words supplied by Sandra Noon
Due to government intervention, lifestyles have changed over the years. Housing and working conditions have improved, healthcare and the way elderly and disabled people are cared for have also changed, despite recent cuts, changes to the benefit system, not enough housing, increase in obesity due to sedentary lifestyles, it could be argued that lifestyles today are far better that they used to be.
In the 1800’s many people lived in overcrowded houses, with only one bedroom and one living area, with up to 12 children, many of these houses were crammed side by side into court yards, and known as back to backs, as many lay back to back with the one in the next yard, there appears to be evidence of a back to back alley that led to a yard in Abbey Street. If they were against a wall of a factory or a workshop they were called “Blind Backs”. Workshops could be found in some of the yards, but only for the use of one tenant and maybe a family member as they were only small.
Each yard had a block of shared toilets, 2-3 families per toilet, the number of toilets depended on the size of the yard, there was also a shared wash house which was usually found in the centre of the yard, or if there was a factory or workshop wall one side, the toilets and wash house would sometimes be along that wall. Some even had one family in the basement, one in the living area and one in the bedroom, people who owned the houses often took advantage of the housing problem to maximise their rent collections, and people would accept the conditions because the only alternatives were living rough, or moving into a house run by the local parish council, my 2 greats grandparents lived in one of these houses, on charity land Canal Side, Chilvers Coton, where my great granddad was born, and my 2 greats grandma died in childbirth.
The final resort for families was to enter the workhouse, also run by the parish council. Those families unfortunate to find themselves in the workhouse were split up, men one side of a wall, women and children the other. As the name suggests, people who entered the workhouse were expected to work for their keep. The work was hard, women scrubbed floors and worked in the laundry or infirmary, men worked in the sawing yard or work shop, the sawn wood would then be transported using the horse and cart housed in the stable block to were it was needed, in some cases men worked on parish land growing crops.
One of these workhouses was situated in College Street Chilvers Coton not far from my 2 greats grandfathers house, so it would have been a constant reminder, it later became George Eliot Hospital. The workhouse infirmary became Poyser ward, the dining room became the Outpatients, the master’s house became Milby House, the men’s ward became Dorothea, and the women’s ward became Romola. The building which many are familiar with that stood next to the road was just part of it, this was demolished in the 1970’s, I think it was used as offices for the hospital at one point. If I remember right there was another workhouse in Abbey green. My 4 greats grandmother spent her last days in Nuneaton workhouse and my great grandmother was born there, although I think the infirmary was being used by none-inmates as she went back to live with her mother in Attleborough a short time later.
With regard to the wash houses in the back to back yards, each family would agree amongst themselves for an allotted day and time to do their washing. First thing in the morning a member of the family, whose turn it was would fill a copper boiler in the wash house from the pump in the yard and light a fire under it in order to heat the water. Some of this water would be transferred to a dolly tub to wash the clothes and the sheets and other items that required boiling would be placed in the copper. The things in the dolly tub were pounded with a dolly, which was a bit like a small stool, or an upside down metal container with a long handle attached, the items would then be placed through rollers called a mangle to remove the water, rinsed and put through the mangle again then pegged out on the line to dry. If it was raining the clothes would be placed over a rack that was on a pulley system and would be hoisted into the air above the fire so that the heat could dry them.
There were black fire grates which were used for cooking and boiling water, these had to be cleaned and polished with black lead. My grandparents had a black fire grate in their house in Westbury Rd, my mum used to keep my baby bottle warm on it, they used to be made of glass. My grandfather got upset when my mum bought a plastic one and it sprung a leak when he put it on the grate to warm.
There were no carpets only mats, there was none of the modern conveniences that we have today, no hot and cold running water from a tap in the house, none of the things we take for granted these days. Peg rugs were made from old sacking that had been washed and dyed, old clothes were cut up into small pieces separated into piles of the same colour, and these pieces were then woven into the sacking to form patterned mats for the floors. I remember my grandma teaching me this skill and there was a mat my grandma had made on her bedroom floor.
Windows were polished until they shone, door steps were scrubbed and white washed, women could be seen out on their doorsteps either cleaning or talking to the neighbours, everyone knew each other, there was a real communal atmosphere that we don’t see today, people could leave their doors unlocked while they popped round the neighbours and children would all play together in the streets or yards.
Food was stored in a pantry which had a cold slab made of white washed concrete raised off the floor at one end to keep meat on, with a foldable umbrella style cover, to keep the flies away. Other things were placed on shelves or hung up to dry, this helped preserve things like herbs and onions, my aunt had one of these pantries in Barton Rd Hill Top in the 1960’s. Another method of preserving was to place things in jars, small onions were pickled in vinegar and spices, beetroot was boiled and placed in vinegar, and other vegetables could also be pickled, I remember helping my mum pickle the onions, and she also used to make blackberry vinegar for colds.
Fruit such as Strawberries and oranges were boiled with sugar to form Jam and marmalade, my mother-in-law used to do this and I remember her showing me how it was done. Other fruits such as apricots were dried then soaked in water to re-plump them when required. Home made wine was popular made from vegetables like parsnip, fruit like damson and berries like elderberry, my mother in law also made wine, she showed me how to make that as well. One day she asked me to taste some parsnip, elderberry, and damson, if you have never tasted homemade wine be warned that it is quite potent, I only had half a small glass of each, I don’t know how I found my way home. Cakes, biscuits and bread were all made at home, all these things would be stored in the pantry until needed. Women often did all this alongside working on a handloom making ribbon or taking in washing to earn extra money, as well as looking after the children, how would they have managed without the help of their daughters and the neighbours?
There were advantages and disadvantages to living in the yards, the advantages were the people in each yard formed a small community helping one other, small children could play together safely in the yard and in each others houses, the children were watched over by all the mums. If one was busy or not feeling well there would always be someone around to care for the children.
The main disadvantage of living in close proximity to others was that if someone became ill it would travel round the yard quickly and there was no healthcare to speak of, just one of the women who took it upon herself to tend to the sick and needy. Some of these became the first midwives after giving birth themselves, they would then assist their neighbours with their deliveries. Many would also help with preparing people for their funerals by washing and dressing them as if they were just going out. One such lady attended my 2 great’s grandmother, she had the job of not only delivering her baby but also preparing both the baby and my 2g grandma for burial.
They all relied on each other for help in times of need which would, without realizing it pass the illness on quicker as the hygiene standards were virtually none existent and often the elderly and young would suffer the most and death rates were high. The water supply was a shared pump in the yard and when this water became contaminated no one knew, resulting in illness and death. It took some time to trace the source, as a result it was decide that back to backs were hazardous to health and most were demolished, one in Birmingham has however been preserved as a museum.
Men worked mainly on the farms, ploughing was done with the aid of a horse that would pull the plough whilst the farmer or one of his workers would guide the plough from behind to form straight lines called furrows. Seeds would then be scattered in the furrows using a seed drill, which was a box with a stick and string mechanism which spread the seeds as they walked along the furrows. When harvest time came extra men, women and children would be taken on wherever possible to pick the crops, many of my family were agricultural labourers, one I think my 3 greats uncle used to live and work on the Arbury Estate. He worked for two farmers, when he fell out with one he would go and work for the other, and vice versa for some time, so the family story was told to me by my mum.
People went to bed quite earlier in those days as there was no television and no electricity, the only light that was available at that time was candle light which didn’t give much light, just enough to see objects and people so they didn’t bump into things or trip over. The first candles were made of tallow, which was purified animal fat. Can you imagine what the smell must have been like? Those who couldn’t afford candles improvised with a strip of cloth they burnt in a saucer of tallow grease, this was known as a “tallow dip” others would make there own by dipping a length of string tied to a stick into tallow grease, this was then hung to dry over a Jar and then dipped again to build up layers before being used.
Weavers cottages were designed with a large front window to let in more natural light to make it easier to see the intricate patterns, electric lighting in the home wasn’t introduced until after the first world war.
As the shared toilet was out in the yard the people of that time had large pots called “gazunders” or “chamber pots” that were either placed under the bed or in a small cupboard at the side, these were then emptied each morning, another job for the housewife! The effluence from the toilet would go into an area at the side of the toilet block, I think it was called a midden, along with kitchen waste. A person called a night soil man would come and collect it at night. It appears this job was undertaken by a local farmer as I read an account of one in Atherstone, strangely enough called James Smith, who left a trail of effluence all round the corner by were Aldi is now, and all down Long Street, I don’t think he was related. I think the effluence would then be taken outside the town or village and probable used as manure on the fields.
During the 1900’s work of housewives became easier. Fridges allowed them to store food longer without having to spend time preserving, indoor plumbing and washing machines meant they did not have to go outside to the wash house, vacuum cleaners became available to clean the carpets that replaced the rugs and milk and ready made bread were delivered to the door by horse and cart, later by van. Later gas fires, central heating and gas and electric cookers began to replace coal fires and black leaded grates, so the women did not have to clean them anymore, ovens still need cleaning but with the use of oven cleaners the job became easier and with the new plumbing came a sewerage system, followed by inside toilets and bathrooms.
Farm work also changed in the 1900’s horses were replaced by tractors which pulled the new ploughs, seed drills were also designed to be pulled by the tractor and combine harvesters began to collect the crops. This meant however that some of the farm labourers and the extra people needed at harvest time were no longer needed. The men were found work in the new mines, such as Ansley and Haunchwood, which were being established as the Warwickshire coal seam was discovered. This work could not have been more different to the outdoor life on the farms as my maternal great granddad found out, the varied working hours revolved around the seasons on the farm and women would take their husbands lunch and join them in the fresh air. When in the mines, lunch was taken in “snap” tins and eaten whilst down the mine amidst all the dust.
The lighting in the mines began with only candles, later Davy lamps fuelled by oil were used by people like my grandads and lights with small battery packs that could be attached to their belts were in use after that. My maternal grandad also bred canaries to be used down the mine, these were used because they could detect the gas sooner than a man, thereby saving many lives.
My Father and uncle and many more like them were forced to look for work further afield, they went to work at Caultaulds in Coventry, others went to work in the car industry. This meant longer hours away from home, dad had to get up at 4.30am to be at work for 6am and didn’t get home until about 6pm.
Today 2013 we hear that the last of the local mines has closed bringing several years of mining history in the area to an end, along with the loss of the brick and tile factories and the silk ribbon weaving of the 1800’s. It could be argued that Nuneaton’s industry has systematically been destroyed over the years by government intervention.
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