A Knight’s Tale (20: No Mod Cons)

On a visit to The Priest’s House Museum at Wimborne in November 2013 I entered the Victorian kitchen, laid out with all its accoutrements, complete with an elderly woman with a shawl round her shoulders and a book in her hands before a lighted kitchen range.  

This truly was an authentic tableau, with just one figure of the period in situ.  Then she spoke.  I laughed wholeheartedly, and said I had thought she was a model. She told me that a small boy earlier had thought the same thing, and had been most surprised when she greeted him.

This was Margery Ryan who was clearly one of the museum’s volunteers, and a wealth of information, including that of the children’s activities.  They were encouraged to make toast with one of the toasting forks hanging beside the kitchen range, just as I and my siblings had done by an open fire in our sitting room at Stanton Road. I remembered how, on a coal fire, you had to take your hand away every now and again because it got pretty hot. There were no electric toasters.

The range in this photograph is exactly the same as the one we used throughout my childhood. Although a gas cooker came later, Mum would have heated a kettle like that on this stove. She had no electric iron in 1944. An iron one was also heated on the stove and, a protective cloth wrapped around the handle, applied to the family washing she had undertaken by hand, using bowls, soap, scrubbing brush, and tub, such as those in this picture of a mangle into which

sheets, in particular, were placed between two rollers, and you turned a handle in order to squeeze and therefore rinse them.  One day when we were very small Chris left his finger in as I turned the handle. Fortunately his bones must have still been soft enough to be re-inflated.

I have no idea how Mum dried our clothes when it was too wet to hang them out on the washing line in the garden. There was, of course, neither washing machine nor drier.

Mum was most inventive with very limited resources.

This photograph depicts the first trio of our parents’ offspring, namely me, Chris, and Jacqueline, taken, I imagine, in the summer of 1948, probably in Durham, and if so by our grandfather.  We were very proud of those Fair Isle jumpers which were all the rage then, and continue to be made today.  I don’t think they were available at that time from outlets such as Laura Ashley.  They were, and still are,  hand-knitted in the island in northern Scotland from which they take their name.  The genuine article is no longer generally available for sale, the market having been swallowed by mass production.  Their geometric patterns remain popular.

Ours were not from the Fair Isle.  They were, like all our other clothes, made by our mother.  A couple of years later, my grandmother taught me to knit.  I made endless scarves.  When I say endless, this is a literal statement.  They had no endings because I didn’t know how to cast off and had to wait for Grandma Hunter to be in the mood to do it for me.  They had usually got a bit straggly by then, and it wasn’t good for her temper.

 I was, however, fascinated by the making of the patterns and progressed to designing, on squared paper, images for Mum to knit.  

This, as far as I remember, involved different symbols for different stitches, with the use of appropriate colours.  Joseph was to follow me in this, and I believe a Goofy design that Mum reproduced on a jumper for several family members was drawn on graph paper by him not so very long ago.  He obviously shared his brother’s interest in going beyond the geometric.

My own early masterpieces, long before anyone thought of recycling, have most likely wound up in some landfill somewhere.  

Alternatively, if, like Mum’s dressmaking patterns, cut into squares and threaded on a string, the material was thin enough to be used for toilet paper, they could have come in handy in the loo.

Our bedrooms, there being no central heating, and coal expensive, were unheated. This could become nose-tinglingly cold with icy sheets, especially if you had wet them. The beauty of it, however, was that you could wake in the morning to frost patterns, 

like this from our car windscreen in January 2017, on the inside of your windows.

Dishes were washed and dried by hand.

There was no fridge. The hot summer of 1947 was particularly problematic in keeping milk and butter from going off. Bottles of milk were kept in cold water in the  kitchen sink. Butter simply became runny. 

I couldn’t bear that, so I would only eat Echo margarine, the single oily spread that was at all impervious to the heat. This, of course, is really only fit for cooking, and no way would I consider it today.

Many of today’s children carry their own mobile devices with which they may make and receive telephone calls; send and receive texts or e-mails; watch films; and goodness knows what else may be possible by the time this tale is published. Imagine an era, if you can, in which most people didn’t have a telephone in their home, and if they did it was rented from the Post Office, attached to a cable embedded in the wall, on a line shared with neighbours who, if so inclined, could listen in to each other’s  conversation.

Personal Computers had not even been thought about. 

Our family never had a telephone. I was eighteen when I first used one at work. It scared the life out of me every time it rang.

Although Dad was a driver in the Army we never had a car. Neither did others in our street.

Most people had no television, and those on the market possessed very small screens in grainy black and white, often with stripes rolling up and down the picture. They usually only worked if the aerial was in the correct position to receive the signal, often held in someone’s hand. If there was no available aeriaI a coat hanger would do. I was fifteen when my parents were first given a second-hand set.


  1. Lots of shared memories here, especially the Simplicity pattern. My mother was quite a seamstress, and most of my clothing (and that of my dolls) came from her hand. She knit, too, and was quite accomplished. I still have a few of the beauties she made, although there’s rarely a chance to wear them; it’s either too hot or too cold.

    Speaking of cold: the coldest I’ve ever been may have been during a stay in a London guesthouse in January. Granted, it was the mid-1970s, but there was no central heat there, either. There was only some sort of gizmo you put coins into to warm the room, while the hallways and central areas were unheated. I finally got warm via a very long, hot soak in a claw-footed tub in the common bath, but I steamed all the way back to my room!

  2. The historian Ruth Goodman has noted that washing machines have done more to liberate women than anything else. She put it above birth control. I would put them on the same level. I can make do without a drier and did so for many years. But a washing machine? No. Anyway…I so admire your mother and the women of that era (and earlier ones) who worked so hard to cook and clean and take care of their families.

  3. The kitchen of my grandparents’ summer cottage in Cape Elizabeth, Maine had a smaller version of the fold-down drying rack on the left side of your header photo, as well as that brown soap, which I can’t remember the name of now.

    In the “trio” photo, you have a very big-brotherly expression on your face.

  4. I feel right at home here! We had a mangle in our back garden to feed through the sheets and occasionally blankets. I fear one of my brothers also had a finger pinched between the rollers – no long-term damage. There was no electricity on our farm and so we used sad irons warmed on the coal stove and placed a thick wad of old blankets covered with a sheet on the kitchen table to do the ironing. Funnily enough, during my ‘sorting’ recently, I came across several Simplicity and Butterick patterns which I have put aside for others to use. My mother taught me to sew when I was about twelve: it was so exciting to look through the pattern books and then choose material! I well remember the party line and must share a funny anecdote about that: when my youngest brother was in the navy, he would telephone my mother from Simon’s Town. They would chat for a minute and then my brother would say loudly “I think there are too many people on the line for your voice is getting very faint.” At that, he often tells us, they could hear several phones being replaced!

    1. Wonderful synchronicity, Anne. I’m so pleased to have stirred all these memories. And you have named the sad iron for me – I googled it. Thank you very much for that and for these welcome comments.

  5. Wonderful post, Derrick. I laughed out loud at the endless scarves, and then had to share your post with my husband. ? The being fascinated with patterns reminded me that I think you designed crossword puzzles?

    My mom said at some point when she was growing up they got a telephone because it was for her parents’ store, but most people they knew didn’t have one. I think once when her father got sick, they had to go somewhere to call an ambulance.

    1. So good to have your memories too, Merril. Yes, I designed crosswords for various newspapers and magazines 20 years, until blogging took over. Thanks very much

      1. We were watching an episode of Unforgotten, and my husband said, British crossword puzzles are different from American. I said “I think Derrick used to design them.” ?

  6. Derrick, you describe very much the way it was when I was a child growing up in what was then British Guiana in the 1950s. I recall my mother washing clothes in a wooden tub and the real iron that had to be “heated on the stove and, a protective cloth wrapped around the handle.” I smiled when you mentioned that “I was eighteen when I first used [a telephone] at work. It scared the life out of me every time it rang.” Same here. I was too embarrassed to let my boss know 🙂 Pirated American TV programs via satellite connection only began until the late 1980s.

    1. It is wonderful to learn these memories of yours and others prompted by this post, Rosaliene. Thank you very much, especially for identifying with the telephone phobia. :).

  7. I’ll bet the woman scared the lunch out of that kid! I remember visiting my great-grandmother in thee 60’s…the water pump was in the garden, the stove was heated by wood, and the laundry boiled. Not to mention thee outhouse. But you and I have had that discussion before 🙂 Great post, Derrick!

  8. Fabulous memories here Derrick, bringing back some memories also for me. Great writing full of detail.
    We also had no plastic at all in the house, it simply was not available so everything was tin or zink. Big bathtubs before most houses had bathrooms and yes I too remember the way the washing was done with the use of the mangle. Much enjoyed post.

  9. haha, I remember when mom would hang the clothes on the line outside and forget to bring them in – during the night the temperature would drop and the clothes would get so stiff, they looked like they could walk back into the house!! We did have TV and telephone though.

  10. delightful memories of the past Derrick. and now we wonder how our parents did it all marvelously with limited resources. ingenuity!

  11. Oh. my goodness, Derrick — the memories this brings forth! We had a tub-type washing machine with a mangle attached to the top back part of the tub. The machine was powered, but the mangle was as you described. On rainy days (there were not many in Southern California, the clothes would be dried on a rack similar to the one on the left side of your header photo — it was a full circle, and the spokes made a sort of star. My mother never had a dryer — she hung the clothes on a line outside, or on the rack on rainy days, and when we dismantled the house when she was about 92, we found that rack in quite usable condition!

    My mother sewed all our clothes (and hers) until we were in high school, and knitted all our sweaters. They were beautifully made — and she made them in two sizes so we had matching clothes, sometimes in the same colors and sometimes not. I remember that sweaters were often too hot, and there was one beautiful dress with a smocked bodice that was so hot I couldn’t wear it except in the dead of winter!

    She also made all our butter. One of my early memories relates to that — when the milkman delivered our milk each week, the cream would be poured off into a separate container. When there was enough cream, it would be whipped with a hand beater until it turned to butter, then placed in a cheesecloth pouch which would be tied to the refrigerator door overnight with a bowl underneath to catch the buttermilk that came off. It was a sad day when margarine came pre-packaged, but with a little container of food coloring which needed to be mixed in to make it look like butter!

    We had a phone, which sat in a cubby, or cove in the hallway wall — too high for two little girls to reach. When Daddy came home from WWII, we had a private line because he was a physician and had to be accessible at all times. My parents finally got a TV after I had left home at age 19!

    There is a list published every year of things that incoming college freshmen would never have known — it would include everything mentioned above, plus interesting historical landmarks — for example, they were not yet born in September, 2001 when planes brought down the World Trade Center! Or when America first went into Afghanistan! Life has changed SO much in our lifetimes!

  12. I remember the mangle. Ours was not so elaborate. My Fair Isle is the only item of clothing that I remember specifically. We didn’t have electricity but we did eventually have a kerosene refrigerator which worked well. There was the copper with the fire underneath and a well smoothed stick for poking the and swirling the clothes. I think you and I must be of a similar generation.

  13. A small second-hand twin tub machine is the earliest washer I can remember. Mum would stand there all day with half a dozen items washing on one side and then sliding the soggy clothes to the other to spin the clothes. Then she’d swap them back with the soggy ones with fresh water to rinse and repeated the spin side. Dad bought other second-hand washers as we could afford. When I moved out on my own, I could only afford a newer version of the twin tub. It was the first appliance I saved my butt of for. Even then, it was on a hire-purchase plan which is similar to “buy now pay later” scheme.

  14. Do you think Ella looks like Jacqueline? I was probably around 4 or 5 when my mother got her thumb caught in what we called the ringer washing machine which looked like your mangle with a large tub below it. The bone didn’t break, but her thumbnail was never the same.Thank you for remding us not to take all our luxuries for granted.

  15. Fascinating. I am a few (not many) years younger than you and can remember refrigerators, washing machines,maybe dryers, televisions, and having one car. I think the 1950s in the US was much less austere than England in the 1940s. Funny what we didn’t know we were missing. Today’s essentials were nonexistent back in the day. I had my father’s old typewriter when I went to college, a cheap electric typewriter (not an IBM electric) when I went to library school. and a computer when I went to business school. Laptops had not yet been invented.

  16. All these details of an era before modern conveniences brings memories of my own childhood, Derrick. Before refrigerators, we had a zinc cooler in our dacha (summer house) which was kept cool by dry ice bought daily from a visiting vendor. We had a magnifying lens attached to the tiny television screen which enabled us to see at least something. Neighbors would gather to watch the shows.

  17. I may be trailing you by about a quarter of a century or so, but I can relate deeply to many of those situations except frosty winters (we had sweltering summers in lieu of that). Whatever the kids of today are having as inevitable accessories would have been nothing but science fiction to the times remembered here. Life as we have it today might be infinitely advanced and enriched but it is not without consequential erosion of simplicity and tranquility.

  18. You’ve covered so much in this post, and much of it I well remember personally even though I am that little bit younger. And I’ve incorporated elements in my current manuscript which starts in 1904. Nice to see I got it right. I even have a scene with the washing drying over the fuel stove on the rack others have spoken of.

  19. I loved the photo of Jack Frost’s artistry on your car windows. I recently went outside in the morning and was charmed by the same type of frost patterns all over my car. It doesn’t happen often, but it is a reminder of childhood in Canada!

  20. What a great post, Derrick! All wonderful and amazing photos! Love the masterpiece by Mr. Frost on the window! 🙂 It’s joy to read your memories and about how life was then!

    By the time I came along my parents had a refrigerator. They felt no need for a dishwasher because they had 8 children. 🙂 My mom always had a Maytag wringer washing machine…here is a website with a photo of one just like we had to use.


    I remember being careful of my fingers getting caught.

    We had an electric iron and ironing was one of my chores. It seemed like my mom wanted EVERYTHING ironed…even the underpants! 😮 😀

    My parent never owned an electric dryer…we used a clothesline. My mom would get upset when the neighbor’s Great Dane would come over to play and we’d hear her yell, “Don’t let that BIG dog run under my clean laundry!” HA! 😀

    Thanks for stirring some good memories! 🙂
    (((HUGS))) 🙂
    PS…Your Mum, like most mothers of that generation, was a wonder! All they did and they did it with love! <3
    PPS…Little Jacqueline looks like Ella! 🙂

  21. So interesting to hear your memories, Derrick! My Grandmother once showed me her mangle and how it worked, but I don’t know if that was her only washing machine, or if she was just showing me an old relic.

  22. I think even in the Seventies, life was more like the time you depict than life as it is now.

    I certainly remember the bedrooms without heating and the coal house. Phones still scare me now!

    Anyway, your mother has certainly seen a lot of change in her life. I’m impressed by her Fair Isle skills.

  23. My grandmother in the UK also washed by hand using a tub and a dollie and also had a mangle. She also had a stove like the one in your picture. When I was a tiny girl during the 80s in South Africa, we had TVs exactly as you described here. SA was always behind everywhere else.

  24. I learned on these patterns, and have a couple left of Mom’s. Our first washer when we moved in 1972 was a wringer washer. My mother told me that my grandma got her arm caught in one once. The logistics of that horrified me

  25. I remember my great grandmother having a mangle in back porch, and I loved cranking the handle, squeezing the water from towels and sheets.
    When I used to go and visit, she would always leave me a thruppenny bit on the parlour table, as pocket money.
    Happy days.

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