Memory Lane: The hard work and elbow grease of washing day


We take modern appliances for granted.

Today they are part of our everyday life.

None more so than the washing machine, with its combined spin drier.

Simply put the clothes in the machine, turn a switch, then when it stops they’re clean and ready to iron.

No mess, no fuss.

Everything as easy as pie.

How different in times past.

My mother fed us and got us off to school.

She then started her daily cleaning routine.

Sweep clean the pavement and the gutter, then the window inside and out, including the windowsill – washed and dried to perfection.

Her next task was to whiten the step, divided into three parts, all carefully cleaned with a step-stone, then both sides painted white.

I understand that the whitening contained a strong disinfectant, also asbestos.

Each and every house in the street did the same, except for one.

She painted her whole doorstep white.

The reason was her husband, having finished work, made for the nearest pub.

When they chucked him out, he would stagger down the street, trip over the doorstep and crash-land in the passage.

It happened so many times, she did it so he could see the step. It didn’t work.

Great care was taken to ensure this was done correctly.

It was a pride where we lived.

Not having much money, you still kept a standard to make your home look nice and clean, both inside and, of course, outside.

The finishing touch was a half circle drawn on the payment with the step-stone, which resembled a mat right outside of the front door.

We did have a council cleaner.

He would come along, his two big sweeping brushes standing to attention on each side of the steel dustbins on his barrow (or “barra”).

I wonder what he would have thought of today’s “lazy” people, leaving their pavement strewn with discarded takeways, sweet wrappers, cans, bottles and dog muck, expecting someone else to clean it up outside their own front door.

He had little to do because most, if not all, kept the street clean and tidy.

We were taught not to litter.

In fact, if we did, it would be met with a clip on the back of the head, with “pick that up!” yelled at you for good measure.

In those times, if you were eating outside and food fell on the floor, we thought nothing of picking it up and carrying on eating it.

We played alleys (marbles) in the gutter.

Unheard of in today’s antiseptic, germ-free world.

But we ailed nothing by doing it.

If the day was bright or windy, Monday was designated as wash day.

The copper boiler in the back yard filled with water from the outside tap, sticks chopped and put in the grate, along with crunched up newspapers lit.

Then the lid placed on the top, waiting for the water to boil.

The washing machine – or poss tub – was a large barrel-shaped bin.

My mother used green carbolic soap that resembled a brick, a wash-board and poss stick – its copper bottom filled with holes to swirl the clothes and press them down.

Then my mother would remove them, one by one, and wring them out.

I picked up a jumper, freshly washed, turned it around and around, squeezing every bit of water out and feeling quite proud of how strong I was.

My mother took it from me, did the same, and enough water came out to fill a basin.

Another task made easier by use of a large green cast iron mangle.

On the side was a huge wheel, two smaller cogs with rubber barrels.

My mother used one hand for the clothes, turning the mangle with the other.

It took two of us to turn it with both hands.

Sheets and shirts filled the back street clothes lines, flying like flags of distress.

Then panic.

The coalman had arrived to make his deliveries.

Props quickly removed, pushing the washing out of the way of getting black from the coal wagon, along with some choice words.

Wash day was all day, sometimes until late in the afternoon.

We were in early when the dark nights came in and would spend the night around the fire, playing games or reading comics.

No telly then.

If for whatever reason we were off school, like a holiday, then wash day had a whole different meaning.

After the task of doing the washing was done, the poss tub was then emptied, then refilled with hot water for a whole different reason.

It’s not that we didn’t keep clean. We did.

Hot water from the kettle into a bowl, then stripped to the waist, washing the bit at the front (the face) and leaving the rest.

A hand would appear, grabbing me.

My mother scrubbed the back of my neck and the bits I’d missed, which would be a lot.

You must remember these were street houses without the luxury of inside toilets or bathrooms.

Often a tin bath in front of a coal fire was the norm.

The thought of having a bath filled me with dread.

Imagine getting water all over your body, unless it was at Seaton beach or down at the Blue Lagoon.

Now that was fun!

So the trap was set.

One by one we would be lured into the back yard on some false pretence.

Mine would be food, of course, if it was on the go. I’d be in like a shot.

Then my sisters, waiting behind the back door, would grab me.

I would try to fight them off, all to no avail.

Jumper, shirt, trousers strewn all over the backyard, struggling to meet this fate worse than death.

I’d scream “it’s too hot.”

They’d release their grip to feel if it really was.

At this point I’d break free, then make my dash for freedom, only to be grabbed again and held in there.

Scrubbed clean with an ample amount of bubble bath and sweet smelling soft soap.

Like heck!

It was a bar of blue Lifebuoy soap, my two sisters trying their very best to drown their loving little brother. Me.

We would look at each other after all of us had been through this ordeal.

Is that really you in the mirror with all the muck removed and hair cleaned, combed and parted?

Well yes, I suppose it was.

The next day, clean clothes on, back out again to get mucky all over again.

You have to remember back in those times we played out all day long, rarely ever staying in the house, only coming in for meals or for bed.

There was one thing for certain.

Times may have been hard back then but everyone was clean.

Despite the lack of modern-day appliances they took a pride in the town where they lived.

And this was there for all to see in the street where I was brought up, in Plevna Street.

Victor Tumilty,

Collingwood Walk,