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A Woman's Work...

Francesca looks at how a working class woman would have spent her week a hundred odd years ago

Polly Smith, in the latest instalment of Trouble in the Valleys, is not having an easy time of it. She has to work, bring up her child, and help her mother out in the home. She is at least lucky enough to have a mother and sister who can help with child care as she works, but there's still a lot to do. Even the full time housewives of the time struggled to keep on top of things. The work at home was more than a full time job in itself, and a lot harder than it is today.

For a start, imagine doing without your vacuum cleaner, washing machine, fan oven with controllable temperature, dishwasher, fridge and freezer. I wonder if you could stand even a week without at least some of them.

Turn back the clock a hundred or so years, and imagine yourself having none of those conveniences to hand. Let's start with your lack of washing machine, not to mention the tumble dryer.

It's Monday, a typical wash day. You have your washing board standing in the sink, which is full of water (boiled, as you have no running hot water). You've made the water nice and soapy, not with your super powerful laundry liquid or washing powder, but with a bar of soap, maybe Puritan or Sunlight. To get the clothes clean, you haven't got the drum action of your washing machine, but have to rub them rigorously against the washing board. You'll change the water two or three times while you're washing.

Then comes the rinsing. Seven times should do it, possible. Next, get them them through the mangle to squeeze out excess water. Now you can put them into your basket and hang them out on the washing line, a nice long, rope one of course, none of your rotary lines. If it's raining, you might be lucky enough to have an indoor dryer hanging from the ceiling in the kitchen, near the range.

If you happen to be a miner's wife, you'll probably wash the pit clothes separately in a wooden tub in the back yard. You'll use a dolly, a pole with several short legs to pummel the clothes. As for blankets and curtains, you'll likely wash them in the zinc bath your husband bathes in. You'll need to boil a few buckets of water for that.

Come Tuesday you'll be thinking about ironing. You won't have one of those

electric ones on which you can adjust the heat. Your flat iron will be sitting on the grate, getting hot. You'll sprinkle each item with water and roll it up to dampen it. To test the temperature, spitting on the iron is favourite. Once it's sizzling nicely, you'll insert it into a metal cover so that the clothes aren't soiled by the ash it might have picked up.

Now you've been nicely tired out by all that activity, it must be time for a rest, yes?

Welsh cakes (or 'bakestones') would have been a popular bake - when the ingredients were available.

No. During the course of the week you'll in all likelihood be the first up in the morning and the last to bed at night. You'll do around double the hours of work your husband does. It's quite likely you'll be short of food, especially during the First World War, but you'll make sure your husband and children have enough – even if you go without.

You might well allocate Wednesday to baking (if there's anything left in the shop to bake with). You'll walk to the shops with your basket and carry home all your goods (no car), and you'll probably do this most days.

And what of cleaning? Among the items on your list each day will be scrubbing floors, beating mats, cleaning walls and windows, polishing brass, black leading the grate, and scrubbing the front step, windowsills and pavement. You'll sweep and dust, empty the grate of ash and fill it with coal and polish the furniture. When your husband and / or sons, (not to mention any lodgers you might have) are due home, you'll carry several buckets of water to the range to boil. Preparing the huge zinc bath, normally carried from the scullery to the kitchen, is another job you'll have to do. Talking of coal dust, the constant presence of it in the air makes your job twice as hard.

On top of this, there'll be preparing and cleaning away meals (don't expect any help from your husband), nursing and caring for children (of which you may have quite a few), painting and papering walls and repairing shoes. Don't forget the mending of clothes. At least you can have a sit down for this. If you're nifty with a needle, perhaps you even make your own clothes.

If you're thinking, 'I could have some days off after all that lot, surely,' don't forget your neighbours will be eyeing up your efforts and making sure your house is spotless, otherwise they'll be whispering to others about what a slattern you are.

Of course, you could be widowed, since death rates in mining were higher than in a lot of other occupations. Then you might have to hold down a job as well, like Polly, or take in other people's washing, or offer a mending service. In a mining village, you might work at the mine, on the surface, sorting coal from rock in all weathers.

If all that has worn you out just reading it, spare a thought for the poor women of my imaginary village of Dorcalon in Heartbreak in the Valleys. The village might be imaginary, but the back-breaking work women did back then in mining villages all over Britain was real enough.

So, all hail modern household appliances! I certainly appreciate them even more now.

The Wartime in the Valleys Series:

Published by Hera Books

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