and other cooked meats.
Many homes were still gas-lit, so were the streets and schools. Gran
cooked on a coal range, had gas lighting, no bathroom, and only one cold
tap. But she did have a flush toilet in the lean-to out back.
Our house was quite modern. We had electric light and could plug in
the wireless and the electric iron
using a two-way switch. There was a coal grate in each bedroom and living
room. A 'back-boiler,' behind the dining room fire, heated water which
was piped to the kitchen and bathroom. Mum was proud of her gas cooker
and the treadle sewing machine which folded into a smart occasional table.
Like most lower middle-class families
of that time, we had no telephone, washing machine, refrigerator, or car,
but my parents had a tandem, and Dad
also had his own bike. My pram was large and sturdy, so Mum, like most
mothers, kept it long after I was able to walk. As well as holding loads
of shopping, it was useful as a handcart.
Some of Mum's friends sent their washing to a commercial laundry, while
others sent theirs to the bagwash.
But Mum did her own washing (with my 'help' of course!). She used heavy
metal buckets and tubs, a bar of green "Fairy" soap, washing
soda, a gas copper, and a very smart wringer which folded down into its
own table-top cabinet when not in use. Soap powder, which, like soap flakes,
had recently become available, and was very expensive, was kept for the
woolens. (It was before the days of modern detergents). There were no electric
clothes dryers, so, getting the washing dry in London depended on an act
of God! In winter, we mostly dried it indoors. Everything had to be ironed
after being washed, including sheets and towels - no drip-dry fabrics.
No stretch fabrics either, so no neatly fitting tights. Stockings, and
sometimes men's socks, were held up with suspenders.
We constantly tugged at sagging socks or stockings and darning toes and
heels was a constant chore. I was taught to darn almost as soon as I could
hold a needle!
There was no TV, no videos, no tape recorders, no stereos, no LP's,
audio-tapes, CD's, mobile phones or PC's. But we often went to the cinema,
and listened to the wireless. We had a piano and everyone in our extended
family either played some kind of musical instrument, even if it was only
a mouth organ, or sang. We learned songs from the wireless, from records,
and sheet music. We also had a wind-up gramophone. You had to change the
needle each time you played one of the 78 rpm records, made of a bitumen-like
substance which scratched easily and broke if you dropped it.
Dad had a half-size billiard table in the front room, and enjoyed having
a game with his friends, but he wouldn't let me try!
People danced, in dance-halls and parks to live dance bands, and to
records at home if there was room. Most big restaurants had a dance floor
and live music, but the less well-to-do had to hold large parties in the
street. A piano would be wheeled onto the pavement
and all the neighbors invited. Favorite dances were The Lambeth Walk
and Knees Up Mother Brown There was no National
Health Scheme, no antibiotics. Babies were mostly born at home. The
sick were nursed there, and people preferred to die in their own beds.
Paper tissues had not been invented. We used handkerchiefs, or even
rags. Many people did not even bother with those. Hawking and spitting
was common, and you had to watch out for globs of spittle on the pavement.
Our Izal toilet roll was harsh, crackly, and shiny on one side,
but Gran, like many others, used squares of old newspaper. Babies wore
We depended on public transport and public telephones. Special telephones
in Police Boxes were connected directly
to the Police Station, and Fire Alarms, a bit like parking meters, stood
in the streets. You had to break the glass front of the metal box on top
of the post to pull the knob inside which rang a numbered bell in the nearest
There were also public baths, not for swimming, though some had swimming
pools attached, but with rows of cubicles containing baths, so those whose
homes had no bath or hot water could still have a good hot bath. A first
class bath cost 8d. and a second class one 5d. Dad said you could stay
in for 30 minutes in first class and were supplied with soap, a clean towel,
bath mat and washcloth. When I asked about second class, he said you got
someone else's dirty water. But he was an awful liar sometimes!
Air pollution was shocking, especially in the winter, when the famous
London 'Pea-soupers' occurred frequently. We all burned coal to keep warm,
and factories had to be close to workers' houses. Gasworks burned coal
to produce gas and coke, and stored the gas in huge tanks called gasometers.
There was a lot of unemployment, so people seldom complained about working
conditions. Shifts were long, and Dad worked a full seven days before getting
a day off. Sick pay and paid holidays were for a privileged few. Most men,
including Dad and Grandpa, smoked.
Many children left school at 14, or even 12, as my mother and father
had, and went out to work. They lived at home, handed their wage packet
to Mum, and she gave them a little pocket money for themselves.
But it wasn't as boring a life as you might think. There was always
plenty to do, and then Hitler decided to liven things up a bit!