Editors Note: We often refer to the way our forefathers did things when we talk about prepping and survival. These people have a wealth of knowledge about life before electricity, before running water. The time before the amenities that we all, for the most part, take for granted. They know how to not only survive but thrive in conditions that today would make many of us blanch with horror.
Today we introduce Granny Spear. She was born in 1925 and until just a few years ago lived at Knowle Cottage, a chocolate box, archetypical English cottage, complete with thatched roof… and with no mains facilities.
Failing eyesight and a serious fall saw Gran move in with her youngest daughter where she now spends her days, by her own admission, gawping at television and playing Angry Birds!
Maud, (her cousin was also Elizabeth so she elected to use her middle name to avoid confusion) has kindly agreed to tell us about her life back then. This is the email she sent…
My name is Elizabeth Maud Spear and my granddaughter knows someone, who knows someone else, and they asked me to write some things about the old days.
Well I’ve never heard of such a thing, why you young ‘uns would want to hear what an old woman has to say is beyond me. Well I had no idea what to write so they thought about it and then said they wanted to know about the cottage, Knowle it was called, Knowle Cottage.
I was born in Knowle Cottage, as my father was and his mother and his grandmother before that. It’s been in the family for generations. I wish it still was. When my eyes packed up I left there. It got sold. One of the grandkids wanted to take it on. To get the ‘lectric and water put in was going to cost a fortune. Some of the others got to arguing over fairness of one person getting the place and all that so I sold it. Gived them all the same so they can’t grumble, ‘cept the one who wanted the place, she said no, she said “You spend it Gran” so I put it in an envelope and gived it over to ‘er when there was lots of people around so she couldn’t holler and perform. T’wasn’t much when it was divided between my four and all their kids.
Knowle never had ‘lectricity and water supply, we enquired once, 1958 0r ’59 I think, well thereabouts, but it was too expensive, they would only put the stuff in up to the main road, well there was no way we could afford the extra mile and a half of pipes and wires so it never got done. It didn’t matter much if I’m honest. The place ran good and fine just as it was, and I would never have had gas anyway, nasty smelly stuff and it can kill ya so that was out of the question. The ‘lecricity was safe they said as long as you didn’t mess with it. Like I would, we were frit to death of it. Ern wasn’t keen, we had some dinners at our Edie’s house and he said the food was nowhere as good as at home. Our Edie can cook just fine, but the food tastes so different and Ern didn’t like it very much.
Knowle had four rooms. Two up and two down. The parlour had a range and that provided heat for the place and heat for cooking. There was no temperature control other than the fire. You opened the oven door and splashed some water inside and how it sizzled told you if it was ready or not. I couldn’t tell you what the temperatures were because I just knew that how the water sizzled and popped meant it was right for bread or cakes or meat or whatever. it was something you just knew.
Our Janet brought me a cookery book out of her first weeks wages. She was so proud that she brought her gran a book. It was like reading a foreign language, we laughed so hard that night, gas mark this, 375 degrees that, no mention of flicking water into the oven.
There was a rack in a nook in the wall next to the range where I kept the Irons, five in all one really big, one really small and three medium ones. Having three of the most used ones meant I could heat the others at the same time as using one, it speeded up ironing no end.
In a larger nook on the other side of the range was a metal box with holes in. this is where we kept the tinder dry. Erns’ work boots dried out nice and gentle stood on the top of it when he had been working in the rain. The kids school shoes too. It was a 14 mile cycle ride each way to school so they often got very wet.
The brick shelf at the back of the range held the bed heaters. Large, round stones that we put on the hotplate of the range, or in the oven if there was nothing in there. They would be wrapped in old towels and put in the beds to take of the chill if it was really cold. We had a couple of the old earthenware bottles you put hot water in, but I always worried they would crack or the cork would come out and burn the children so I preferred the stones. We got them from Westward Ho on a day trip. All the labourers and their families got a day out once a year to Westward Ho. It’s a beach down Bideford way, flat sand and shallow water, and the stones are all smooth and big, we brought a couple back each trip.
We had two sofas, and a dresser with all the best china on it and it was lit by oil lamps, big ones that if you sat right you could read by if the words were big enough. We had a solid wood table and eight chairs in the middle of the room
A door from the sitting room led to a small square space with three other doors. One was the pantry, built into the thick walls of the cottage. The walls were three feet thick except at the back of the pantry and it was the thinner wall at the back of the pantry that kept it cooler than the rest of the house.Being on the north wall it was colder anyway and in shade all the time on the outside.
The next door was the staircase that went up into two bedrooms, one behind the other, and the third door was to the scullery, what you would call a kitchen. In here was a cupboard topped with marble for making pastry and the shelves of the cupboard were also marble with a very fine mesh, wooden framed, pair of doors. It was right in a corner that got no sun at all from the small window and that kept the marble cool, the mesh kept the flies out and that was our version of a fridge. It was called a safe, cos it kept the food safe from flies.
Next to the safe was the dresser that held all the everyday cutlery and crockery, the big heavy cast iron pans were on a shelf so they were easy to get to.
Next to that was the dairy table, the butter churn was there and the jars and pats on a shelf under the table with the cheese making bits and bobs. The children that were too young to haul water from the well had to turn the handle on the butter churn. Everyone had something to do.
Last on that side of the room was the ironing table. A study narrow table covered with pads of old sheets and a metal square to put the iron on so it didn’t scorch whilst you moved the clothes around.
The other side of the room was mostly to do with water. There was the washing copper, a huge copper bowl with a firebox underneath. This would heat the water so I could wash our clothes. In the summer Ern would move it outside to save me mopping up at the end and having to carry the buckets of water outside to the garden when it needed emptying. A shelf above the copper held the laundry soap and scrubbing brushes, and the washboard hung on two hooks next to the shelf. Next to that there were four large metal pails used for soaking badly dirty clothes, and for rinse water. They were under a metal table that had a mangle on one end…two rollers on a frame to squeeze water out of the washing. The table stood hanging over the copper when it was put in the right place so that you didn’t have to fetch more water all the time, it just rolled back into the copper and the squeezed clothes landed on the table the other side of the mangle.
Next to the mangle were two barrels , they were raised up on bricks and had a tap at the bottom. This was where we stored water in the house otherwise we would have been up and down to the well every five minutes. The clean water pails stood next to the barrel and after school the children would each have to bring water from the well and the tallest one would tip it into the barrels.
On Sunday evening, The children would fill the copper with water, and the pails, and we would heat it up for their weekly bath. The rest of the week was just a wash down each day. When they were tiny it was easier, they would all get dumped in, washed and dried in the parlour in front of the range. When they got older and developed sensibilities they bathed in the scullery. We could get two baths from the copper, three if we boiled the water and had to add cold. The youngest would share, and then the oldest girl would have a bath to herself and the eldest two boys would sort themselves out, sometimes having less water so they could have a bath of their own.
Ern washed the way he always had, he stood in the bath outside, wet himself with water, soaped up and then got me to pour water over him to rinse him off. It was Erns’ version of a shower, he would have loved the showers that are around today.
Because washing day was Monday After their bath the children would fill the copper with water, and the pails, so it was ready for me to start on Monday morning. The copper took three hours to heat up so Mondays was the day I changed all the sheets on the beds and swept and polished right through because that could be done whilst the water heated.
Monday dinner was leftovers from Sunday so I wouldn’t spend too long cooking, just a couple of loaves of bread to go with the leftover meat. It would be heated up in gravy in the oven and the leftover veg would be mixed with leftover mashed potatoes and heated in a frying pan, it was a tasty meal for the children to go to bed on. I made sure there would be leftovers from Sunday because it saved hours on a Monday!
The Toilet was across the other side of the garden. An outhouse where buckets were covered with a wooden seat with a hole in. Ern would empty it into a pre dug pit lined with dried grass. when he had emptied it he would rinse out the bucket poring the water in the pit, throw in any kitchen waste we had and cover it with soil from the next pit he dug. By the time he had worked his way across the garden the first pit was ready to be dug again with no unpleasantness at all. Before he came in he would change the fly papers we hung in there and wash the seat with water and carbolic soap, The seat would be rinsed letting the carbolic soap water go down into the large bucket which helped keep the place a bit fresher. We had very fragrant rambling roses growing over the outhouse and they came in through the gaps in the walls…they made the air in there much nicer.
The bedrooms were simple, you went through the first one to get to the second, things were cramped until the children started leaving home, but everyone just got on with it, it’s just the way it was back then, you just did what needed doing.
All the windows at Knowle Cottage were at the back of the house, none at all on the front which was on the north side of the building and it was colder so all the windows faced south.
The garden did very well in the sun. We grew all of our own veg, and enough to swap for eggs and fat from various farms close by. We had enough fruit trees and bushes for baking and eating and our flour was milled a couple of miles away at a small mill run by Don Fletchers missus. She would rough grind the wheat and it made very good tasty bread. The children loved the bits where the grains had missed the millstones and were still whole.
A good deal of my life at Knowle was spent preparing and cooking food, but as long as you stuck to a routine, did things in the order that worked best it wasn’t too much of a problem.
Last thing every night three loaves would come out of the oven ready for breakfast the next morning. It was a simple meal, bread and butter with jam or marmalade.
Lucnches would be taken to school wrapped in brown paper, usually bread and butter with cheese or ham and an apple for the children. Same for Ern but with extra bread and some chutney.
The evening meal was the main meal of the day and everyone was always starving. A huge pot of stew would be on the stove by noon so it had time to slow cook tenderising the meat, we had stew once a week, with suet dumplings and a chunk of bread to mop up the gravy if anyone was still hungry. Ends of loaves would be saved and made into bread pudding if I had dried fruit, or turned into breadcrumbs which I would add to onions and herbs to make a stuffing.
Chicken was plentiful and very cheap, often free if Ern chopped some wood or turned a patch of garden. With veg from the garden and a ton of potatoes nobody ever went to bed hungry in our house. The bones would be boiled to get every last bit of goodness out and the stock would make soup with fresh veg and various bits of leftover meat for another nights evening meal.
We drank water, milk and tea back then, there wasn’t the choice there is now. Milk was part of Erns wages, two gallons a day. We would chill it down in the safe and then the children would each have a full glass a day with breakfast. It was real milk, not the stuff you get now. It went from the cow to the churn to the child, no messing about with it like there is now. It made very good butter and the buttermilk would either be used for scones and pastries. If we had some wheat berries and maybe a few blackcurrants from the garden the children would pour it over and eat like royalty for breakfast. If there was no other use for it they would just drink it.
I can’t believe I have waffled on for so long, dare say you’re getting bored so I’ll leave it at that for now.