Chilling memories of winter

THE cold dark days of winter were much harsher for families who, within living memory, had no electricity, central heating and an outside toilet.

David Kindred

THE cold dark days of winter were much harsher for families who, within living memory, had no electricity, central heating and an outside toilet.

Brian Gissing, who now lives in Nevada in the USA, tells us how his war widowed mother battled to bring up her young family in a tiny terraced house on Bishops Hill, Ipswich in the 1940s and 50s.

He said “Although I have not lived in Ipswich for many years, I still consider it to be 'my home town'. I follow what is going on 'in town' by reading the Evening Star on line. One of the more interesting columns is 'Kindred Sprits'. Many of the articles published in this column mention personal experiences of life in the 1940s and 50s that are almost identical to those I experienced when I lived at 5 Bishops Hill.”

“We moved there in the early 1940s. I believe my mother asked to be relocated from Fletcher Road, where I was born in 1938, because our home was too near the Ipswich airport and all of the war time activities going on there. The house was a typical two up and two down, red bricked terraced house. There was an adjoining kitchen; however this appeared to have been added to the original building. Compared to modern day housing, it was antediluvian. It did not have electricity, a hot water supply, central heating, indoor toilet or bathing facilities.”

“Lighting was provided by a small gas outlet attached to the chimney breast in each of the four rooms. The gas outlet was fitted with a 'gas mantle' and enclosed in a clear glass globe. Lighting could, at best, be described as 'adequate', however, due to financial constraints at that time we could only afford to keep one or two of the lights burning. The gas mantles were fairly robust, but they did tend to break at the most inopportune times. We got our replacements at a small general store in the area of Unity Street and Trinity Street, off Myrtle Road.”

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“We had a 'pay as you use' gas meter, which required money to be put into the meter. The minimum amount allowed to be inserted into the meter was a 'shilling'. It was rare that we could afford much more that a shilling or two at any one time. Because of this, there were occasions when the gas turned off quite unexpectedly, plunging the house into complete darkness. Poor mum, she had to search for her purse in the darkness. Then, by feel alone, determine whether or not she had a shilling piece to put into the meter. If she did not, she would count out the equivalent in 'coppers' then we would call over the wall to our neighbours 'The Lockwood's' to see if they did. Other than that, we would trawl the neighborhood to see if a shilling piece could be acquired.

“Heating was by an open hearth coal or coke fire. Open hearth fires were, to say the very least, extremely inefficient in that they only heated a small area immediately in front of the hearth. Coal cinders from a previous fire were not discarded, but saved and utilized in the next fire.”

“Our toilet facilities were housed in a dilapidated brick building at the bottom of the garden. During winter months the water in the overhead cistern would often freeze. When this happened we had to return to the house, heat a kettle of water, bring the kettle back to the toilet and whilst standing on the seat pour the hot water into the cistern to melt the ice so that the toilet could be flushed. Many times this was done in complete darkness requiring considerable dexterity.”

“Bathing facilities were either a small white enamel bowl or a medium sized galvanized bathtub. Nightly ablutions were relatively easy; however the weekly bath was another story. Usually, the galvanized bathtub, partially filled with water, was placed on top of the 'gas oven' where four gas burners would heat the water. When the water was at the right temperature, the bathtub was lowered to the ground and the bathing routine would begin. Under the watchful eye of my mother each child would take a bath. As the water cooled the tub would be topped up with hot water from a boiled kettle of water.

“As the kitchen was unheated and had a concrete floor we did not dawdle during such activities.”

“Our kitchen appliances, compared to what are available today, were archaic. An old copper boiler was situated in one corner in which mum would do her washing. Despite the gas stove displaying real signs of wear and tear, and the food rationing restrictions, mum would produce many a succulent meal. There were few 'frills' just the basic staples such as meat, potatoes and perhaps cabbage, sprouts or carrots etcetera.”

“My father was killed during World War Two leaving my mother with young children. I have no idea just how my mother, as single parent, with an extremely limited income, managed to feed and clothe the whole family. She would spend almost endless nights unraveling old woolen jumpers and use the wool to make new cardigans or jumpers. When necessary she would cut the tail off our shirt to refurbish the collar of the shirt.

“She was a good seamstress and was very innovative. She did all of these things even though she was holding down full time employment.”

- I will continue with Brian's memories of his childhood on Bishop's Hill, Ipswich next week. Did you grow up in similar housing to Brian? Write to Kindred Spirits at the Evening Star or e-mail