The History Place - Personal Histories

A Girl's Life in London
by Margaret

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 cloth napkins.

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 Fire Station.

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!

Copyright © 1999 by Margaret All Rights Reserved

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