A Day in the Life of Great Granny and Granta.
Updated: Oct 24, 2022
No matter what day of the week, hail, rain, or shine, if I need to wash some clothes, it is a simple matter of going to the laundry basket, putting the clothes in the washing machine, taking them out when the cycle is finished and either hanging them out to dry or tumble drying them. End of story! For my great granny, wash day started on a Monday and went on until about Thursday! Sometimes heavily soiled clothes would be soaked on a Saturday in preparation for the beginning of the working week. She had to get out of bed a few hours earlier than usual to light the fire to boil kettles and pans of water; her typical day would have started at dawn! She would collect water either from a stream or a well. Although some well-to-do townhouses in Edwardian times had running water, water closets, and even electricity, it would be some time before such luxuries would reach country folk. The only items to help her would have been a “dolly” which was a wooden handle with what looked like a child’s stool attached, a wringer if she were lucky, and some washing soda which was very harsh and irritated the skin, making her hands red and sore. I suspect she would have placed larger items, like sheets over hedges and bushes, if the outdoor line was full. In the winter and on wet days she would most likely have had a “pulley” which was usually four lengths of wood attached to each other by a bracket at the ends which could be hoisted up to the ceiling of the kitchen using a rope( In fact, I used a pulley in our house in North Berwick. When the kitchen window was open, and the wind blew inside, nappies and clothes dried very quickly!) Once the clothes were dry, there was starching and ironing, using a very heavy, flat iron warmed on the kitchen range. Cooking and even heating water was a major chore. It would have been done on the range which needed to be kept stocked with fuel, black leaded, and cleaned. Probably the first thing Granny did after rising at dawn (which in winter would have been freezing cold) and dressing in the many required Edwardian layers of clothing was to venture into the kitchen and light the fire in the range. Without the fire, there would be no hot water and no hot food. Baking could not be done until the afternoon when the oven was warm enough, and in fact, there may even still have been a communal oven in the village where women could take pies and bread to be baked marked with their initials, hence the nursery rhyme: ‘Pat a cake pat a cake baker’s man, bake me a cake as fast as you can, pat it and prick it and mark it with B and put it in the oven for baby and me.’ I know she was good at baking; I can remember her delicious shortbread, buttermilk scones, and her wonderful almost black, glossy bramble jelly. There would have been an outside privy, basically a hole in the ground, with a wooden seat above it and a shed-like building surrounding it. The door would have had a gap top and bottom to allow fresh air to circulate. A chamber pot would have been used by the family at night to prevent a cold, dark trip out to the backyard. Human waste was mixed with animal dung and straw to help it break down into manure. The walls were usually whitewashed which as well as brightening up the privy also helped to kill germs. Whitewash was made from a solution of limestone, and the wooden seat was most likely sterilized with caustic soda. There was no toilet paper; squares of newspaper were cut into squares and strung together at one corner to be hung on a nail or hook. A common saying at the time was that the cheap magazines around at the time were nothing but “bum fodder”. I expect Granny and Granta brushed their teeth using a bone brush with badger bristle and soot! Soot acted as an abrasive paste when mixed with water and apparently made a very good job of keeping teeth clean, obviously minus the minty taste! Cleaning the cottage would have been an unforgiving and heavy task for Granny; mud plus animal dung would inevitably be trailed over her floor on heavy ‘tackety’ work boots. I am certain Granny would have washed using a bowl and cloth; baths tended to be for children and men and involved collecting and boiling copious amounts of water. There was also the matter of a lack of privacy in a small farm worker’s cottage. After the dirty jobs, Granny would have made breakfast for Granta coming in from his first jobs of the day, probably about eight a.m. It was common at that time to have porridge, potato, small amounts of bacon, onion, and bread. Everyone had labour-intensive jobs and they needed to fill up for energy. Granny would have spent a long time just fetching water throughout the day, perhaps collecting dry kindling for the fire, cleaning, cooking, and looking after chickens and poultry if they kept any. It was also common to keep maybe one pig which again would have been up to Granny to look after. By Edwardian times shops had quite a selection of branded foods thanks to the railways, some of which we which we still use today – Coleman’s mustard, Typhoo tea, Tate and Lyle golden syrup and treacle, Brasso and Sunlight soap to name but a few! Granny would go to the local village shop when she needed any provisions, although I am not certain how far this would have been for her or how often she would have gone, but with no fridge or freezer I suspect it was quite often. I am sure Granny would have been adept at salting, smoking and pickling food to preserve it. Sheep’s head stew was a common, filling and nutritious dish at the time. When an animal was killed for food, nothing was left to waste; every bit of it was used, including the fat to make tallow candles, and of course the hide to make leather in the local tannery not to mention wool. Blacksmiths, candle makers, and shoe makers were commonplace although by Edwardian times mass-produced shoes and boots were available and many shoemakers had become cobblers. Probably the most mass-produced footwear at that time were the boots made for soldiers fighting in the Great War of 1914-1918. Basically, eating food in season was the order of the day (which thankfully has come back into fashion). Being on a farm I am sure there would have been no shortage of milk, and therefore butter and cheese although Granny probably had to make the latter two. It is almost certain that Granny and Granta would have had a vegetable plot, growing root vegetables such as carrots, turnip, beetroot and parsnips. I suspect that potatoes and oats would have been grown on the farmland, but cheap imports of wheat meant that it was no longer a viable crop to grow. Oats could also be used to feed livestock without which, most farm work would have been impossible at that time, although some automation was being introduced it was expensive, noisy, and sometimes unreliable. Making hay while the sun shines was no joke. If the hay got damp and wasted there was no way to feed cattle and sheep in the winter months. Horses needed to be seen by a farrier about every six weeks to ensure they were healthy and not in danger of becoming lame. Great-Granta’s first job of the day was most likely to feed the animals. Meat and dairy farming were most profitable in the 1900s. Like Granny, he would have brushed his teeth with a bone and badger brush and soot; his razor would have been the open, cutthroat type! Working with unguarded agricultural machinery available to him at the time was not for the faint-hearted. There was no such thing as Health and Safety as we know it today! Granta’s working day would have begun at dawn, probably returning later in the morning, say eight a.m., for some breakfast once the range was warm enough! The attitude with agricultural workers, as with any other manual workers at that time, was “accidents happen”. Compensation would not have been comprehended. You had to work to eat, work came with risks, the risks had to be lived with and accepted. Failure to provide for your family could end in the workhouse with husbands, wives and children being separated living a life of misery and drudgery. Many agricultural workers suffered from pneumonia, bronchitis, arthritis and chilblains of the hands and feet. In Great-Granta’s case, he lost an arm! He would have spent many hours ploughing fields and planting crops, using a horse-drawn plough. I can almost hear him call out, ‘Come by,’ (turn left) and ‘Come around,’ (turn right). To the shire horses. In 1903, the first tractor was introduced the Ivel agricultural engine, but as previously mentioned it was expensive and very noisy. Only 500 were sold worldwide at a cost of £300 each which was about the equivalent of six years’ wages. Granta would also need to use a kibbler to grind down cereal to feed livestock. Not only would he have made hay, but he would have had to provide a dry store to keep it safe throughout the winter. Hay lofts were most common, but the roof would have required maintenance. In the absence of a chimney sweep, he may have cut down a bush, such as holly to pull through the chimney to loosen the soot. He would have returned home at around one o’clock for dinner and a catch-up of the day
so far. In the evenings after tea, Granta would probably have enjoyed a pint of beer or ale, often this was someone’s front room if there was no actual public house in the village Great-Granny and Granta had seven children, my grandfather, James born on the first of May 1913, Thomas, Agnes, John, William, Margaret, and Robert. What it was like for them to feed and clothe six children when life was so hard, I can only begin to imagine. My life seems to be somewhat self-indulgent and wasteful by comparison.
Dad remembers that Granta could tie his necktie and shoelaces as well as any able-bodied man and could out-dig anyone in the garden.
Great-Granta died in Kilmarnock Infirmary in 1964 aged eighty-two years. I was four years old.
Jacqueline Heron Wray 2019