Give me a home among the gum trees, with lots of plum trees. A sheep or two and a kangaroo. A clothesline out the back, verandah in the front. And an old rocking chair – song by John Williamson
The idea of the little home among the trees sounds very romantic but for the members of Orange Oral History group there was little romance about the days before sewerage, hot running water, washing machines, refrigeration and air conditioning.
Houses were pretty basic in our childhoods, often with a long hallway leading to the kitchen and living room with a bedroom on either side.
The bathroom, if it existed, was quite often on the back verandah and the bath was probably a tin tub which had to be filled with hot water by those who hoped to have a bath.
“When I was a child we lived just out of Lithgow right underneath Hassan’s Walls,” said Mick. “There was no electricity and no running water.”
“The kids’ job was to go down to the well, get the water to fill the 44-gallon drums in the yard where the women washed the clothes in a copper.”
The filling of the bath with hot water was a mammoth task and it was not surprising that when water was in short supply – most of the time in some cases – the entire family took it in turns with the same bath water.
“I was youngest of six girls,” Pauline told us, “and I had the last use of the bath water. It wasn’t very clean by the time I got to it.”
We gasped in horror at this but her story was almost topped by Elma, who was a young teacher boarding in a small country town.
“There was only enough water for one bath”, she said. “Luckily I went first, followed by the children and lastly mum and dad had a turn.”
For those of us fortunate enough to have enough water to have a bath all to ourselves, there was still the difficulty of heating it.
Sometimes this was done by boiling water in the copper and transferring it to the bath, which could be a tricky and dangerous exercise.
We had heard that snakes were attracted to music so my mother, who played the violin, would stand outside playing in an attempt to distract the snakes away from their lair.Pauline
Others endured the horrors of the chip bath heater which seemed to be always on the verge of blowing up.
This was nothing, according to Rosemary, whose family were the proud owners of a kerosene bath heater which, she said, seemed to operate by a series of little explosions and was “absolutely terrifying.”
Joan, who was nursing at Prince Alfred Hospital during WWII, remembers kerosene as being in great demand.
“It was used a great deal for refrigerators and heaters and for the lanterns the nurses used at night,” she said.
“Everything was done by lantern light. We refilled them last thing at night and would pick them up again the next night before going on duty.”
The un-sewered toilet was the subject of more discussion. This obviously was a considerable distance from the house, often covered by honeysuckle vines and very likely house snakes and spiders waiting for the unsuspecting occupant.
“We had heard that snakes were attracted to music,” said Pauline, “so my mother, who played the violin, would stand outside playing in an attempt to distract the snakes away from their lair.”
This uplifting vision of Pauline’s mother encouraged us to move away from the basics to a discussion of toilet paper, which was mostly cut squares of newspaper hanging on a nail. John pointed out that old phone books were also very popular.
Although the first washing machine was introduced by Thor in 1917, it was rare for anyone in our group to have one until at least the 1950s.
Consequently, in our childhoods and early married lives, women slaved over coppers and mangles and hung washing on wires strung across the yard and held up by clothes props.
Parents today have expressed anxiety about their children becoming addicted to electronic devices in the solitude of their own rooms.
This, of course, was not a problem in our youth when we not only had no such distraction, but it was common to share a room with several siblings, and often to share a bed.
“Three of us shared a bed,” said Barbara. “The trouble was it was a kapok mattress and during the night we would all slide down into the middle.”
When it came to preserving food people in those days had drip safes, or Coolgardie safes as they were known. As its name suggests, the safe was invented in the 1890s in Coolgardie and was simply a wire box draped in hessian through which water seeped.
It was usually placed in a draughty spot in the house as John remembered when the family lived in a very primitive house at one stage in his childhood.
But in remembering the houses we lived in, it was not all doom and gloom. Because we knew no better we didn’t miss the modern conveniences we have today.
Wonderful memories were conjured up of mealtimes around a big family table, of the laughter when we did all end up in the middle of a sagging bed and especially of sitting in front of a big open fire where quite often there was an inglenook, which was a space right inside the big hearth where a small child could sit and gaze into the flames and dream great thoughts. They were indeed happy days.
- ‘History Talking’ is a monthly column submitted to the Central Western Daily