Thursday, January 28, 2010

Early Memories of Home Life

Two views of  Stocks Farm in 1938
It would seem very strange to my children, but life in the fifties and sixties was very different in a thousand ways to today and much more similar to that lived by previous generations.

There is a marvellous book called 'Scenes from A Hampshire Childhood' by Gerald Ponting in which he describes growing up in a Hampshire village in the 40s and 50s, and which is similar to my own early experiences. Life then hadn't changed that much in the preceeding 100 years. It was only since the late 60s (ie when I was in my early 20s) that the huge changes that are still with us today began to be felt.

Stocks, which we moved to 1950 from Danegate, lay almost two miles outside Meonstoke and had no mains water, electricity or drainage, though there was always a telephone (Droxford 135) which connected to the 'exchange' in Droxford. You could dial 'local' calls, but 'trunk' calls had to be placed through the operator until all exchanges were given numbers (STD or 'Subscriber Trunk Dialling') and one could dial direct. Rather as with postcodes today, something was lost when we no longed had to use names for places when ringing them (eg Flaxman 309).

Water came from a deep well on the downs half a mile above the house and next to 'the cottages', and was raised by a pump which had to run at least once a day (the job of whoever lived in the cottages at the time). On a still day, one could hear the pump start up and chug away and know that if the tanks in the roof of the house had run low there would soon be enough water. The holding tank on the downs was inspected once and the water declared unfit to drink because of animal droppings in it, but despite this, none of us suffered from any illnesses. Mains water arrived in the lane in the 70s and we were connected, but in fact we continued to use the sweet downs water for many years thereafter, an electric pump eventually replacing the old chugger.

Hot water came from a tank in the main bathroom, heated by the AGA in the kitchen. It was a coke-burning type and had to be filled regularly from a heap in the stables, carried in 'scuttles' and poured through a hole in the main hotplate which was normally secured by a heavy plug. The fire needed 'riddling' in the morning and again in the evening and the ash was carried away to be put on paths or the flower beds. It could be set low to burn quietly all night and gave a comfortable warm heat throughout the kitchen and to the rooms above and was ideal for drying clothes.  The AGA was converted to burn oil sometime in the 70's, and the job of looking after it disappeared.

There was no mains electricity until the 60s, and we made our own with a huge generator which ran in the stables outside the kitchen. It had an exhaust which discharged black smoke through the wall onto the roadside. It was a bit of a brute to start by hand and one had to be careful - as with the tractors - not to be caught by the suddenly flying handle. It chugged rythymically for hours at a time, providing light and a bit of power (for things like an iron or the wireless and later the television), but there were so few electrical appliances in those days. The house must have been considerably darker, though I don't remember us particularly using candles, except at dinner.

Drainage was to a septic tank in the garden which sometime backed up, necessitating a thorough 'rodding' with a huge set of bamboo and brass rods. A handsome stone lion, now in the garden at Piers's house in Coventry, stood on the main drain cover next to the drive. Sometime in the 60s a larger tank coupled to a deep soakaway was built under the cherry tree in the garden, and our drainage problems diminished as long as we remembered to order the slurry lorry in time. The house still has no mains drainage to this day.

The farmyards and buildings drained into an ancient pond, and as there were chicken, pigs and sometimes cattle in the yards, the water in it was certainly not drinkable, but that didn't stop us playing in it and on it a great deal. We had boats to play with but they weren't as much fun as an upturned umbrella.

The wireless and a wind-up gramophone was until the mid 50's the only entertainment apart from books and comics. I used to 'Listen With Mother' after lunch and play with my toys - a 'Muffin the Mule' string puppet was a favourite - and read picture books such as 'Snorri the Seal' and a magical one about an Indian boy's journey through the Great Lakes. Later, I loved comics and the 'Beano' and 'Dandy' were delivered weekly. Fuff had the 'Eagle', but I never really liked that, even when I got to his age. Perhaps I was scared of 'the Mekon'. The radio sci-fi programme ‘Journey Into Space’ was also so frightening that I had to listen to it with Fuff. I can still hear one of the characters calling ‘Mclain, Mclain......’ into the void.....

The wind-up gramophone had a curious curved hole at the back which acted as the speaker, and one had frequently to change the steel needle which was lowered more of less carefully onto the old shellac recording to play our mainly classical repertoire at 78rpm. Records played with a needle made a characteristic scratching sound which can be heard very clearly in this damaged but beautiful recording of Kathleen Ferrier singing Land of Hope and Glory on the last night of the Proms in 1951. We must have acquired an electric gramophone sometime in the late 50s as I remember Fuff buying the first vinyl LP for it - I think it was 'Oaklahoma' - and later 'High Society'. These were played at 33rpm and were the main source of music until the 7" 'singles' records played at 45rpm arrived. My first 'single' was Cliff Richard's 'Living Doll'.

The toys we played with most were ‘Dinky’ Toys – scale models of cars and in particular racing cars. My brother and I collected them - and he still has nearly 80 models (including mine as he ‘inherited’ them when I grew out of playing with them). We particularly loved playing with them in the ‘Dromes’ at St Ronan’s. But my particular favourite was an battery-operated fork-lift truck, which one could steer and which had forward and reverse gears as well as a lifting platform.

Sweets were a great treat, then as now, but St Ronan’s had the excellent rule that one could only have 16 pieces of sweets a week. The rationing process is also described here. I used to buy mine at the village shop - Cooke’s in Meonstoke - and pack them carefully into a biscuit tin to take to school knowing that unless one’s parents brought you more, they would have to last the whole term.

All of this sounds perhaps mean or frugal, but of course it wasn’t. It depends entirely on your expectations. And perhaps we are now returning to an age when excessive and unnecessary choice and availability disappear – but please don’t take away the internet or my iPhone!

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