Monday, 12 June 2017
A Blissful Burgeoning of Bathrooms
Old Mr Bassant from next door said that the houses in York Road and the surrounding streets were more than a hundred and ten years old and would have long been Condemned if it hadn’t been for The War. I was first aware of this assertion as early as 1943 when I had no idea what being Condemned meant so I had to ask around and someone said it meant they should have been pulled down long ago. This was a scary thought at the time because as a pre-schooler I was very satisfied with number twenty eight where the only available water was from the single scullery tap and definitely cold, and where what Old Nan called The Privy and we called The Lav was outside in what she called The Yard and we called The Garden. In order to become dissatisfied I had to get just a little bit older and more aware of the bathroom facilities in the council houses my cousins lived in up in Crayford.
As far as my grandmother was concerned our York Road house with its very reasonable rent of seven shillings a week was a step up from her own childhood home in the crowded Closed Court in Bethnal Green with shared pump and Privy in the tiny inner yard and where the only access was by means of a narrow tunnel less than three feet wide. It was more than evident that general hygiene was an even greater challenge back then than for us in the more innovative nineteen forties with our very own galvanised bath hanging on the wall and a reliable supply of fresh, cold water in our scullery. According to Old Nan these were steps forward simply undreamed of back in the late nineteenth century when if you wanted to get yourself clean for a special occasion it meant a trip to the Bath House which cost money and not to get her started on that subject.
Despite the giant steps forward however, maintaining standards of personal cleanliness was not straightforward by any means. Saturday night was always bath night and it was then our copper would be filled and a fire lit under it so that enough water could be boiled for the occasion, supplemented by pots and kettles on the stove. Naturally enough everyone bathed in the same water, starting with the children which meant that the experience was both grimy and decidedly cool as the evening wore on and any adult was game enough to have a turn. As children our hair was washed whilst we were in the bath but I have a feeling that my mother washed hers in the stone scullery sink with jugs of warm water and always with the aid of Amami Shampoo for Fair Hair. As we all had dark hair her choice of shampoo was confusing. Sunlight soap was used in the bath as in our house it was deemed most extravagant to bathe with the aid of any toilet soap let alone Pears so I could never boast of Preparing To Be A Beautiful Lady.
Keeping clean was time consuming and between baths I don’t remember anything other than brief face and hands washing known as a Lick and a Promise although my mother definitely admired those who went in for more regular cleanliness rituals. She frequently commented on the practice of a neighbour, one Mrs Cecily Leighton who she knew for a fact had a lovely wash every day and never missed come rain or shine. This daily wash was carried out after dinner in the early afternoon and you could apparently see she had washed her neck without fail each time and what’s more she was in the habit of putting on lovely clean blouses.
By the time I was seven or eight years old and reading a great many Enid Blyton books I was definitely keen on the idea of proper bathrooms and indoor lavatories. Just imagine being able to run a warm bath whenever you fancied it. Or the bliss of being able to use the toilet without putting on raincoat and wellington boots if it was raining. And these aspirations were not entirely due to Enid Blyton because as I have already mentioned there were the cousins, all of whom now seeming to have found themselves living in houses that boasted the most desirable facilities. Even my mother whose bathroom ambitions were not nearly as pronounced as my own was heard to make certain comments such as that her sister Mag could be a Dirty Cow at times and you only had to look at the state of that lovely new inside lavatory all stained for want of a bit of bleach. I stored the bleach information for future use and vowed that I would never be such a Dirty Cow as my aunt.
My brother, six and a half years younger than me, was to become even more preoccupied with the delights of indoor plumbing but years were to pass before I quite understood this. As he moved towards the much coveted world of the property owner Bernard began to show a greater and greater interest in sanitary arrangements, his favourite room of any house he was to live in clearly being the bathroom. As time progressed his bathrooms grew both in number and in extravagance sporting tiling techniques that the fussiest of Romans would have been envious of and shower arrangements so complex that the uninitiated hesitated before entering them. He firmly maintained that this passion for all matters sanitary had come about because as a child he was convinced he smelled bad enough for others to avoid him. Other children, he said, called him Stink Bum. This may or may not have been entirely true because Bernard also grew ever more flexible with truth.
If it was true it had probably originated because of his persistent bed wetting which although not all that unusual in boys, went on far longer than anyone expected it too. Bernard was still wetting the bed as he approached his sixteenth birthday and the bedsheets were hung out of the upper back window on a daily basis obvious to all and causing him a great deal of embarrassment. The side effects of this unfortunate habit of enuresis were rather more than a weekly bath in the scullery could hope to cope with. Our mother was concerned enough by the time he was fourteen to attempt to persuade him to avoid all liquids after midday and on one occasion brought the subject up with Dr Outred who was not able to offer a great deal of hope. Old Nan on the other hand as usual had a positive suggestion which rather surprisingly involved matrimony. Getting Him Married, she maintained, would put a stop to all that Pissing the Bed Malarkey before you could say Bob’s Your Uncle or Fanny’s Your Aunt. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if he urinated over his new wife but could not think of a delicate way of putting the possibility so I remained silent.
He was in fact very much married and indeed a father by the time he was eighteen and I was never quite game enough to make further enquiry regarding the bed wetting. On the other hand the proliferation of most
desirable bathrooms that permeated his life were obviously an indication of something significant.