Recent shenanigins with our heating system have brought to mind the ‘three day week’ of the 1970s in the UK and their scheduled power cuts. Our family home was Edwardian and still had fireplaces to almost every room, which we utilised to the full – downstairs at least. Emptying the ashes and cleaning out the grate every day were a chore though, so coal fires returned to being a seasonal treat once things returned to normal.
Thinking back, my mum used to have to deal with coal fires and much more during my early years.
I recall being brought downstairs wrapped in a warm dressing gown when very small. In the back room, a coal fire would be blazing, and I was sat on the table next to a bowl of water, to be washed before a quick transfer from dressing gown and pyjamas to clothes for the day – vest, liberty bodice, jumper, thick skirt, socks and warm slippers.
Once a week, the tin bath was brought in from the shed to bath us kids in front of the fire. Hot water was drawn from the massive floor-standing boiler that squatted in the fireplace of the kitchen/scullery. The butler sink in the kitchen also boasted an Ascot water heater. By the fifties, many of the three-bedroom Victorian terraced houses in our East London road had installed a bathroom carved out of the enormous front master bedroom, but our upstairs front room was let to a mature lady, know to us as Aunt Lil, and the carved-out space was her kitchen. Hence the morning bowl-wash.
There were fireplaces in the bedrooms as well, but I don’t recall fires being lit in those. Aunt Lil had a electric fires in her rooms, but upstairs we just froze. It was warm enough in bed and once out of it we didn’t hang about. . . except on Christmas morning when we wore our dressing gowns in bed to open presents stuffed into the pillowcases that had been left at the end of our shared bed, while our parents watched, shivering in their dressing gowns, and my mother tried to keep track of which distant relative had sent which parcels.
Downstairs, through winter the fires were always burning by the time us kids were up and after we went to bed. We must have got through a lot of coal. This was delivered by horse and cart, always by the same soot-covered driver, known to us as Uncle Tom. (All adult neighbours and friends of the family were ‘Uncle’ or ‘Auntie’ back then.) The coal sacks were emptied down a manhole-guarded coal-hole beside the front doorstep, into the cellar. Us children weren’t often allowed down the wooden steps to the cellar, but I recall the coal pile in the corner under the coal-hole left plenty of space to store tools and equipment.
We moved out to the suburbs the week after my tenth birthday. In my twenties, when house-hunting, I assumed that the vast spaces I recalled from my first home were coloured by my size at the time. Having viewed some new-builds, we returned to visit the relations who had rented our old home since we moved out, and it really was as big as my memories had painted it. I coveted all that high-ceilinged space.
Hence the Edwardian house we did eventually buy in our suburb, despite the amount of renovation it required (which is why nobody else had bought it).
Since then I have downsized twice to properties more economical to heat. My present husband likes the temperature higher than I do, especially since his coronary bypass. Even so, following my fifties and sixties, when I thought I would never feel cold again, I’m finding lately that I, too feel chilled at temperatures the thermostat tells me are not cold.
My husband shudders at my sandalled feet and tells me to put some socks on. He’s right, of course.