Robert Chesshyre: Cold? You should have been around in the 1950s

Crossing the hall to the kitchen was a dash across a glassy abyss

Share
Related Topics

I lived through the 1950s as an often shivering child. On Thursday our boiler broke, and I found myself urgently raiding my memory bank for the day-to-day survival tricks of living in a house with no central heating.

In those post-war years there was a coke boiler in the kitchen: unlike modern gas boilers with their fans and computers, it didn't (couldn't) break down; from an early age we children were assigned the task of going out into the shivering cold to get fuel from the coal shed. It was coke on one side and coal (good, old fashioned coal that spat and flared) for the fire in the sitting room on the other.

One o'clock was the magic hour when the gas poker was ignited and the fire lit. The sitting room became a womb, with the chairs crowded round the grate for maximum warmth. Crossing the hall to the kitchen was a dash across an icy abyss. Nothing was double-glazed and the windows were ill-fitting. The leakage of what warmth there was must have been horrific.

If one left left a door open even a crack, one was pursued by cries of "Were you born in a field? Shut the door."

Having a bath was a nightmare. Bathrooms were ice boxes – ours seemed to have an unfair share of outside walls. Hot water was limited and the tank (heated by the coke boiler) ran out long before there was enough in the bath for a wallow. Those bits (knees and shoulders) that, even as a child, inevitably stuck out of the tepid liquid were cold.

The cooling water soon forced one out, and clambering into the frigid air – despite a one-bar electric fire fixed to the ceiling – felt like stepping onto an ice flow. It took vigorous drying with an abrasive towel to restore the circulation.

The approach of bed-time launched a full scale operation. At 6.30, stone hot water bottles were placed in each bed; an hour later the bedroom gas fires were lit. No heat was wasted: before we went up washing was arranged round the bedroom fires, and when it was finally time for bed the clothes were brought down and placed before the dying embers of the sitting room fire.

Rubber hot water bottles were filled and grasped as tightly as possible for the climb to the bedrooms. That last traipse across the frozen hall and up the stairs remains with me whenever the temperature drops.

Despite the gas fires, the bedrooms were icy, and the speed with which one got into bed – teeth-cleaning in the frozen bathroom was such purgatory that we children skipped it if not under the direct gaze of an adult – might have won gold medals at the Olympics.

When all too soon it was time to get up, there would be ice inside the windows, and on really cold mornings even one's clothes would be stiff with cold. The gas fire was useless, as it failed to generate any warmth before I was down the stairs for breakfast, getting as close to the kitchen boiler as others allowed.

Last week our heating stopped, and the past flooded back. We had always thought that our generation, having survived the Fifties, could surmount such disasters. But the truth was that we had only nostalgia to fall back on.

Gone are the stone hot water bottles; gone are the bedroom gas fires; gone is the coke boiler from the kitchen; gone is the one-bar electric fire in the bathroom. We do have one open fire, but it is designed more for show than for heat, and most of its warmth shoots straight up the chimney.

Perhaps what has really gone is the spirit of those far-off days. There was nothing we could do about our cold homes, so – wrapped in sufficient clothes to stock a jumble sale – we bore them. The limited tactics at our disposal were part of the ritual of life. One got on without (on the whole) moaning.

So what did we do last week? Cajoled, wept, blustered down the line to the boiler company. It worked, but it took two days to fix the fault and cost an arm and a leg.

As I write, the needle is creeping up and we are (nearly) warm again, but I have bought enough coal (poor, smoke-free stuff though it be) for a siege, and we bought that last oil-filled heater in our local hardware store. In future I think I'll be a bit more sparing with my "when I was a lad, we could take it" anecdotes.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executives

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of Europe's leading prov...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£30,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a perso...

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

£21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Regional Sales Manager - East Region - OTE £45,000

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: opening round in the election contest of the YouTube videos

John Rentoul
Anthony Burgess, the author of 'A Clockwork Orange' and 'Earthly Powers,' died 17 years ago  

If Anthony Burgess doesn’t merit a blue plaque, then few do

John Walsh
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor