I began my conversation with Auntie Barbara wondering how you look after four children, run a household in the 1950’s with no electricity, no running water, no indoor heating except a Rayburn stove, minimal sunshine, occasionally help on the farm, use cloth nappies and have children toilet trained well before the age of two?!
My Auntie Barbara is a proud English women who has spent most of her life in rural Devon. She was married in 1949 to Uncle Ern and had four children in under 5 years! They brought their children up on a dairy farm and battled the harsh English elements in a two-bedroomed, pre-fabricated bungalow. Toilet training was started when the babies were about four or five months old. Even while they were being breast-fed they were held over a potty. Auntie Barbara remembers watching her oldest sister with her own babies. “I used to see Auntie Olwen do this and she’d read at the same time!”
As newly wed’s Auntie Barbara and Uncle Ern moved to East Titchberry with Ern’s Father, Mother and his Sister Margaret, where they all lived together. Most couples started off their married life living with the in-laws until they could afford a little place of their own. It was 1954 when they moved into their own bungalow on the farm. The three little girls shared one bedroom and Colin was in the master bedroom with his parents. When visitors came over to stay, in particular Auntie Barbara’s Mother and a friend, the visitors had Auntie Barbara and Uncle Ern’s bedroom and they slept in the girls bedroom. Along with daily farming commitments and four children (and remember they are under five years of age!), they painted their new home throughout, along with a few other renovations.
Anne (the eldest child) was toilet trained when Ruth (number two) was born. “My first child was the easiest to toilet train, being the first born I had the time. She was in pants with the odd mishap when she was about fourteen months old. The other children were a bit older. She went on to say “I do remember having two in nappies at one time, it was probably Carol and Colin. So Ruth would have been two before she was dry. Yes it was standard practise back then to put babies on the potty at just a few months old” she recalls.
“It’s just common sense really as no one wanted to hand wash too many nappies and try to get them dry. Remember there was no other option, disposable ones hadn’t been invented! Because there was no alternative, using the potty was just a natural reaction to save work – that was the reason behind it in the first place. If the potty is in place, you’ll catch it and save a nappy! The sooner the better I’d say, especially with another baby coming. My Mum showed me how to sterilise the nappies by pouring a pan of boiling water over the bath of washed nappies, then lifting them out with wooden ‘tongs’ because they were HOT!”
Auntie Barbara summed up a day in the life of a Mother in the 1950’s as ‘quite humdrum’. A typical day consisted of general chores like getting the children dressed and fed. Anne, was like a little mother when she was only five. She would run here, there and everywhere getting things for the baby or playing with her sisters Ruth and Carol. The morning would be spent mainly doing the washing, all by hand in the tin bath of course, so very time-consuming. Her only help was a small ACME wringing machine. “I loved to see my nappies all blowing in the breeze. It was a delight to get them in, hang them on the wooden clothes airer and then put them around the cooker at night with everything else.”
Uncle Ern’s dirty clothes were the worst of all, they had to be soaked, scrubbed (usually on the concrete path outside) and dried. If the weather was bad, especially during the long winters, they took some drying. He wore corduroy for warmth, as there were no nylon overalls in those days. Similarly with the children, their play clothes were not easy to wash and dry. “Anne and Ruth had what we called siren suits, all-in-one and warm, however once wet and muddy, needed to be washed. They only had one each, we couldn’t afford two, so they couldn’t go outside if it was cold, or wet” she says. “Then there was the ironing, don’t know why I bothered but it was the way my mother had brought me up. I always ironed the sheets and pillowcases, not the nappies or towels of course”.
Every day there were meals to prepare. It was all simple stuff, the grocer used to deliver once a week and the baker came twice a week. Auntie Barbara cooked cow cabbage, from the field over the hedge and the ‘tiddies’ (potatoes) from the store down the farm because they grew tons of them. “On the farm we always ate well, plenty of meat and vegetables, milk and cream. We always did our own baking, never buying anything like cakes or pasties. Sometimes it seemed we were baking nearly every day as you couldn’t just pop out to the shops! It was the same for all families, not just us” she recalls.
Auntie Barbara also found time to help out on the farm. “When I could I’d go out and help the men milk the cows. I used to take the children and strap the baby in the pram. We would sit on a stool to milk, nothing was easy and the yard was cobbled which made walking and pushing a pram difficult.
Friday was the day she walked the children to the village to visit the ‘Clinic’ where they weighed the babies and were given their free allocation of cod liver oil and concentrated orange juice, provided by the government. She suspects the nurses didn’t think they lived healthy enough and believed the cod liver oil was a sort of vitamin supplement, in case the Mums were not producing healthy milk for their babies. “I only walked with the two little girls. I couldn’t push three or four. I think Uncle Ern must have taken me sometimes.” It was a good opportunity to talk to other Mums (no phones or computers for communicating back then) but they never discussed potty training, everyone just did their own thing. “When you think about it, all children are different. Maybe some of my friends had problems, I just don’t know.”
Because the bungalow had no electricity, another job during the day was trimming the wicks of the lamps, filling them with paraffin and cleaning and replenishing the candlesticks. My cooker was a Rayburn, solid fuel. We bought coal and Uncle Ern would bring up sticks and logs sometimes. We all know how hectic ‘Witching Hour’ is these days well, we have nothing to complain about. Their home had no running water at all and Auntie Barbara remembers carrying every drop of water up from the farm, “Uncle Ern never came up to the bungalow without buckets of water in each hand. You can imagine what bedtime was like” said Auntie Barbara. “My father-in-law had kindly installed a solid fuel stove for cooking and to heat the water in big pans on the top. So this I did and bathed the children in a tin bath in front of the cooker. The Rayburn just heated the tiny kitchen, it was warm to bath the children. The only other heating in the house was a little open fire in the lounge for coal and logs with a fire guard round it. Remember there was no such thing as double glazing, if you felt cold (in bed or otherwise) you just put on another jumper, it’s a huge difference to how you all live now”.
How does one tackle toilet training a baby? “The children didn’t have nappy off time, nor did I wait for them to tell me they had to go to the potty – it was up to me to take them on time. Nappies were left on and changed when necessary. There was no such thing as toilet training underpants or any other countless items found on the market today. We didn’t even have an indoor toilet, only a chemical thing outside which I hated. When we were out and about they had their nappy on, if they had an accident then I just used to deal with it, always carrying spare panties. We had few public toilets available and no such thing as a portable potty.”
So there you go. Simple, consistent and a means to lessen the Mother’s workload. Auntie Barbara stresses to me that it was standard practise back then that babies were being put on the potty. No one took much notice or made a big deal out of it, instead it was a widely accepted part of a baby’s learning and communication.
This has opened up a whole relm of comprehension I never imagined possible from a baby.
Our discussion came to a close with Auntie Barbara’s thoughts on our generation’s over use of disposable nappies. “I suppose disposable nappies are so hygienic they are probably best now. I can remember my oldest sister, your Auntie Olwen, using them for journeys when they first came out. They were horrible and smelly after a very short time. When my daughter gave birth to twins her husband’s argument on the issue of disposable verses cloth nappies was ‘You either buy disposable ones or wear your washing machine (or yourself?!) out!’ So each to their own…”
Auntie Barbara’s concluding statement shows a hint of sadness and is a reminder to us all – “Recounting this story has really taken me back. It was hard work and I don’t know how I survived it. You are lucky you have the time to really enjoy your children. I and many others never felt we did”