Friday 7 January 2022

I Remember, I Remember, the House Where I Was Born by Susan Price

Thank you to Susan Price for this guest post; Janie Hampton will be back in July. And a Happy New Year to all our readers!


My mother hated me saying that I was born in a slum, but I was.

Brades Row was a terrace of houses at right angles to the surfaced road into Oldbury. The front doors opened directly onto ‘the track’ which was exactly that — an unpaved dirt track leading down from the rough fields of scrub and hawthorn to the road. On the other side of the track stood a row of ‘brew-houses’ or ‘wash-houses’: the names were interchangeable.

(‘Wash’ was pronounced with a long ‘a’, as at the beginning of ‘acorn.’) The wash-houses were of damp, blackened brick. They contained a large stone sink, a pump, and a boiler with a fire underneath. This was for heating water to do the laundry, which was done in a tub of water and pounded with ‘a dolly.’ I seem to remember a mangle too, for squeezing water from the clothes. My grandmother had washed clothes in this wash-house, and so did my mother. The wet clothes were hung on a line in the garden to dry or, if it was wet, hung around the house where they dripped on people and made them miserable. They could take days to dry.

  Follow this link to find out more about the exhausting chore of washing with a dolly and dolly-tub.

Beyond the Brades Row wash-houses was a stream, called the Brades brook, which ran under the road and emptied into the canal which ran behind the Brades Tool factory. (The gate of ‘the Brades’ with its huge clock was opposite the end of Brades Row.)


This illustration shows the Brades Steel Works, which was established by 1796 and exported tools all over the world. Draw an imaginary line up from the 'W' of 'Works and you come to the main gate, with its clock tower. Brades Row was later built directly opposite that main gate at right angles to the road.

Behind the factory you can just see the canal which brought raw materials to the Brades and took away finished tools. My mother lived in fear of me toddling past the Brades to fall in the canal and drown. It looks a long way to toddle, to me.

The Brades Steel Works has long since gone. And Brades Row, where I was born, is an elusive place. In this drawing, it hasn't yet been built and I can't find a later photograph that shows it. Soon after my family left, in 1960, it was demolished.

This link takes you to a site with information about The Brades (which was named after Saint Brade, the saint of Sandwell Abbey.  
The Brades brook had flooded the track and houses on more than one occasion. Some people in the row tried to keep the banks of the stream built up, to prevent this. It didn't always work. 
Behind the row of houses were long strips of garden and beyond the garden wall there were wild, scrubby fields where sometimes cows and horses roamed. There was also a pig-sty. In those days, the Black Country was blackened country. 

Inside the houses… What can I remember? The floor of the kitchen was of bare stone flags because I remember playing with a wind-up toy on them. There was an old-fashioned kitchen range instead of a fireplace: the fire was built in the range. But I think there was also a gas-stove in one corner. 

I think there was a large stone kitchen sink but there was no running water in the house. (There was no bathroom or toilet either.) Water had to be fetched in heavy buckets from the wash-house across the track: a heavy task.  

There was no electricity in the house. It was lit by gas-lamps, with a meter. When your shilling in the meter ran out, the light went out and left you in darkness. As my mother was convinced the house was haunted, she didn't like this at all.

My grandparents had lived in Number 5 before my parents, renting it from ‘Danksey’ who owned the whole terrace and came himself to collect the rent. Since they were good tenants, he gave them the chance to rent a large flat in another building he owned, a ‘coal-master’s’ mansion he had divided up. He was happy to accept my mother and father as the new tenants in 5, Brades Row.

I’m told that while my grandparents lived there, my grandmother refused to enter the house first if they returned to it after dark. This was because, when the lamps were lit, there was a rush of cockroaches across the floor and down the walls, to their hiding places in cracks and crevices and she couldn’t stand their scuttling.

The houses were also alive with mice who came in from the fields. Intermingled with them were white and patched mice which had once been pets, but had escaped and gone feral. My grandfather had a long-running battle with one black and white mouse he called ‘Micky Duff.’ Other mice regularly fell into the traps Grandad set but Mickey Duff, easily recognisable by his pied coat, evaded them all. 

A random mouse impersonating Mickey Duff. The original photo is to be found here, on Wikimedia.

One cold, snowy winter’s day, Grandad was sitting by the fire when he saw Mickey run along the skirting board and go into the oven by an air-vent. Grandad leapt up, blocked the vent with newspaper, and turned on the gas. Several minutes later, he turned off the gas and opened the oven door to reveal the still corpse of his enemy. With a cry of triumph, Grandad seized the body, took it to the door and threw it outside into the snow. And Mickey Duff revived and rushed back into the house between Grandad’s feet. “I give up,” Grandad said. “Mickey Duff has won. He can have the run of the house from now on.”

With no bathroom, you could wash yourself at the kitchen sink. You could even boil a kettle for a wash in warm water if you were nesh. But many people just took a towel across the track to the wash-house and washed over there in the icy cold water from the pump, using a big green cake of laundry soap, which was also used for scrubbing floors. Since every house had its own wash-house, it was a little more private than washing in front of the kitchen window — but biting cold in winter. I can dimly remember — or think I can — being put in the wash-house’s big stone sink by my mother and bathed there. In summer, though.

And toilets? During the night you used a chamber pot —known as a ‘gozunder’ because it went under the bed. During the day you went out of the door and walked up the track to a row of brick built lavatories near where the fields began. There were 21 houses in the row and 11 lavatories. (Our house was number 5, in the middle of the row, and it was bigger than the others because it had once been where the landlord had lived. So it had a back door and a front door. The other houses had all been divided into two.) 

You walked up the track, past about ten houses, to the lavatories. They had doors made of wooden planks with a metal latch — so did the houses, but the gap at the bottom of the house doors was smaller. There’s a Black Country expression: ‘He had a loff like a gleed under a doo-er.’ It’s a phrase Shakespeare would have understood. Loff — ‘laugh.’ A gleed is a small, hard ember of burned out coal from the fire. A doo-er is a door. 

Imagine a small coal from the fire, kicked about the floor until it lodges in the gap at the bottom of a planking door. The door is opened, dragging the gleed across a stone-flagged floor. The resulting, teeth-gritting sound is what the laugh was like. 

So, no indoor plumbing. No electricity. Planking doors opening directly onto a dirt track. Small, cramped, damp rooms. Mice and cockroaches. I think that qualifies as a slum, Mum. 

I was born in 1955. Our unfit-for-purpose voting system had ensured that the Tories had been re-elected but all over the country Labour councils like ours were making good on their 1948 promise to improve the lives of the 90% who didn't own 44% of the country's wealth. They were clearing slums like Brades Row and building council estates.

So, when I was four years old, my family moved to a nearly new council house. My mother could not believe her luck but was terrified that she wouldn't be able to pay the rent. She'd paid ten bob a week (50p) for 5, Brades Row. The council rent was £1, paid fortnightly, so every other week she would have to find two whole pounds.

But for this mere doubling of rent she gained a semi-detached house, not a terrace, that wasn't damp and didn't leak. It had no cockroaches or mice. All of the three bedrooms had windows (one of the bedrooms at Brades Row had been a windowless cupboard.)

There was electricity! And in the kitchen, a sink with taps to fill it with hot or cold water. And a gas-stove!

There was a bathroom with a plumbed in bath that could be filled with warm water! And, beside the bath, a wash-basin and a lavatory. Indoors!

The front door didn't open directly onto a pavement or dirt track but onto a small front garden and a path that led to the street. Behind the house was a small but private back garden where my mother could plant all the flowers she loved.

She loved that house too. During the week when she didn't have to pay the rent, she bought us the new shoes or clothes we needed, but it was egg and chips every night during the week the rent had to be paid. Now and again we had to hide with her under the table when the rent-man knocked (because he would sometimes come round the back and peer in the window.)

When my parents moved to that council house, they were less than half the age I am now and they believed the world was becoming better: kinder and fairer. When their children were ill, they took them to an NHS doctor, the cost already covered by their taxes. Their children were given a comprehensive school education, better than any education any member of our family had ever had before.

But now look where we are. The Trade Union for Billionaires is in power again, with a majority, despite only roughly 40% of votes cast being for them. They've sold off council housing and decent homes are again in short supply. The NHS has already been partly sold off to American companies: the rest will follow soon. The necessities of fuel, water, communication and transport have been sold off, mismanaged, made more expensive and less safe.



Leslie Wilson said...

A valuable and important blog, reminding us how things used to be for so many people.
When my parents were newly-wed, and, in 1948, moved to Devon, they first lived in a very pretty cottage with a thatched roof, and the slugs used to climb all over the walls. My mother had to do all the washing by hand, too; she really envied the neighbour who had a dolly tub. Then they moved to some wooden temporary homes, and my mother loved it, because they were clean and dry, though she still did all the washing by hand, which she found exhausting.
Our little semi in Nottingham, where I was brought home to, was a blessing to her, just like your mother with the council house.
I think what has happened to public housing is quite dreadful, and the decay of public services.

Susan Price said...

Could not agree more, Leslie.

I read about a charity a young teacher has set up because she found that many of her pupils had no beds and were sleeping on the floor. In 2022. A young footballer has to campaign before this pack of Tory liars and incompetents will feed children going hungry largely because of their Tory policies

My grandfather was born in 1900 and spent his childhood sleeping on a straw-filled sack, laid on stone kitchen flags. He died in 1964, from lung cancer, and was cared for by the NHS during that illness, being given the best care then available.

So he died thinking things were getting better.

I'm glad he can't see what the Tories are taking us back to.

Sue Purkiss said...

That's a very sobering account of your first home, Sue. And even more sobering to think how things are going backwards under this - and other - awful governments.

I still have a 'dolly'. I use it to hang bags and hats on.

Carol Drinkwater said...

This post made me weep, not for the marvellously remembered past but for the greed and self-centredness of those running Britain today. I spent most of my childhood in the UK in a family home more upmarket than yours, Susan. Even so, I have many memories from my father of 'how it used to be.' He would turn his his grave if he were alive to witness the state Britain is in today. May I be so bold as to mention a charity here that I send a few bob to every now and then. They are DepherCIC UK. Please look them up and you will see why I think it is not inappropriate to mention them here. If you can send them something you will see from their work how you will be helping a few of those struggling to survive in modern-day Britain, the fifth richest country in the world.
Great post, Susan, thank you.