The older I get, the more I find myself musing about how much things have changed in my lifetime technology-wise; also, how the speed of change seems to be increasing at an exponential rate. In turn, this set me to ruminating about a wide range of topics.
No, I’m sorry, it’s too late for you to run away now — I’m afraid you’re just going to have to pull up a chair, sit down, relax, and let me reflect, ruminate, and cogitate away…
My dad was born in 1915, which was halfway through WWI and five years before the world’s first commercial radio broadcast. My mom was born in 1930, which was nine years before the outbreak of WWII and five years before the first rudimentary radar system was tested in England.
My mom was born in one of the poorest parts of Sheffield in God’s own county of Yorkshire (quite possibly the location of the Garden of Eden) in merry old England. Ladies didn’t typically go out to work in those days, but instead slaved away at home. I was just chatting to my mom about this — Monday was wash day when all the household’s clothes and bedsheets etc. were washed and hung outside to dry. Tuesday was ironing day, where all the washing from the previous day was ironed furiously. Wednesday was a small-quantity bread baking day. Thursday was housecleaning day. And Friday was the big bread baking day that would carry the family through the weekend and on to the following Wednesday.
Of course, there were numerous other tasks to be performed. For example, although everyone was financially challenged in my mother’s neighborhood (every kid in the district received only an orange and a threepenny coin — a.k.a. a “thruppenny bit” — for Christmas), but they had their pride. Thus, on Fridays, the ladies would polish their cast iron stoves and fireplaces with black lead (graphite) to give them a brilliant silver-black finish. Woe betide anyone whose appliances weren’t up to scratch for visitors to see during the weekend.
Also on Fridays, in what I can only imagine as a Monty Python-esque scene, the ladies could be found scouring the leading edges of their outside steps with so-called “donkey stones,” which were formed from a mixture of pulverized stone, cement, and bleach powder. This brisk burnishing left each step with a crisp white edge.
The house my mom grew up in was part of a group of connected homes forming three sides of a square. The center of the square was occupied by long thin vegetable gardens surrounded by a path. A row of outside toilets — one for each house — was located on the fourth side of the square. There was also a narrow alley between two of the houses providing access from the central square to one of the surrounding streets.
The front doors to each of these houses faced the outside world, while the back doors faced into the square. Each house had only two small rooms downstairs — the family room and the “front room” (because it was at the front of the house) — two small bedrooms upstairs, a basement (half full of coal), and a loft.
Everyone entered and exited the house by the back door, which opened directly into the family room. The front door opened directly from the outside sidewalk into the front room. The only time the front door and front room (which contained the best carpet, curtains, and furniture) were used was for weddings, christenings, and funerals. The rest of the time they were off-limits, and my great grandfather, my grandparents, my mom and her brother and sister hung out in the family room.
As I recall, the family room was about 14′ x 12′, which isn’t much space for a family of six. Just to add to the fun and frivolity, the “kitchen sink” and the coal-fired fireplace/stove/range were also located in the family room, so this is where my grandmother did all her cooking.
Bathroom? Don’t make me laugh. There was only one cold water tap feeding the entire house, and this was located over the sink in the family room. Once a week, they hauled a tin bath up from the cellar and filled it with hot water from a tank mounted on the side of the stove. This bath was filled twice. First the kids were bathed, starting with the youngest and working up in age. Next, the now cold water and dirty water was thrown out, the bath was refilled, and the adults took their turn, commencing with my great grandfather and working down in age.
My great grandfather was of the Victorian persuasion. He came up from Bristol with a team of men to supervise the introduction of electric trams in Sheffield (we already had horse-drawn trams). Known as “Chief Inspector Shorland,” he was an important man in the area where they lived, to the extent that working men doffed their caps to him when they passed him in the street.
My mother says that when great grandfather returned home from work, sat down, and opened his newspaper, everyone in the house — including my grandparents — “froze in place,” and no one moved or said a word until he closed it again.
Great grandfather refused to have electricity in the house, so — in addition to the flickering of the coal fire in the family room — lighting was provided by gas mantles mounted on the wall. It wasn’t until great grandfather passed away in the middle of WWII that my grandmother had electricity installed.
My grandfather was away at sea in the Royal Navy, so the main reason my grandmother wanted electricity was to power a radio so she would know what was going on. Unfortunately, electricity was a bit of an unknown quantity to people of her generation, so she covered any unused sockets with sticky tape “to stop the electricity leaking out.” Remembering that the only technology with which she was familiar was gas mantles, which could leak if you weren’t careful, this really wasn’t totally outlandish behavior on her part.
Sad to relate, my grandmother caught meningitis when she was about 17 years old, which caused her to lose her hearing (or go “Stone Deaf” as they used to say in those days). She was, however, a blackbelt at lip-reading. Thus, it fell to my mother, who was about eleven or twelve years old, to listen to the radio each day and relay the wartime news to my grandmother.
This might be a good time to note that Yorkshire dialect (also known as Broad Yorkshire, Tyke, Yorkie or Yorkshire English) is an English dialect of Northern England spoken in the county of Yorkshire. Broad Yorkshire can be hard for folks outside the county to understand. Now consider that the people who lived in my mother’s neighborhood spoke Broad Sheffield, which is like Broad Yorkshire on steroids, making it difficult for most non-Sheffielders to wrap their ears around, and almost completely unintelligible to anyone outside the county.
It was whilst listening to the radio that it dawned on my mother that she was never going to get a good job if she continued to speak in a Broad Sheffield dialect, so she determined to teach herself to “talk posh” by practicing talking like the BBC news announcers on the radio (think My Fair Lady with my mom playing the role of Eliza Doolittle and BBC news announcers taking turns as Professor Henry Higgins).
As a result, when she was older, after starting off in a typing pool, my mom worked her way up to being personal assistant to a Knight of the Realm, in which role she travelled the world. When her boss retired, mom started to lecture at a local college teaching shorthand and typing in English, French, and German (she didn’t like to restrict herself unduly), quickly rising to a position of Senior Lecturer, eventually becoming one of only six women Principal Lecturers in the whole of England.
However, I fear we are getting ahead of ourselves in the timeline, because my mom still has to meet my dad, and I still have to grace the world with my presence. So, until my next column, let’s leave this tale in the middle of WWII, envisaging my grandmother, my mother, and her siblings huddled around the coal fire in the evening listening to the radio and waiting to see if more bombs would fall that night.