My father was a dedicated newshound. He bought his daily paper and cigarettes on the way to work. On Saturday afternoons he picked up both on his way to the pub. Sundays were different. Newspapers were delivered early by a boy in a balaclava with a bag almost as big as himself. Every Sunday my Dad would spend all morning in bed reading his way through The Times, The Telegraph, The Observer and the News of the World; every Sunday, that is, until something called ‘The Suez Crisis’. Apparently, The Observer’s reporting of this event so incensed my father that he leapt out of bed, scattering newsprint in all directions, dressed rapidly and stamped his way to the newsagents to express his disapproval. I followed in his wake, hoping, as always, for some sweets. The full force of my father’s fury fell upon the hapless newsagent who explained that he just stocked newspapers and really had no control over the Observer’s editorial policy. This reasoned response did not end well. My father cancelled The Observer and I left the shop empty-handed.
The mountain of newsprint generated by my father’s reading habits was not a problem, it simply became part of our general recycling processes. There was a tall table in the kitchen by the cooker. Old newspapers were piled on its lower shelf for later use. As vegetables were peeled the parings would be tightly packaged in a newspaper parcel before being relegated to the bin. Newspapers could also be curled and twisted to become a layer of kindling for our coal fire or if the fire was slow to heat then double sheets could be used to help it ‘draw’.
In some people’s homes, old newspapers were scrunched into balls and used for cleaning windows. Our flats had their own window cleaner called Mr Leather which was essential as the building design only really worked in theory. In real life, there weren’t enough windows that opened so we could reach out and clean the glass.
Now that I think about it, there was a great deal of recycling in our lives. Jam jars were washed and stored to be exchanged for pennies at the Co-op. Fizzy drinks came in glass bottles with a deposit of a few pennies. If the bottles were rinsed and returned to the shop, then the cash would be handed over. If you were lucky enough to have a ‘pop van’ that did its rounds in your area, like my cousin Kate, then you didn’t even have to carry the heavy glass bottles to the shop. I used to envy the different flavours of drinks Kate’s family could get from the Corona van. Our local shops didn’t stock Cherryade or Cream Soda or even Dandelion and Burdock.
Our tins and boxes were repurposed. Syrup or black treacle tins would be cleaned and used for storing small things like nails or screws. Larger tins, like the ones which arrived filled with Christmas biscuits, provided homes for items like stationery or possibly became a makeshift sewing basket. Sturdy boxes which had contained gifts were never discarded; one became home to my mother’s random collection of spare buttons.
Waste disposal in the flats was a very simple process. Our kitchen had two doors, one of which led out on to our balcony. This metal-framed door had poorly fitted glass panels which offered friendly passage to any breezes in need of a shortcut, but it was essential for access to the chute – our means of rubbish disposal. All that was visible of the chute was a circular rubber lid with a handle on top – just like a dustbin lid. This sat on top of a bricked-in shelf. Lift the lid, tip in the rubbish and it would slide all the way down from our second floor flat into the metal bins below. The bins lived in a small room with wooden doors on the ground floor. Our weekly waste removal provision consisted of one large metal bin per household which was, surprisingly, more than enough. Once a week the bin lorry would arrive and park behind the flats, close to the bin room. The dustmen would open its doors, drag out the bins, heave them to shoulder height and empty the contents into their lorry. It was extremely hard work but fewer items found their way into a single bin than you might think.
Other than eggshells and the inedible parts of fruit and vegetables, very little food was discarded. Stale bread could still be toasted. Bread that was too stale to slice would be put out for the birds along with bacon rinds. (One of the very rare exceptions in this process was a batch of hot cross buns which my mother made during Easter one year. These proved so totally inedible that even the birds left them alone.) Leftovers of mashed potato and greens became the next day’s bubble and squeak. Left-over meat dishes were served again the next day. (Meat enriched gravy which has been allowed to stand overnight tastes even better.) Animal bones were handed over to a happy dog. The dog was never in danger from splintering bones as chicken was banned from our home. My father had read that the poor creatures were fed a strange combination of hormones to promote faster growth. (These were the days before there was any regulation of such things so his suspicions may have been correct. ) Nothing that was put down the chute began its journey as a sticky mess or had time to rot, so the chute didn't even smell particularly bad; the predominant wafts from the bin room were of ashes from coal fires (tipped down the chute when they were cool) and cigarette ends.
There was very little packaging to be dealt with because very little of our shopping was pre-packed. Meat, cheese, biscuits, dried and fresh fruit and vegetables all had to be weighed and arrived home in paper bags. Flour and sugar were sold in the same paper bags they are sold in nowadays. Cakes were bought from the local bakers and, with the exception of extremely delicate meringues and other similar treats, they arrived home in paper bags too. All paper wrappings were burned on the open coal fire along with discarded post. Very little packaging of any kind contained plastic so there was no problem with throwing it on to open flames. There were no aerosols to be dispensed with. My mum bought her polish from the Betterware man whose products arrived in large, round tins just like shoe polish. Toothpaste and my father’s shaving cream came in tubes. There were softer toilet rolls for sale than the scratchy green and white packs of Izal paper my mother always bought for us, but other than toilet rolls, there were very few paper products available. Babies’ nappies were made of thick cloth, rather like towelling. They were soaked when they were soiled and then washed in boiling water. We wiped our noses with washable fabric handkerchiefs which we wished were softer, especially when we had colds. There were no tissues, kitchen rolls, wipes or disposable nappies to fill our bins. My mother had an elaborate hierarchy of cloths that were only to be used for particular cleaning activities. These had started life as things like vests or tea towels. Once consigned to cleaning activities they gradually worked their way down to the role of floorcloth before their final journey down the chute.
There was no need for a garden waste service, even after Christmas. In the new year, the remnants of our Christmas trees were dragged outside, shedding handfuls of crispy brown needles along the way, and collected by the dustmen. Families with gardens, like my friend Denise Wynn who lived across the road from our flats, had their own methods of dealing with their year-round garden waste. Grass cuttings were used to benefit growth either by allowing them to lie on the lawn or by collecting them and digging them in to growing soil. As they decomposed, they added nutrients for plants. Other plant life, like branches or weeds, could be dried and burned along with household waste too large or too smelly to be thrown on indoor fires. Denise’s dad had an incinerator for outdoor fires. It looked like a normal silver metal dustbin but it stood on spindly metal legs and had a series of small holes punched in the sides. Homeowners like the Wynns allocated a small area of their garden as a waste burning patch which is why a bonfire night celebration held at home presented no problem. Care had to be taken when lighting a garden bonfire, though. It was always best to make sure that neighbours had no washing on the line.
Electrical appliances never found their way into our bins. Firstly, our flat had very few electrical sockets let alone electrical products. There was our radio, our television, our iron and our reconditioned hoover and that was it. Secondly, it was automatically assumed that if anything electrical was broken it could be repaired. This would be an annoying expense but not a problem because friends could always help you find a repairman who would take the item away, mend and return it. This was often a way for someone suitably skilled to make a little extra money. It might take them a while to get hold of any replacement parts, though. This would mean writing to a particular company with a cheque for payment and postage, but it was generally understood that these things took time.
Mending was an ongoing process in all parts of everyone’s home. There is the famous story in our family about Auntie Cissie’s sofa repair. Auntie Cissie (my father’s big sister), noticed a small worn patch under one of the seat cushions on her sofa. This could not be ignored or eventually a tear would develop. As she had no sewing machine and therefore didn’t cut out fabric and make garments from scratch, there were no offcuts stored away to make a patch. Being a resourceful lady, she used some ends of wool she had kept and knitted a patch instead. She carefully hand-sewed it in place and forgot about it. One day when her very young niece, Judith, was staying with her she lifted the sofa cushion and discovered the small area of knitting. ‘Auntie’ she said, in an awestruck voice, ‘Did you knit this sofa?’
A sewing box lived in every home I knew. It didn’t mean that its owner made the family’s clothes, it was needed for all sorts of reasons. If the hem of a dress happened to tear or a button fell off a coat or a shirt, then a needle and thread would be available for mending. In my home, the buttons from threadbare shirts would be cut loose and stored in case they were needed to replace any that were lost. My mother’s button box was a treasure chest of all kinds of buttons. Some had been spares provided on good quality garments, but most were recycled from older clothes. Just a few were the gloriously shiny reminders of her time at Horrockses. Nana’s sewing box had tiny balls of different coloured wools and an interesting assortment of needles, some of which were long and blunt. She used them with a wooden thing shaped like a mushroom to darn holes in woollens of all kinds. My mother didn’t darn, but she spent hours sewing clothes for us both, so her sewing box was filled with a huge variety of coloured sewing machine cottons. The box was also home to her golden dressmaking scissors which I was never supposed to use because they were so sharp and I always wanted to use them to cut paper which would have blunted them.
If something electrical could not be repaired and, heaven forbid, had to be replaced, any new electrical product would arrive minus a plug. The purchaser would have to buy the style of plug to match their home’s socket type and add this themselves before they could put it to use. Newer buildings like ours had sockets that accepted what is now the standard three-pin plug. Many older properties had acquired mains electricity years beforehand when all kinds of sockets were in use.
During the war years, every possible resource had to be put to work to support the war effort. Both fuel and water were desperately needed for factories. Householders were restricted in the amount of hot water they could use; baths were required to be no deeper than 5 inches. (Nana, who was a great royalist, told me that the royal family set an example by marking a five-inch depth on baths in Buckingham Palace). The slow rebuilding after 1945 still needed this kind of support. Over every washbasin in our school bathrooms was a small red and blue sticker ‘Don’t waste water!’ reminding us to turn off the taps when we had finished washing our hands. Nowadays the warning is for the protection of the user against burning by hot water.
Waste of any kind at home could not be tolerated because family finances were organized completely differently than they are today. One of the main sources of worry for any family was a large, unexpected bill – for anything. It could be a heavy quarterly bill for gas or electricity or new shoes for a growing child. Even for those who were paid monthly, there was no straightforward means of deferring or staggering payment of a bill - direct debits did not yet exist. For those who had a bank account, an overdraft facility was not automatic. It was an acknowledgement of sound financial habits or personal wealth, not an incentive to overspend at will. Without savings, anyone who faced a big bill faced a very big problem. This was why my parents were infuriated by lights absent-mindedly left burning, clothes that were torn or belongings that had been lost at school.