I was only half watching some obscure children’s history programme on some channel or other the other week when I happened to hear the presenter say, “But things were very different in the middle of the last century...” At first the remark had no relevance, but then, suddenly it hit me, like a sucker punch to the stomach. I felt a sudden urge to sit down as it occurred to me I was alive back then, on the planet, drawing breath, and this man on the TV is talking about 'the middle of the last century’ as though it was only a few months down the road from the last Great Ice Age. I turned the TV off before the so called informed person presenting the programme started to explain to his young audience, that back in the 1950’s one would not have been surprised to look out of your window and see a Woolly Mammoth sauntering by. In the quiet afforded by the now silent TV I started to recall the days back in my very early boyhood when I lived in a council house at number 28 Connell Road, West Bromwich with my Mom, Dad and Grandad.
The house was of post war construction, around about 1948, and would be classed in today’s market as a terrace as it was in a block of five. Ours was the centre house of the five and access to the rear was gained via an arched passageway which we just called ‘the entry’ between us and the next door neighbour. The ground floor consisted of three main rooms. These being the living room, which lead via a doorway directly into the kitchen, and a bathroom which in turn was accessed via the kitchen. Also leading off the kitchen was what I can only describe as a small walk in cubby-hole which was in fact under the stairs, and was originally intended as a place to store coal for heating. I can never remember the storage of coal in there however. Dad had painted the walls white and the space under the stairs was used as a pantry. The only other room on the ground floor was the smallest room in the house. Although in was incorporated in the main structure of the house it could only be reached by walking out of the back door, into the rear garden, turning left where the toilet door was exposed to the elements. I have often heard the toilet referred to as the reading room, but I can assure anyone reading this that in the winter there was very little reading done in that particular room, unless it had an article in it describing the best methods available to combat hypothermia or how to separate bare skin from a painted wooden seat which had chilled to a temperature where mercury freezes.
The upstairs is simple to explain as there were only three bedrooms. The main bedroom, Mom and Dads, faced the front whilst the second bedroom and a small box room faced the rear. I had the smaller room and Grandad the other.
Whilst I was recalling the layout of the rooms and the manner in which they were decorated and furnished my thoughts returned once again to the Woolly Mammoth. Back then the only form of heating was a coal fire in the living room. This coal fire also served as the only means of heating the domestic water which incorporated a series of water pipes at the rear of the fire place which were in turn, linked to a storage tank in the bathroom. Although there were two more fireplaces in the two larger bedrooms upstairs, these were never lit unless someone was ailing in the extreme. My Mother would then weigh up the seriousness of the illness and decided if the lighting of a fire in an upstairs bedroom was prudent. Mom would only consider it prudent however, if it was minus 20 degrees outside and, the person who was ill had seen an apparition of a black avian like creature sitting on the wardrobe with wings set to descent capability and eyes that clearly indicated the thing hadn’t eaten for a fortnight. Even then she would probably seek collaboration of the sighting from a third party before declaring that a fire was to be lit upstairs. As Mom would succinctly put it, ”Coal doesn’t come cheap our Robert. It doesn’t grow on trees you know”.
So, having recalled the fact there was only heating in one room in the entire house back then, my thoughts went back to the year 1963 when I was of the ripe old age of ten. That is the coldest winter I can remember. The wind howled, driving the snow to blizzard conditions for what to me back then seemed like days on end. Dad tended that living room fire as though he were a stoker on The Queen Mary, which was attempting to win ‘The Blue Ribbon’ and, being paid at double time with a large bonus for his monumental efforts. The result of Dad’s labours were that the living room, in which we all sat, attained a temperature somewhere around tepid, whilst the rest of the house continued to plummet to Arctic extremes. All that is for the bathroom, which you will remember was on the ground floor.
When entering the bathroom one was confronted with its dominating feature. A five foot high brass coloured hot water tank which was some three feet in diameter and shone brighter than Polaris itself, due to the amount of elbow grease and ‘Brasso’ my Mother had lavished on it. The heat given off by this leviathan was wonderful and could well have been the forerunner to modern central heating, had it served the entire house and not just the bathroom which was only ten feet square.
At about 10.00pm one evening we were all seated in the living room watching a late night TV show. The fire was burning like the very furnaces of Hades and we were all recumbent in blankets and eiderdowns. The wind outside rattled the window frame beyond the heavy, heat insulating living room curtains which were drawn tight shut to conserve the meagre warmth. A sound emerged from the rear of the house that, as a child I had never heard before…Bloo Bloop! I can remember like it was yesterday, Mom turning and looking at Dad. Dad looked at Grandad…Bloo Bloop, Bloo Bloop. Dad looked again at Mom, Mom at Grandad, Grandad at Dad. The look on their faces informed me even at that young age that something was not all as it should have been. At that there was a great deal of Bloo Blooping emanating from the bathroom at the rear of the house. At this point the three adults I was sitting with, leapt from their seats like scalded cats and ran into the kitchen. As a boy of ten I was somewhat bemused and eager to see what was taking place. On entering the kitchen Mom was turning on the hot water tap, whilst in the bathroom Dad had taken control of the hot water bath tap whilst Grandad had assumed control of its opposite number at the wash basin. All the hot water taps were turned on to their full extent which made the ground floor of number 28, Connell Road like a Turkish bath.
When the apparent emergency was over my Mother explained to me that heat generated from the excessively hot fire had caused the water to boil in the domestic hot water system. She went on to say that if the hot water taps had not been turned on to relieve the pressure, the tank in the bathroom would have exploded.
I was just thinking, they don’t build houses like that any more when the telephone rang and I was back in the year 2006. However as I picked up the cordless handset I recalled the first phone Mom and Dad had. It was a heavy black thing, made out of ‘Bakalite’ and it had a…Oh, but that’s another story.