7 – Same but different world
We were surrounded by stuff back then just as we are now. But it was pretty different. I started writing this by just assembling things that we had around us but then I realised they needed context and it all got a bit complicated. So here goes on a sort of tour of the house as it was in about 1950. I chose that date because it is a point in time I can just about remember; I was 7. Rationing was still on in various areas and efforts to put right our wrecked world were just getting started.
Worth remembering that these terraces were internally virtually identical all across London. What I describe here will, physically be the same in Tottenham, Stoke Newington, Kilburn, Notting Hill, Putney, Clapham – etc. My daughter lives in one in Ealing. They were what is known as hall entry and you lived in a right-hander or a left, indicating the side of the hall on which the rooms were. Ours was a left and so is my daughter's. When I walk into her house only the 'stuff' is really different. And the central heating, the better glazing, carpets, décor – et etc....
But I will start at the back door to the garden but not of the kitchen – the outhouse, as we called it. Many houses had these and some still do, if a bit smarter. This one was constructed of 2x2 (this will all be Imperial so that's inches; about 50mm square). The timber was painted dark green as I recall. The bottom three foot was wood panelled, the upper part very cheap thin glass which broke if a ball so much as swerved past. The roof at this time was I recall corrugated iron and very noisy in rain; later it was corrugated clear plastic. Actually I have just realised it may have been asbestos originally and I doubt much care was taken in its removal. Maybe I now have asbestosis not emphysema! Small joke; small difference!
To my left as I entered was the door to the outside loo. The door was not complete - that is it did not reach the ground by about a foot and ditto the lintel. Enough for a sort of privacy and no need for a lock – you could see the feet to tell it was occupied! When elderly aunts visited it was feet up time – great fun! It was, frankly never terribly clean. In 1950 it would have been graced by a nail adorned with torn up News Chronicle sheets. Lovely! To my immediate left was a work bench complete with a woodworking vice which never quite worked but was also never replaced. On the wall were tools – so much so familiar but of course not a power tool in sight. And no crosshead screwdrivers either! In fact the tools were cheap, blunt and in need of TLC. 1940S Britain.
To my right was the mighty Thor, our washing machine. It was huge, a corrugated green drum large enough to hide me and my brother and leave room for a dog or two. It was electrically powered so utterly off limits to us kids. Power then meant a two-pin plug with no earth. It did not, I believe have a water heater so had to be laboriously filled with hot(ish) water. Top loaded with clothes and then the huge paddle wheel began thrashing to and fro. The effect of the storm generated within the tub and the spindly legs on a slightly sloping concrete floor was predictable. It walked sideways. Eventually a method of anchoring it was found but for a while it was more funny than effective. After that the soaking clothes were put through the electric mangle. Yes an electric mangle or, as it was often called by my father, “that bloody finger eater!”
The remaining space in the outhouse was taken by a large cupboard the contents of which could best be described as variable or mysterious or both. Of course if this were all the structure contained it would have been quite tidy but it was far from all or tidy. A wide variety of stuff littered the floor. Model aeroplanes and boats hung from the roof. Bats - cricket, baseball etc - vied with footballs, tennis racquets and various other paraphernalia. There was even room for an antique hand propelled lawn mower (all we needed for the minute patch of grass) and other garden implements. And it smelt. My recollection is of damp wool, ancient mud, dogs, cats, and what I shall call ordure.
Beyond this structure was the kitchen door which let into what would have been called a scullery had there also been a kitchen. There being only a scullery we called it a kitchen. On your right on entry was a frankly disgusting Belfast sink with a solitary cold water tap protruding from the damp and hilly plaster. It had long been distempered over many times . Distemper was the forerunner of emulsion. I know not what it was made from but it formed a crust on the plaster which sealed water behind it. Given temperatures in the unheated kitchen, freezing caused spauling, that process by which plaster vacates its proper place to expose brickwork. It could however be gathered up (the distempered plaster) and glued back in place for a while. It had been. Variously. It also tended to smell due in part to the damp it harboured.
The colour scheme in 1950 was dark green below the imaginary wainscot and pale cream above. For wainscot read boundary between dark green and cream paint (distemper, sorry). Later it was blue below. The sink was below the kitchen window which looked out onto the sideway – the 'return' - where we played cricket and succeeded mostly in not breaking windows. The rule was 'hit a window and you are out; break it and you miss three night's cricket'.
Opposite was the wall of the outside loo. The kitchen consisted of four areas – the sink area as mentioned, the outside loo which intruded, after the sink on the right was the larder, and off to the left was an area with the gas cooker and a dresser. Little room for cat swinging. We had only one cat at this time. His name was Pip and he was dour, dark tabby, un-neutered - a tom with the smell of the neighbourhood queens on his chest. You would have swung him at more peril than mere lack of space.
The larder was an essential ingredient since there was at this time no fridge. It was about three feet square, had one very small and meshed window, admitting some air but little light. This was deliberate ensuring cool. It was not actually lit. A candle sufficed at first, a torch later. A large marble slab provided the cool area for meat, milk and eggs. We had eggs – the bantams were still strutting until about 1950 and laying their miserable little eggs unreliably and anywhere they felt like it. We found enough to justify their existence.
A key process in the larder was the conversion of going off milk to cottage cheese, involving bags of muslin suspended from the ceiling and dripping the whey into a bowl. This would also afford junket which I adored. The residue in the muslin was salted, peppered if dad was not looking, and became tolerably enjoyable cottage cheese. Sometimes a few chives would be chopped in, also when dad was not looking. Mum even made her own butter at times. There were shelves all round which would carry what the ration allowed and tinned stuff. There was plenty of room for more that even with my mother's proven ability to spirit stuff out of thin air (or spivs as they were better known) could not fill. Below the marble shelf were a few bins which carried small quantities of dried goods – flour, split peas and the like. A few tins of dog food and maybe some dog biscuits although they eat at this time mostly raw horse meat! At floor level was a huge bin into which bread went. After a few days it came out to be turned into bread pudding or with milk and raisins becoming bread and butter pudding; if slightly over-cooked sensational.
The gas cooker in 1950 was not an object of beauty and frankly not even very safe. The gas was the old 'town gas' loaded with the silent, smell-free killer carbon monoxide. Town gas was also technically known as water gas since the hydrogen essential to make it burn came from the water by basically cooking coal. The water leached out in the process of combustion and the resultant goo accounted for the choice of colours for your 1950 cooker – green or grey or possibly a sort of murky grey-blue. The hob burners were of course nominally black but the combination of water from the gas, fat from cooking and carbonisation changed that and not for the better. Greasy brown is not an attractive fashion choice. No wonder the conversion to natural gas in the 60s was a shoo-in. Oh and no timer of course.
The dresser alongside the cooker was as I recall green and white and made of metal. I think this was Utility furniture churned out for the masses. It was where bread was sliced and sandwiches were made. Its working top was enamelled metal and scratched easily and often. There was a wooden board which all but dad remembered to use. Cups, saucers, plates resided in the top, food stuffs below and cutlery in the drawers. Do not be under any doubt the cutlery was plastic (Bakelite?) handled, very light, floppy and of course blunt. Some serious knives were present and sharpened irregularly by the itinerant knife sharpener who pedalled around the streets well into the 50s.
Through the kitchen door we reach the living room. This middle of the house room was of reasonable proportions and sported a bay window (to our right on entry from the garden). In that space sat the extending 1930s table – still to be seen in fact and a bit fashionable right now. Behind the door as we opened it in 1950 was a fireguard and behind that the first of my grandfather's television sets. Made from plans in Practical Wireless his enthusiasm did not run to cabinetry so the chassis and tubes and valves were naked to the world. Given the 30,000 volts running on the vision chassis the fireguard was an essential protection. Fortunately we had two since the other one was to our left, guarding the open hearth fire. This was more important than it sounds since it provided the one method of heating water. The appointed tap at that time was beside the fire serving the back boiler – no thermostat so noises were frequent as it reached 100c (or 212Fahrenheit as we called it). Later modernisation ran a pipe to the kitchen sink. In the alcove of the chimney breast was a set of cupboards which contained a vast array of stuff from glasses, to plates and cups etc as well as mother's kit for repairing ladies beads and necklaces. To either side of the fire were two chairs – the only truly warm seats in the house and bagged by the adults of course.
An enormous 1930s oak sideboard filled the end of the room and sported two drawers and two large cupboards. The drawers and their astonishing mess of content – one never did close – did not strike me as anything unusual until some years later when I creased with laughter as Tony Hancock and Sid James spent a 30 minute radio show on a wet Sunday afternoon sorting through identical drawers. They did well – they threw away as I recall a 38 Clapham Common Omnibus ticket; I doubt we ever threw anything away. Space was eventually made for more stuff by a kind of attrition which resulted from older stuff hunkering down in the dust and decay and taking up increasingly less space. Or so it seemed.
I should mention carpets. But I don't think I will. We had lino and rugs. The lino was shiny and slippery and the rugs were thin and skiddy. Nuff said?
Through the living room door we entered the middle hall; running beside the staircase. At the end was a door to the understair cupboard. Ironing board and iron – spanking new electric in 1950. Dad was a cop and smart was the dress code. The ironing board was however another story. I was still using it a decade later, well maybe not quite, but it was made of wood when everything else was in short supply. The wood was thin and had been green as in “too new”. Now it was thin, curly and grey. The hinge was unreliable and the entire structure had been designed by a sadist. Back then we called them Blackman’s pinches but that would be non-PC today – whatever, they were frequent and painful bruised blisters.
Much else resided in the understairs cupboard but pride of place went to the Goblin vacuum cleaner. Others who had vacuums would have had a Hoover or an Electrolux but we had a Goblin. Made in Wales it was. For a while I thought it was actually made BY my Uncle Vivian Joselyn but later learned he was the regionaL sales manager. We got the Goblin cheap as part of an expansion bid by Goblin to break into the London market. Mum was expected, so I understood, to tell all her friends and show them how good it was. Had he offered her a commission on sales she would have leapt at it.
The understairs cupboard was also used as part of any hide and seek game we played so I assume passage into its shallowing recesses was possible.
First stop along the hall was the door to the 'back dining room' – since we only had the one the definition was surplus. In fact the two main rooms were joined by a wide archway with a couple of heavy brown curtains. The back room sported French doors onto the rear 'return' as these sideways were known. The bottom of these doors provided the wickets for our cricket practice. And showed it. A medium sized fireplace was, in 1950 a rather fine Edwardian cast iron job with tiles. That was ripped out soon enough for a dreary tiled 50s monstrosity, albeit with an all-night grate. I probably approved being a know-nothing at the time! The room had two glass fronted book cases in the chimney alcoves. In 1950 it still had the upright piano that later led my musical father to help a young Peter Callendar to master the art of annotation. He went on to moderate success in the world of pop and more elsewhere in music. It was also where dad would practice his double bass playing. In the 40s and into the early 50s he earned extra by playing for the Harry Cheeseman Quintet, a strict tempo dance band that played the hotels of London. The bass, a fine shellbacked instrument, usually travelled by taxi, driven mostly by a family friend from Manor House, Reg Page.
Back to the hallway and the staircase bend at the middle of it. This was weird anyway, made more so by the mismatch of the floor tiles in front and rear halls and overshadowed entirely by the appalling festoon of electricity cables and meter at ceiling height on the dark junction. On the way now to the front door we pass the door into the lounge or front room. Conjoined with the dining room door one or other of these two doors were sometimes locked to allow use of the space behind. The front room had a reasonably large bay window in which sat dad's pride and joy – an Armstrong Stereophonic Hi-Fidelity Radiogram. Of this more elsewhere. The room had two large overstuffed settees which would accommodate three each at a pinch and faced each other across the fireplace. Thus it was possible and frequent for the person sitting nearest the fire to strike their head unerringly on the mantelshelf above. This one too was 'modernised' in the late 50s. Both rooms still sported their plaster cornicing, complex and Victorian in flavour it was hard to clean and so the crevices were filthy. Central plaster roses finished the décor and sported 'bowl' lights with 100 watt lamps within. Sometimes cobwebs joined the two. At Christmas they were cleaned away to allow space for garlands of paper chains – from Tom Smith, who else? The rest of the room was lit by table lights. The plethora of these overwhelmed the inadequate electrical sockets and were thus fed by festoons of adaptors which my father merrily added one to another to the point at which the last one fell out. Then he would perforce stop, having until then happily ignored the pleas from his electrically savvy father-in-law to reduce the ludicrous load he had hung on a mere 5 amp socket! Both rooms had lino covered with large rugs; that in the front room was slightly bright green and very floral I seem to recall. The back room had a large dining table which could be extended until it encroached on the front room. It would seat up to 10 comfortably but we often had 14 or more. And then used a scaffold board between chairs for seating. Splinters ahoy. This table also doubled as a playground. It would take a quarter size snooker table. This table could also be used for the forerunner of subutteo – flick football. This superior game involved a wooden pen pole about 8 inches long, a ball taken from a blow football set and teams of draughts pieces. The goals also came from the blow football. The rules were simple – with only one hand use the pen pole to flick the draughtsman into the ball and proceed to score or not. It was noisy, brilliantly effective and kept kids and adults amused for entire evenings.