I was making a cup of tea in the kitchen last Sunday morning when my wife Julie walked in with her arms full of washing. I watched her walk over to the automatic washing machine, open the porthole glass door at the front and load the washing she was carrying into the machine. Without saying a word she pulled out a small drawer at the top left hand side of the device, dropped in a small square blue tablet thing and closed the drawer again. Finally she tuned a dial at the front and pushed a button, where upon I heard the sound of water, accompanied by a series of whirls and clicks as the machine undertook the task it had been assigned. Job done! My Nan back in the 1950’s and early 1960's had a much different approach when doing the weekly wash.
When I was about nine years of age I stopped going for Sunday walks with my Dad, and instead I would walk from my house to my grandparent’s house about a mile away to spend the day, and have Sunday lunch. I would arrive at around 10.00am and I always found Nan in the kitchen starting to prepare lunch and up to her eyes in clothes, steam and soapy water as she tackled the once weekly big clothes wash. Nan’s kitchen was a basic and functional affair. The floor was light brown tiles. Its only contents were a gas cooker, a red topped Formica table, and a dresser. There was a large porcelain type sink which was about three feet long, one and a half feet wide and a foot deep and which stood immediately under the kitchen window which, looked out into the rear garden. To the right of the kitchen sink was a galvanised gas boiler with a lid on the top to allow items of clothing to be placed inside and, immediately next to that was a device that resembled an instrument of medieval torture, but what was in fact a mangle used to the wring out the wet clothes. On wash day under the front of the mangle was a large corrugated galvanised metal tub which caught the water expelled from the mangles two large rollers.
I never took time to try and understand the exact process and order my Nan adopted on these wash days, but I can remember well some of the individual processes. The boiler would be boiling away, the steam lifting the lid in a regular and metallic clanging manner. Every now and then Nan would stir the contents with her ‘boiler stick’, which was a three foot piece of wood the diameter of a brush stale and which over the years of use had been bleached completely white by the scalding hot water. Another weapon of attack she employed was a thing she called a ‘Posher’. This was a brass dome shaped device attached to a four foot broom stale. Items of clothing were placed in the water contained in the large corrugated steel tub and the posher was pushed up and down with a twisting action to agitate the dirt from the clothes. And so whilst my Nan was juggling various items of washing paraphernalia, making Yorkshire pudding and generally preparing lunch, my Grandad would be in the living room engaged in a similar rigorous Sunday ritual. That would have been reading the Sunday newspapers and smoking his pipe. My Grandad would arduously follow this Sunday morning ritual seated in the living room and stopping only when he had read all three of his news papers back to front or periodically to refill his pipe with Digger Flake tobacco. My Nan would only interrupt him to bring him a cup of tea or to scoot around the living room with the Bex Bissell carpet sweeper when she was certain that everything in the kitchen was set at the correct temperature and simmering nicely.
On the other hand back in the kitchen which resembled a Turkish bath with a strong but delicious aroma of roasting beef, my Nan would be poshing, stirring all manner of items of clothing with her boiler stick and wringing out washing on the mangle. How she managed to accomplish all these tasks with only the two arms is to this day, beyond me. When I consider that she was also hanging the washing out to dry, bringing in washing that had already dried and cooking the Sunday lunch, I still find it quite remarkable. I think my grandparent’s generation were made of sterner stuff than those of my own. I am sure that the reasons for that were that the appliances that today we take for granted were unheard of in those bygone days and also that they had not long before endured six years of World War II. During those war years both my grandparents worked in local heavy industry factories. Grandad was a foundry man, a reserved occupation, at Dartmouth Castings near the West Bromwich Albion football ground where they made heavy engine castings for tanks, trucks and all manner of automotive vehicles essential for the war effort. My Nan worked in a munitions factory of some description packing items in wooden boxes for dispatch all over the world. It was whilst nailing one of these crates closed, a nail head fractured and struck her in her left eye and thus blinding her in that eye for life.
And so at around 1.30pm she would serve up lunch. Her gravy was always a bit on the ‘thick’ side and the roast was always carved in varying degrees of thickness due to the fact she could only see through one eye, but my Nan’s cooking was the best. I never left a scrap. Well come on, I was hungry. After watching the woman tear around the kitchen for the last four hours it would give anyone an appetite. After lunch I would spend the afternoon watching what seemed to be the obligatory Sunday afternoon war film on the BBC. For tea we would have salmon sandwiches and hot buttered piklets (pronounced pyk-lets, the Black Country name for crumpets) and around 8.00pm Mom would collect me and we would set off for home just as my Grandad settled down to watch his favourite TV show, The Black and White Minstrels. He loved that show. I think you will understand, if you have read any of my other ramblings when I say, I think it was the realism regarding the colours in that show that appealed to him.
It was at that time I was roused from my thoughts of yesteryear, by Julie telling me the washing up wouldn’t sort itself out. As I consider myself to be a modern man, who nowadays has a duty to share the household chores, a view my Grandad would never have agreed with, I set immediately to the arduous and tiring task of unloading the automatic dishwasher.