Bonfire night had come and gone. It was winter. Try as we might to keep warm and dry, winter was not so easily beaten. Cold and damp seeped slowly and mercilessly into every corner of life. A home that has central heating is not only warm, it is dry. There is no truly icy surface for moisture to condense and linger. Our flats did not have central heating. Nor did my relatives' homes.
Getting out of bed on a winter’s morning wasn’t something anyone wanted to do. The warmth of my bedclothes and the cold of the unheated room suggested that staying where I felt comfortable might be a good idea. My icy nose agreed, but my mother didn’t. She was already wrapped in her thick blue dressing gown and slippers. (The blue dressing gown has a history of its own. My mother no more liked the cold than I did, so she asked my father for a really warm dressing gown for Christmas; a long one so that she could jump out of bed and quickly wrap it around as soon as her feet found the comfort of her slippers. She envisaged something simple with a tie belt. The gift she unwrapped on Christmas morning was a cosy dressing gown but without a belt and with buttons from neck to floor-length hem which took far too long to fasten.) My mother quickly turned on my electric fire and kept moving. On a day when she would be at home, her next job was to clean out the grate, set and light the fire in the living room; on a day when we would all be out, just the oven would be turned on low to take some of the chill off the kitchen whilst we ate our breakfast.
My bedroom had a two-bar electric fire set into the wall which I was never allowed to switch on for fear that I would either electrocute myself or burn the flats down. I was a child who fiddled with things. The fire gave off a nice red glow but didn't warm very much of the room. If I stood fairly close and revolved regularly whilst I dressed, the fire helped, but it was still important to keep as much of myself covered as possible. As I took off my nightclothes my school clothes replaced them as quickly as I could manage. Washing my face and brushing my teeth only happened when I was covered enough to bear the icebox of the bathroom. Slippers were essential when moving around. Cold linoleum, even when my feet were covered by socks, caused shivers.
Everything in our flat was cold to the touch on winter mornings. Handling icy cutlery and plates during breakfast was like picking up a well-chilled can of drink. The kitchen felt damp by the time I sat down at the table. My mother had lit the oven and one of the gas rings to boil the kettle for a pot of tea. The Ascot water heater on the wall was bubbling away to itself ready to provide hot washing up water. The glass in the metal framed windows and back door was covered with a film of steam, rapidly condensing into droplets. My fingers gathered them into rivulets as I wrote my name on the window. The soundtrack to every morning was the solemn drone of the BBC Home Service news but I had little difficulty in dismissing it. My awareness was seldom in my current location, which adults often found extremely annoying.
We didn’t have an electric kettle. Ours was a squat, flat-bottomed metal object, like a camping kettle, which was filled with cold water and boiled on one of the cooker’s gas rings. It had a round metal cap that fitted over the spout so that when the water was boiling, the steam blew through it and made a loud whistling sound. Aunty Cissie’s was the only family I knew that owned an electric kettle. Even if we could have afforded one ourselves there was no power socket available in our kitchen. But Auntie Cissie’s kettle still caused problems. It had no whistle to tell a user when it had reached boiling point and there was no safety button to click the power off automatically. The result was that my cousin Margaret who was brainy but a bit dreamy, would set the electric kettle to boil, start thinking about something else and come back when the kettle was bone dry and its element had burned out. She did this – twice! The big repair bills which followed made her very unpopular with her parents.
Occasionally we would have time for porridge. My mother’s porridge was creamy but the porridge my father created had chewy lumps. He ate his seasoned with salt and butter which I found unfathomable. Mine was covered with a crunchy crust of sugar which helped the flavour but did nothing to make the lumps any more enjoyable. On most mornings we ate toast for breakfast. We didn’t own an electric toaster and anyway the kitchen had no socket to power one. Bread had to be toasted under the grill, one side at a time. Our cooker had an eye-level grill and I was too small to help. The danger was that my mother, usually the cook, became so preoccupied that she would put the bread under the grill and move on to doing something else. Suddenly the kitchen would be filled with black smoke and the smell of burning; fortunately there was no smoke detector to disturb the neighbours. It was always possible to scrape off the top layer of burned matter and I quite liked the charcoally flavour but the mess in the sink annoyed my mother.
Then there was the problem of the butter. Butter arrived home in a greaseproof paper cover, was unwrapped and put in a butter dish with a lid to keep it clean; we had no fridge. The plan was usually to leave the butter dish overnight in the warmest room of the flat (the living room, where the coal fire had been lit). That way breakfast didn't involve fighting a rock hard lump of fat to part with slivers which could then be pressed on to a piece of toast. Unfortunately, we often forgot and would try the quick fix of standing the butter dish in the warm oven. Usually this was a disaster as its whereabouts were only remembered by the time the butter was a yellow puddle.
Despite a winter coat and woollen gloves, the walk to school was uncomfortable. Because we lived in a top floor flat, I was cold before I even reached the pavement. The entrance hall, stairwell and staircases had no heating. Draughts from badly fitting windows nibbled the feelings from my face and the metal banister rail did all it could to support their efforts by working on my fingers. As I ran down the stairs my breath appeared in clouds and I must have looked like a small steam engine. School was enjoyably warm but I faced the same homewards journey.
The temptation, once I was back in the flat, was to sit as close to the fire as possible. Cold, wet fingers and toes quickly acquired painful and maddeningly itchy chilblains. There were longer lasting consequences too. In summer months my mum used to point out ladies who had dark red reptile-like markings on the front of their legs. She would whisper, ‘Mottled legs! That’s what happens when you keep on sitting too near the fire!’ It was good advice.
Coming back to the flat on a day when my mother had been at home meant the living room with its coal fire was warm. If she had been baking or cooking the kitchen was warm too. But the rest of the flat was still cold. On a day when my mother had been out all day the whole flat was bitter. She might have set a fire before we left in the morning and this might catch light quite quickly, but even after a few hours, only the space right by the fire was hot. Just a few feet away from the flames the rest of the room and everything in it was as cold as the contents of a fridge. Even sitting close to the fire, whatever bit of you was roasted by the roaring heat left the rest exposed to a constant crossfire of small miserable draughts which nipped and nibbled at your head and neck and fingers.
A lot of the warmth in our living room disappeared through the windows. On a frosty day the glass was icy to the touch because it was in direct contact with the raw, cold air. We had no double glazing and poorly fitted metal window frames made that even worse. Draughts of cold air seeped in and even though we had thick winter curtains, all they did was push the cold air downwards.
Our front door opened on to the unheated stairwell and since our living room was close to the front door, any draughts which crept in during the day were arctic. We had what we called a sausage, a long, stuffed roll of fabric that lay like a faithful guard dog along the bottom of the living room door. Aunty Cissie had a long thick curtain which went across the inside of the living room door and which stayed firmly drawn. Leaving the room was a bit like making an entrance on stage. Opening and shutting the door sometimes produced small clouds of smoky air from the fire and always lowered the general temperature. It was not a popular activity and earned me at best a sharp look and at worst the comment ‘If you open that door once more I will nail it shut!’
Coal fires look wonderfully cosy and inviting, and on an evening that was just mildly chilly they were perfect for warming up a room. The thing is, somebody has to lay the fire to start off with. If this happened first thing in the morning, before the whole process could even begin, all the ash from the previous day's fire had to be scraped together, shovelled into a bucket and put down the rubbish chute which fed into our bin downstairs.
Building the new fire would start with newspapers, curled and twisted and maybe a bit of kindling wood or even a fire lighter (smelly, highly flammable object which looked a bit like a large dog chew). All of that was then topped off with coal and set alight. If the fire was slow to kindle, then one remedy was to try and make the chimney ‘draw’ more powerfully. This was usually achieved by holding a full sheet of newspaper across the whole fireplace opening. It was a risky option. If the fire did suddenly spring into life the sheet of newspaper burst into flames too and was hastily dropped on to the hearth. But sometimes a fire would just refuse to catch light at all. It would smoulder and fill the room with smoke and then go out and then it was back to the beginning. During the whole process whoever set the fire would get covered with coal dust and end up reeking of old newspapers, smelly firelighters and coal
The time-consuming business of managing the household fires and all the mess and dust they created fell to the lady of the house. It was one of the many reasons my mother did not often go out to work. My father might help with the fire by doing some of the heavier work, like carrying in a fully laden bucket (scuttle) of coal. He might also add more coal when the fire started to die down during an evening. This meant moving the protective metal guard which stood in front of the fire, hopefully without burning his fingers because it did get extremely hot. Its mesh frame was essential to stop the fire from spitting burning fragments past the hearth and on to the rug or the dog nearby. The next step was supposed to be to use tongs to add more coal. The uneven pieces seldom fitted between the arms of the tongs, so the answer was often to pick them up by hand and then wipe sooty fingers on to a hanky or elsewhere, prompting a hiss of ‘Someone has to wash that, you know!’
Letting the fire die out too early was a cardinal sin – nobody was going to waste time and kindling to get it going again! Failing to make sure the fire had died down enough and was well-guarded before bedtime was sometimes fatal.
Our coal was delivered in sacks on an open lorry which pulled around to the back of the flats. In our case the coal had to be hauled up two flights of stairs a sack at a time by one of the coalmen. The black dust from the coal was so ingrained in his face that it formed permanent sooty rings around his eyes. He wore a back to front cap and a special waistcoat with a padded back so he could rest the load there. He emptied each sack into the ‘cellar’ (a large wooden framed cupboard by our front door). Lack of coal in winter was a disaster. I can remember one time when there was a strike and so the coal lorry hadn’t made its usual delivery. Trains were coal powered and even small stations had reserves, so my father and his best friend, Uncle Arthur drove down to Cheadle Hulme station in the evening, filled up the boot of Uncle Arthur’s car with coal and paid the railway workers for it. I'm not at all sure that any of that was legal but I was allowed to go with them, wrapped up in my pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers. It was very exciting!
Just before bedtime my two-bar electric fire was switched on for a little while ‘to take the chill off’. Getting ready for bed meant going into the piercingly cold toilet and bathroom where everything, memorably the toilet seat, felt as if it had been stored in a freezer. Sometimes the water in the toilet froze and hot water had to be added to dilute the iceberg - carefully though, to avoid cracking the toilet itself. The flooring in our whole flat was dark brown linoleum tiles with a strip of carpet in the hall and a square in the living room, so wearing slippers was an absolute necessity. Until I became self-conscious I would change into pyjamas and dressing gown in front of the coal fire - soaking up the last bit of warmth. Later I developed the gentle art of getting undressed in bed.
Hot water bottles were wonderful but slipping into the ice bath of cold sheets and pillows left me wakeful with chattering teeth. I was covered by sheets, a blanket and an eiderdown (sort of a small thin duvet with a shiny cover which was even chillier than my sheets). Getting up to visit the toilet during the night was torture. Bare feet on icy linoleum to and from the bathroom meant I would return to bed both cold and wakeful. Chattering teeth, chilled sheets and a hot water bottle that was now barely tepid made the return to sleep a slow process. Overnight the water vapour from my breath condensed on the wintry bedroom windows leaving a covering of flowery patterned ice - thick enough to look like the glass in a bathroom window but thin enough so that I could scrape it off with my fingernail. If the sun shone on the window during the following day the ice would melt, pool on the window ledge and then drip gently down the wall.
Cold weather meant problems with damp as well as discomfort. Family members might come to visit each other’s houses but seldom stayed overnight. Airing the mattresses and sheets and blankets to try and keep people warm at night was beyond most households. Mind you, if they stayed at Christmas, the alcohol probably took care of that. But for guests there was always the worry of a burst pipe in the empty, completely unheated house they left behind. Aunty Cissie would never visit overnight for that reason. Water pipes were metal and in really cold weather the water inside them froze, expanded and cracked the pipe. As the ice thawed water poured out and families came home to their own small disaster zone and a big plumber’s bill.
At some point during winter there would be snowfall. Kneeling on a chair by the living room window with my head through the curtains I would watch as the flakes floated softly past the yellow of the street lights and settled gently. Slowly, the world became still and silent. Tomorrow we would build snowmen! My Mum would sigh heavily. She would leave the snow play to my father and I. She hated this time of year. Her footwear made few concessions to the weather and she could not be persuaded from heels of some sort, which made walking outdoors a treacherous business. She would wait until the pavements were gritted and at least a little clearer before venturing outside. My father and I would wave to her as we rolled and shaped our snowy masterpiece. Finally, we returned with our wellingtons and gloves crusted with compacted snow, our cheeks and fingers and toes bright red and throbbing painfully from the cold. Defrosting was a painful process.
My mum worked out that the best way to recover from getting so very cold was in the bath. We didn't have a boiler, just wall water heaters in the kitchen and bathroom, so if you ran a bath as hot as you could bear then you could keep topping it up and sit in its steamy warmth until you were thawed all through. The end result was a sort of two-tone body arrangement of lobster pink (the submerged areas) and mottled white (the rest of you).
I can't leave a description of my early winters without mentioning one feature which nowadays seems thankfully rare. Fog was a regular occurrence in the winter months. Fog is not the misty halo you often see around street lamps on cold, damp evenings. Nor is it the beautiful cloud-like layers which you may have observed early on a summer morning. It isn’t even the billowing, distracting mists which waft across the road sometimes when driving home late at night. Fog was a dense, still blanket. It was as if a pale yellow, smoky smelling cloud had fallen. Walking somewhere familiar was possible but slightly eerie. Fog seemed to soften sound and confuse any ability to determine its origin. Fog was a side effect of living in a country powered largely by coal. Pollution took many forms and this was its winter likeness. Although I didn’t experience the choking smog that many city dwellers suffered, being out in fog was not a pleasant experience. Older people, small children and those with respiratory problems were often advised not to leave their homes. Driving was impossible. Even at the lowest speed a driver could not see far enough to react safely. Putting on headlights did not penetrate the fog but seemed to create a glaringly bright, dense curtain immediately ahead.
Fog played havoc with all forms of transport causing long delays and even cancellations. I can remember being taken to Ringway Airport (now Manchester International) to meet my father from a flight back from Germany. My mother and I waited for the fog bound plane for what seemed like hours. We were marooned in a small, low building. In one corner was a tiny bar, so small that it just fitted one barman. The bar’s only decoration was a selection of brightly coloured match book covers. There was no television. There wasn’t even background music. I think the facilities have improved somewhat since then.
Do you remember winter in the fifties? What's your worst memory of winter back then? Add a comment or drop me a line in the box at the foot of the home page.