Life & Times as remembered by Bob McMillan

Toilet - Wash House - Pulley


The toilet for the four houses was at the left of the back court, looking from the cottages, and next to the two wash houses. The toilet had a wooden door with a gap of some six inches high top and bottom. Hail, rain and snow blew in as you sat there, in the dark, with no choice but to finish what youd started. No one tarried long on a winters night!

As each family would bring their own roll of toilet paper with them on each visit an emergency supply was usually left on a hook somewhere in this most necessary facility.

This usually took the form of cut up sheets of newspaper which was cheap, functional (well mostly) and a source of reading material if you did choose to linger.

The Wash House

Before the advent of affordable washing appliances, laundry was usually done in purpose-built wash houses in the back courts of tenement blocks. Each family in the block had a set day in which to use the wash house and no other household was allowed to utilise the wash house or drying green on that day.

Each wash house contained a boiler, a half sphere of cast iron some 1 metre in diameter, sitting in a brick construction that allowed a fire to be built under the boiler and with a chimney that took away the smoke. This sphere had to be hand filled with cold water from a tap in the wash house (assuming it wasnt frozen on a cold winters morning) and could also be used to boil the white clothes as was the fashion in the days before washing machines and sophisticated washing powders.

A large wooden lid retained the heat in the water. Mum was up at 5 a.m. to fill the boiler, light the fire and get ready for the washing. Several hours later, when the water was hot enough, some of it was transferred by ladle to one of two large wooden tubs sitting on a stand (see later photo in this section). Used to make the tubs sit at a convenient height, the washing stand, with its vertical timber frame between the tubs, was an almost universal piece of furniture in any washhouse.

The wall, or frame, between the tubs came up about four feet from the floor and served as a mounting for the Wringer, a device used to squeeze the water out of the washed clothes by passing them between two rubber rollers under adjustable pressure.

The dirty washing was placed in one tub with soap flakes or soap powder and hot water. They were either Dollied, pummelled with a large wooden plunger with a broad, hollow head about eight inches in diameter , or scrubbed on a scrubbing board.

A scrubbing board was a wooden frame with a sheet of rippled zinc sheet fixed in to it. The horizontal ripples in the zinc provided the agitation necessary to dislodge the dirt from the clothes as each garment was violently rubbed up and down the board. A flat wooden section above the zinc allowed the block of soap to be kept handy while a broad flat top piece gave the washer woman a more comfortable surface to lean on as she held the board in place with chest or abdomen.

An Acme wringer

Note:- The scrubbing board shown here is of the later type using glass in place of the rippled zinc.

After this first wash the washing was wringered, to extract as much as possible of the soapy water, then rinsed in clean water in the other tub.

The process was repeated if necessary and the washing re-wrung before being hung out on the washing line in the back court. The washing line consisted of a long length of cotton rope, usually with a braided exterior) stretched between the permanent metal poles which were cemented into the ground. There were usually four or five of these poles. Four in a rectangle and sometimes a fifth in the centre of the rectangle.

This combination gave the best use of the area for clothes drying. The rope and wooden supports or stretchers had to be taken down at night as these were your own property and a source of great complaint if the green was not clear in the morning for the next user.

Likewise the wash house had to be spotless with not a drop of water left in the boiler and the dead fire cleaned out. Cleaning the fire out was not easy as the embers would still be red hot. Many a time the rubbish bin would be set on fire by the careless disposal of hot ashes and embers.

A ladle like this was used to scoop out water from the boiler.

Remember that the regular feeding of the family and the daily shopping had still to be done on wash days, hard work by any standard and all but unthinkable today. Women took great pride in seeing a brilliant white washing blowing in the breeze and, conversely, could be very scathing if someones less than perfect washing was observed. Even the sequence in which the washing was hung was critically judged! Even in this modern age when standards have relaxed, my wife is still very fussy about her washing looking clean and neat on the washing line, even though only the family see it.

Aunt Nan with a single tub wash stand.

 Note the bar to hold the wringer.


As most houses had no bathroom, and hence no discrete washing facilities, it was quite normal for children to be bathed in a tin (zinc plated tin) bath in front of the fire in the living room. Water boiled in the kettle, and in pots, was used to fill the bath and so it was quite a logistical operation to prepare for Bath night. Hence it became a family affair with children all being bathed in the same water, usually in youngest to oldest sequence. As the water would become murkier and murkier, this may well be the origin of the saying Dont throw the baby out with the bath water.

Adults often had to use the same facility and although I dont remember my mother and father doing so, I assume they did. Adults bathing in this way was an every day experience in many industrial households, especially in mining communities.

The soap used at home was often the white rectangular block of nondescript washing soap, or carbolic soap, mostly found by the kitchen sink. A rare treat was the purchase of Pears soap with its picture of a little toddler (always known as the little boy in our house) moulded inside the transparent golden block with the rounded corners. Rich in lather and slightly fragrant, this soap was a delight compared to the normal stuff. Needless to say it was kept specifically for bath night, it was too expensive to be used for everyday things.

In addition to the swimming pool, Coatbridge swimming baths also offered Turkish baths and Slipper baths. A slipper bath being a conventional bath in a cubicle complete with a seat and facilities to hand up your clothes. Your ticket, purchased at the kiosk in the foyer of the building, also granted you a small block of soap and a white fluffy towel. The attendant allocated you a cubicle, ran the bath for you, thus controlled the amount of water you used, and strictly limited the amount of time you took over your ablutions. This was the only alternative most working class families had to the tin bath in their own living room. A relative who was fortunate enough to have a bathroom would often be persuaded to allow its use occasionally.

Clothes Pulley
The washing of clothes is mentioned elsewhere in this narrative however I must make mention of an absolutely essential device, the clothes pulley! This simple, effective and absolutely vital piece of equipment was an integral part of almost every house, yet is never seen today. Two pulley wheels, one single and one double were screwed in through the ceiling and into the roof joist of the living room, about eight to ten feet apart and usually parallel to the source of heat. Threaded through each pulley was a rope with the double pulley wheel being used to bring both ropes together at one end.

Suspended between the ropes was either a single wooden bar about two inches square or metal frames supporting four lighter wooden bars each about eight inches apart. Thus clothes could be spread out on this contraption then pulled up to ceiling height by the ropes. The ropes were secured to a hook on the wall at some convenient location on a door or window frame. As the hottest place in the room was up near to the ceiling (heat rises) the clothes could thus be dried when the weather was inclement or it was not your day for the drying green.

The down side of this arrangement was the constant drips of water from newly hung clothes (no spin dryers back then). Newspaper laid out strategically on the floor was fine so long as the drips were confined to open floor space. Sadly, in our house at least, they usually also splattered the dining table and those who sat there! Modern washing machines and spin dryers have all but made this simple device obsolete but at the cost of using power as opposed to waste heat. I can still recall the smell, taste even, of damp, humid washing above my head as I played around the house.

A typical pulley
Note also the Range type fireplace. This is slightly different from ours in that the oven is raised up at the side of the cooking space. Picture courtesy of Beamish Museum

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