Working Class Life in the 1940s and 50s The Old Tin Bath
The Area I Lived in
When I was young I lived in a working class area in the city of Nottingham. The housing was predominantly small two up two down Victorian terraced houses. The majority of the houses were built in the mid to late 1800s.
Most of the housing on our street was of the same design which was quite usual.
If you moved over to the next street you might find the houses there slightly different to those on our street.
There were some differences between the streets. Some streets had small bay windows, some three bedrooms instead of two. But usually houses on the same street tended to be of the same design.
The streets varied a little in their design but one thing remained the same. It was the standard of the indoor plumbing.
Each house in our working class neighbourhood usually had one cold water tap indoors.
The Street that I lived on
Every house that I knew of in my neighbourhood had a toilet that was outside. Also far as I can remember none of the homes that I knew had a bathroom. So as you may imagine taking a bath was not the simple and easy task that it is today.
Most of us back then would have a bath once a week. You may think that taking a bath once a week is a long time between baths. If you do, then it may surprise you to know that there were many people that would only take a bath once a fortnight.
I want to give you a little insight into just what involved in taking a bath back then. I think then you will understand why for most of us it was only a once a week event.
Back then, no one would think that taking only one bath a week was unusual because that is what most of us did.
Most people got over the problem of no bathroom in the house by having a large galvanised tin bath. The tin bath was usually stored by hanging it on a nail that had hammered into a wall.
If you click on the blue link above you can hear a delightful song about the old tin bath sung by Harvey Andrews.
Sometimes the wall would be inside the house, like a wall in the pantry. But often the nail for hanging the tin bath on would be an outside wall in the backyard.
Friday night was bath night
Friday night was our bath night as kids, and I cannot remember ever having a bath on another night back then. . Back in the forties and fifties we seemed to be creatures of habit, often I suppose for very practical reasons.
Taking a bath today, only really involves an individual deciding that they want to take one. It is easy now because all that taking a bath entails these days is the turn of a couple of taps. Most people today, well at least most people in the UK, have access to running hot water.
Having hot water on demand was most unusual in the working class neighbourhood that I grew up in. In fact, the only two places that I can remember seeing hot water on tap in our neighbourhood was at the public Wash-house and the slipper baths.
The public wash house was where people could do their weekly load of washing. The Slipper baths was the place where for a small sum of money you could have a hot bath, but more of the slipper baths in a later hub.
As I have said, most homes in our neighbourhood had one indoor cold water tap. If we wanted hot water for anything we had to heat it.
When my brother and I were really small we would take our bath in the large stone sink in the scullery. When we outgrew this we progressed to a medium sized galvanised tin bath that mum used for rinsing her washing on wash day.
Even though the medium sized tin baths were a lot smaller than the large tin bath, the amount of water needed still took some time to heat.
Filling up the tin bath
When we finally graduated to the large tin bath, bath night was a much more time-consuming task for my mum.
We had a stone copper in the corner of the scullery which mum used for boiling the white items on washday. The copper would be pressed into action on a bath night.
My mum would fill the copper with water and a fire would be lit underneath it. Mum would also light the four gas rings on the top of the cooker to heat more water needed for a bath.
Mum would put on the cooker top the large kettle and an assortment of pans filled with water. When we had a range in the living room mum would put utensils filled with water there also. Mum would bring all the water filled containers to the boil.
It was only when the water in all the different containers was hot enough that the water would be poured into the tin bath. The hot water all had to go in at the same time because as soon as the water hit the tin bath the water would begin to lose its heat quickly.
Red Quarry style Pantiles
Our scullery was a cold place
Our scullery was always a cold place at the best of times. It was not a large room, only something like nine feet by seven feet at most. Our scullery had red pan-tiles on the floor which are red quarry style tiles they were about 6 inches by 9 inches and about an inch thick. These tiles seemed always to radiate cold.
Our scullery had red pantiles on the floor. Pantiles are red quarry style tiles which were about 6 inches by 9 inches and about an inch thick. These tiles seemed always to radiate cold. There was a polish that
The red pantiles seemed to be what most people in our neighbourhood had in their pantry and scullery. There was a polish that specifically made for these red tiles, they looked nice after you had done them. But like most things back then polishing the floor took a lot of elbow grease and the red seemed to get all over.
The cold radiating off the scullery floor could drain the tin bath of its heat quickly. So I had to be in and out as quick as possible so that my brother would still have some heat left in the bathwater.
Hot body and cold bum
When mum was heating all this water, the scullery walls would become covered in condensation. The walls in the scullery were gloss painted. Because of the coldness of the scullery walls condensation would run down. Little puddles of cold water would gather where the walls and the floor met.
There was just enough room in our scullery for the tin bath to be placed on the floor between the wall with the sink and the wall with the cooker on.
Because of the pan-tiles on the floor even when our tin bath had hot water in, the base of the bath could still feel cold. The bottom of the bath stayed cold until the heat of the water in the bath warmed the tiles underneath up.
I remember the feeling of sitting on the cold bottom of a tin bath filled with hot water. Sitting in water as hot as you can stand but with your bum sat on the cold bottom of the tin bath was an odd sensation.
Heating up all this water for a bath seemed to be mammoth task and one that I am sure that my mum did not look forward to at all.
The privilege of taking the first bath
Because heating the water up involved such a lot of work, my brother and I did not have the luxury of each of us having fresh bath water for our bath.
When we were small my brother and I would share the bath. But as we grew older and bigger we graduated to the large tin bath where bathed separately.
As the eldest I would have the privilege of taking the first bath, this was one of the few things that being eldest brought with it.
Taking the chill off the scullery
As I have said before the scullery was cold and damp, and my mum came up with a way to take some of the chill out of the scullery while we had our bath. While we were in the bath my mum would light the oven and put it on full. Mum would leave the oven door open to try to take the chill off the scullery. We had no such luxury back then as central heating, in fact back then I had no idea that there was such a thing as central heating.
As long as we were in the bath mum would leave the oven door open to take the chill off the scullery. We had no such luxury back then as central heating, in fact back then I had no idea that there was such a thing as central heating.
I thought that the heat from the oven was only a little better than nothing. Still it was better than nothing and mum bless her heart always thinking of us, did the best she could with what she had.
More Endured than Enjoyed
Because of the cold and damp I found that most of the time taking a bath in our scullery was not a particularly pleasant experience. Bath time was not a task that I ever wanted to dawdle over. Back then, a bath time was something that I more endured than enjoyed.
The soap that my mum used back then was either Lifebuoy toilet soap or Carbolic soap. Lifebuoy used to boast that it got rid of the germs as well as the dirt. But I reckon that my mum really didn't need to use any soap. Because mum seemed to rub hard enough with the flannel and the loofa to remove the dirt and germs and top couple of layers of skin too LOL...
Colourful Pit Towel
One thing that I can remember is the bath towels we had. My dad was a coal miner and he used to buy pit towels. Because miners had to bathe each time they came off shift the Pit subsidised the price of the soap and towels.
The pit towels were big and colourful. I can still remember the feeling of being rubbed dry in front of the fire in the living room by my mum or dad using these towels. Unlike the bath itself, the drying part of the experience is a pleasant one.
In the photograph, you can see my brother and he is standing in front of a pit towel. I was taking this photo with my new colour camera. It was the first time we had taken any colour photographs, and my mum wanted to make sure that we got our money's worth out of the colour film. Mum made me drape the towel as a backdrop so that all the colours on the film would be used.
A Mammoth Task
Filling the bath was a mammoth task but even emptying it was no walk in the park.
It seems the work involved in preparing a bath, like most things in those days took an awful lot of time and energy. I think this is one of the reasons that my generation appreciates and enjoys so much the things we have now. We don't tend take things for granted and we are grateful that we have access to so many labour saving devices.
If you have managed to stay with me to the end, thank you so much for takiing the time to take a stroll with me down a small part of my memory lane.
More by this Author
The great storm of 1900. the bravery and devotion of the Nuns as they look after the orphans in their care over six thousand people were lost and three thousand six hundred homes destroyed.
The life-cycle of the Dragonfly with photographs and video footage. An easy to read hub with lots of lovely photographs of these lovely insects. If you are a nature lover you will love this article.
- EDITOR'S CHOICE51
what wash days were like sixty years ago before there were such things as automatic washing machines. Read this first hand account of what it was like in a working class home in Britain on wash day.