A Long Cold Winter
Recently I heard that gas prices are to rise by at least 6% and therefore it will be a long cold winter for many low paid workers and their families. It started me off reflecting on how we now take our double glazing and central heating almost for granted. Certainly, the younger generation has never known a time without it.
During my early childhood, such things simply didn’t exist. Winter in a plotland bungalow in the early fifties had to be planned for. Wood was collected and chopped into sticks with larger logs kept for storing to supplement the ton of coal we had delivered and tipped into our outside store, (a homemade construction with breeze block sides). This had to be shovelled into a coal bucket and brought inside in all weathers and as the coal store had no cover, this sometimes meant having to plunge the shovel through snow while wearing wellington boots with a raincoat draped loosely over the head and shoulders. Early in the mornings, the tap on the outside water tank would be frozen, so our dad (George Burton) heated a poker which he held against it until it thawed and began to turn.
The fire in the kitchen was started with rolled up balls of newspaper, then the kindling and small logs until the fire was hot enough to add the coal. This way, the kitchen was fairly warm when we children were called from our beds and we got washed and dressed for school there. The living room fire would be started later in the day. During the day, the bungalow was always cold and draughty and although it was a couple of miles away, it was almost a pleasure to get to Markhams Chase school each day as every classroom had a lovely warm radiator. We stood our little bottles of milk there to take the chill off it. I’m pretty sure the school had solid fuel heating and that Mr Davey the caretaker had to stoke the boiler.
I remember everything having to be tucked in when getting dressed. Vests (whatever happened those) tucked into pants, jumpers tucked into skirt. Knitted cardigan put on over the top. Pixie hood for me and balaclava for little brother had to be tucked into the collar of our coat. Mittens or gloves that were sewn onto the coat were tucked up the cuffs to keep our wrists warm. Thick grey woollen knee length socks turned over at the top and secured with an elastic garter which left a red ring around the leg, just under the knee. Just our faces and knees were exposed. That applied to boys as well as girls because in the fifties short grey flannel trousers were worn throughout the winter, exposing the knees to the elements. Boys didn’t go into long trousers until they were around 11 or 12. That event appeared to represent a coming of age. My nan (Jessica Devine) would sometimes remark about the teenage sons of family and friends saying things like “Oh he’s growing up quickly”, with a knowing look on her face. Then she’d wink and say “He’s in long trousers now” as if it was a significant landmark in a boy’s life.
One day at school, I couldn’t find my woollen pixie hood and when my dad arrived to collect me on his push bike, Miss Whitley wouldn’t let me go home on the seat on the back of his bike without a hat. So she went to ‘Lost Property’ and sorted out a suitable one for me. I was very glad of it and duly returned it the following morning.
On arriving home from school, the living room would be warm, but curtains were hung over doors to help keep out the draughts. That didn’t stop them completely and we often sat in the evening with a blanket around our legs. Chilblains were often suffered and complained about. Occasionally in windy weather, smoke would be blown down the chimney into the room, making us choke and we’d try to fan it away with our hands. Preparing for bed involved dressing in winceyette pyjamas and bed socks and filling our stone hot water bottles with boiling water (mum had knitted covers for them). Then piling on as many blankets as we could, sometimes adding our coats on top. Slipping between the cold flannelette sheets and gradually forming a cosy warm nest to sleep in. In the early sixties we tried brushed nylon sheets hoping they would be warmer but they proved to be clingy and uncomfortable, and produced static electricity that crackled and sparked when we pulled the sheets off the bed. We soon realised that natural cotton was best. When I was 16 we got mum a puppy for Christmas. Peggy, a miniature dachshund, decided to share my bed and helped to keep it warm for me. Mum made porridge for breakfast and warming meals such as stews and shepherd’s pie. She knitted jumpers and cardigans, hats, scarves, mittens and even all my dad’s socks which she darned quite expertly on a ‘mushroom’ when they began to wear.The chimney would need sweeping in the spring. My dad had his own set of brushes which he would push up the chimney. We’d stand outside waiting to see them poke out at the top and then shout excitedly to tell him they had come through. Mum would catch all the soot in a sack and dispose of it.
A winter’s smoke would take its toll on the wallpaper making it dingy so my parents often re-wallpapered. Those were great occasions. Mum did a tour of the shops in the High Road to choose the wallpaper. Usually quite bold flowery patterns, complimented by cream paint on the skirting boards. She would then sit and trim the borders off the edges with scissors. Dad made the paste himself from flour and water and we all sang ‘When Father Papered the Parlour’, as the sticky gooey stuff was slapped onto the strips of paper with a wide paste brush and then hung on the walls (sometimes over a previous layer of wallpaper) and we would all check for bubbles that needed to be poked with a pin and smoothed out. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39wx7UeTXfw Oh that song brings back some wonderful memories and I can almost smell the paste. When not singing, we’d listen to ‘The Goon Show’ on the radio.
As dad worked his way around the room, occasionally one sheet he had previously stuck in place would start rolling down from the top. We’d laugh and shout to him and he’s hurry to stick it back again. On occasions when the walls were stripped to the plaster, dad drew cartoons or caricatures on the walls, which wouldn’t be seen again until the wallpaper was stripped off again the following year and made us chuckle. In the mid-sixties I sketched a picture of my beloved Beatles together with Ringo’s drum kit and was so pleased with the result, I was reluctant for dad to cover it with wallpaper. We children were always delighted when told the old wallpaper was to be stripped and we could start pulling it off. We loved doing that and a favourite trick was to stick a finger in a corner of the room and run it down, breaking the paper and then rip off as much as we could, attempting to peel off a whole sheet without tearing it.
We had a couple of paraffin heaters and in 1957 when the electricity was connected we had a small two-bar heater. Thus we survived and even enjoyed the cold winters. Laughing at the milk that had frozen in the bottles on the doorstep which had pushed up through the neck of the bottle with the silver top perched on top. Taking in large breaths of air on the way to school and blowing it out to see what the cold air did to our hot breath. Hooking long pieces of grass into a circle and scooping up spider webs that twinkled like diamonds in the frost, seeing if we could get the whole web without breaking it. Making snowmen and having snowball fights until our fingers and faces tingled with the cold. Sliding on the ice in King Edward Road on the way to school and on one occasion when I was 12, falling and injuring my ankle and arriving very late after having to hobble very slowly. Mr Cluff arranged for me to be sent to Casualty at St Andrews Hospital. An x-ray showed that it was a severe sprain, so I was bandaged tight from toes to just below the knee. I couldn’t bear the weight of the bedclothes on it at night, so had to sleep with my foot in one of my mum’s shopping bags. I was off school for two weeks and limped for a third week. Frost, ice and snow made our unmade road easier to negotiate as it became hard and crisp to walk on and for a couple of months, our shoes didn’t get muddy, until the thaw started in the spring.
Yes, it was very cold but with a little tenacity we survived and managed to stay cheerful.The weeks leading up to Christmas were popular with the local children for Carol Singing. We never had any come to our bungalow because of our unmade road, but many little groups of children could be seen walking from house to house in Laindon, knocking at doors and singing for a bit of pocket money. Probably the same ones that had been doing ‘Penny For the Guy’ in November. I remember one boy from our school who always went Carol Singing on his own. He could often be seen in the late afternoon going from house to house, singing very loudly. I thought that was slightly strange but very brave of him. I only joined in once when I was 13, along with two friends, Geraldine Moore and Brenda Holt with the permission of our mothers. We went along Devonshire Road, down King Edward Road, along the High Road and then into the Pound Lane Estate. We mostly received pleasant responses and were even invited in by one lady to sing to her two little toddlers who were ready for bed in their pyjamas. They sat on the rug in front of the fire while we sang. We chose a couple of soft lullabies, ‘We will rock you, rock you, rock you’ and ‘Away in a Manger’. That was a lovely moment. We were only told to ‘go away’ once, when a man shouted at us in a gruff voice from behind a front door, needless to say, we ran away quickly. On crossing the High Road and entering Holst Avenue, we were spotted by a couple of boys from our school who started laughing and following us around. We asked them to go away and leave us alone but they responded by throwing handfuls of mud and scored a couple of hits on the cream coloured wool coat that one of my friends was wearing. She was worried her mother wouldn’t be too pleased, so we hurried on until we reached my brother’s house. There, my sister-in-law kindly sponged the mud off as she sighed and muttered ‘boys’ under her breath. Thus ended our Carol Singing adventures.
Central heating arrived in the mid-sixties. As a teenager, conversations at work turned to whether to go for gas or solid fuel. How many radiators to have and whether the rubber plant would suffer if kept too near a radiator etc. I believe a back boiler and three radiators cost about £1,000 to install at that time. I remember the Baxi Bermuda being a popular choice. My parents eventually had a solid fuel system fitted, back boiler and radiators, along with some secondary double glazing. A warm home throughout felt luxurious and over the years became the norm. In fact, these days I feel that many people keep their homes a little too warm. Certainly when she lived in a warden controlled flat in Cromer Avenue during the seventies, my nan had her heating turned up so high, it made us feel sleepy and uncomfortable and it was a relief to step outside into the cooler air. She was probably over compensating for all the cold winters she had endured earlier in her life.I’m not saying that we should go back to how it used to be but I feel we could all save a little on our heating bills this winter by wearing an extra layer of clothing and turning the thermostat down a degree or two. Perhaps we might also catch fewer colds, as germs multiply in very warm conditions.
I remember a few days before my mum died in January 1994, helping her into bed one evening and tucking her in. There was a long radiator on the wall alongside her bed. I said “At least you have a nice warm bedroom now, unlike when we lived in Spion Kop when the net curtains were stuck to the icy windows in the mornings”. She smiled weakly but her reply really surprised me. I had been expecting ‘Yes, isn’t it wonderful’ however she said “I suppose so, but I can’t help missing that lovely feeling of climbing in between cold sheets, snuggling down and gradually warming up through my own body heat. There was something comforting and satisfying about that”. I was rather taken aback, but after having a think, I began to understand what she meant. I feel privileged to have been part of the generation that experienced the era before central heating and double glazing, only we can fully appreciate the changes that have taken place over the last 50 years. However, as I switch off the central heating on the way to bed each night this winter, I will remember my mother’s words as I pop my wheat-filled hot water bottle into the microwave oven to heat up. Keep warm this winter everybody – but not too warm.