Monday morning. Betty is hanging out the washing in the garden of her new semi-detached house. The garden is just bare earth, with a flagstone path down one side, next to the clothes line. The house stands in a row of identical semis, their long gardens divided by wire netting fences. At the bottom of the gardens there is open country, even though the new street is not far from the town centre, and already on a bus route. Betty’s little girl, not yet two years old, is standing by the French windows of their living room, nose pressed against the glass, tears rolling down her face.
Betty and her husband Arthur and little daughter have just moved into the house after eighteen months of hell – seven adults and a child living in a small council house – number 99, Hughes Avenue. Redundancy had brought them back to Wolverhampton, their home town, and they had been living with Betty’s parents and brothers while Arthur looked for work, and somewhere to live. Luckily pattern-makers were in demand and he got a new job quite quickly. Then he found out about a new estate being built on the other side of the town, and went to have a look. Arthur and Betty signed up to buy one of the smaller and cheaper semis, for £1,750. It seemed like a massive sum, and they could not imagine how they would pay it back, but they were desperate to get out of the madness of no. 99.
When they got the keys to the new house they decided that Arthur would move in first to light fires and warm the place up before Betty and the little girl arrived. But Betty could not face another day of listening to her parents and brothers rowing and singing and playing the piano while she tried to get the little one off to sleep. So she jumped into a taxi with her daughter and drove across town to the new house. All they had with them was a small case with their clothes, and the child’s doll and teddy bear. An astonished Arthur walked down the drive to meet them as they got out of the taxi, and Betty fell into his arms, while the little girl kept repeating ‘Lynda’s new house’ as if she was trying to make sense of the sudden change of scene.
The house was freezing cold and they only had orange boxes to sit on, but they were so happy to have their own place. Lynda had learnt to talk early – with so many adults chatting with her all day long this was not surprising – she even knew all the nursery rhymes by heart. But her walking was still a bit wobbly. One night she walked confidently across the room from her mother to her father as they sat perched on the boxes. This seemed to confirm that they had made the right decision. They needed reassurance, because nobody else in their families had ever borrowed money to buy a house.
They settled into a routine. At 7am Arthur and the other men in the street would leave for the factories, with their sandwiches in a knapsack over their shoulders. Betty would stand in the bay window of her new and empty front room with her little girl in her arms, watching them stride down the unmade road. Then she would set about the housework. On Mondays it was washing, of course. The aim was to get it all out on the line as early as possible, and certainly before the other women in the street. Getting the washing out early was a measure of respectability. So on Mondays she laboured over the washing machine in a cloud of steam, and then pushed the clothes through the ringer. It was hard work, made harder by the need to keep an eye on the child at the same time. She had learnt from experience it was no good shutting Lynda in the living room with the fireguard up and her teddy bear and doll and telling her to play nicely. As soon as the door was closed the little girl started to scream, so the only solution was to leave the serving hatch between the two rooms open, so that she could still see her mother and keep up a steady stream of chatter.
When Betty went outside to hang out the washing it was more difficult. Lynda became inconsolable, as if the glass separating her from her mother was an ocean she could not cross. So for the whole of their first year in the new house Monday mornings were a drama, a tragedy. Then Arthur had an idea. They had no money to buy toys for the child, so he had started to make things for her – a stool for her to sit on, and a wooden cot for her doll and teddy. He was planning a dolls’ house for Christmas and had already chosen the house he would model it on – a big detached place, round the corner from their semi. But for now he would make a miniature clothes line for Lynda. It was a great success. The little girl had her own washing to do now, immersing her doll’s clothes in an enamel bowl of soapy water on a stool, while the doll was tossed onto an old groundsheet, neglected. Then she had to hang the washing out, with clothes pegs, just like Mommy.
Imogen Taylor says
The clothes pegs theme brilliant situates such vividly compelling childhood memories. Like you (though 8 years older) my early years were spent in a life seemingly dominated by domestic tasks and routines and even though my Mother Mary (who aspired to be an artist) emotionally resisted them, neglecting them was not an option – there were simply not enough clothes for them to sit in a heap, unwashed or un- ironed. Furthermore, respectability was a dominant norm, even in the faces of left-wing politics.
Thank you so much for these very interesting reflections on women’s lives in Britain in the period Imogen – despite differences of class (perhaps?) and aspirations, the shared necessity and constraint of domestic work.
Karen Birt says
So evocative of that time and place. My parents also moved into a new build semi with a garden they had to landscape themselves. My grandad helped my father to build the garage and I remember the day the concrete driveway was poured. Of course a cat walked over it before it was dry!
Lyn Thomas says
Thank you very much Karen. Two things strike me – the huge importance for our parents’ generation of the move into home ownership, and the absolute assumption that any work that needed doing – laying a concrete drive, building a shed, decorating – would be ‘Do it yourself’ sometimes with the help of family members. And of course the gendered division of labour – all of this was men’s work….
Crazora Kurti says
Very nice blog it was very interesting. I like to read such types of blogs. Please keep posting I am always here to listen you.
Lyn Thomas says
Thank you Crazora – I am very glad to read this.
Christina Daniels says
Hello my parents also arrived in Hughes Avenue number 52 ish in my memory , some time after my sister had been born In Middlesbrough 1945 my Mom’s home town….so they left her parents to live with my dad’s parents as he was also looking for work. By the time I arrived though in 1949 they were settled in one of those tin houses (prefabs) put up as emergency housing in Bushbury…the promise was they were for 10 years but they are still standing and loved..
Lyn Thomas says
What a coincidence about Hughes Avenue! I also remember prefabs and lived in one for the first year of my life! Thank you so much for all your comments Christina. It’s nice to know this has reached someone from Wolves!