I often wonder about life in the rows of terrace houses that housed the workers of Hunslets’ factories. At the time, many if not most would be employed as highly skilled engineers in the myriad of factories. Even if not among the ranks of skilled machine operators, they were likely to be involved in the uncomfortable and arduous if not down right dangerous support industries such as forges, glass producers, collieries or railways and the like.
Hunslet is at one end of the worlds oldest commercial railway: Middleton Railway. Coal was brought from Middleton colliery to be offloaded at the Hunslet Coal Staiths and distributed from there. There was a link to the massive goods yards at Balm Road and Stourton where my father worked for a time. Stourton now houses a massive container base. The railway is operated now by a dedicated group of volunteers and gives a fascinating if not awe-inspiring view into the past industrial glories of the nations past.
There were row upon row of back to back, or in the case of our house, backless, homes. The majority of these by far would open their front doors directly onto a stone flagged footpath outside and a cobbled road. Our street must have been pre-Roman since we had not been furnished with the cobbles! They would face directly onto their neighbours on the opposite side of the street and on washing day, tradition says Monday, the street would be crisscrossed with washing lines strung from side to side. The line would be supported by wooden props in the middle of the road. The occasions, extremely rare, that a vehicle came along the street would be a precursor to many groans and steely looks from the vexed housewives who would venture into the street to hold the washing up, sometimes with the help of the prop so the offending vehicle could pass through. I am sure the rent collectors or whoever else could afford road vehicles would have wished they had parked further away and walked.
I was too young at the time to recognise some of the anomalies of life in the streets. Most residents would keep them and their families as clean and tidy as was possible given the constrictions of poor utilities. However, one thing has, for want of a better description ‘gnawed’ at me for many years. To put this in context of the times, remember this was the nineteen forties and fifties men came home expecting food to be available and after food was time to rest until the pubs would welcome them. It was the habit of the ‘housewife’ in very many cases to throw food that was left on the plates, or excess food (not that there would be much of either) onto the cobbled street. For many years, I thought it was a love of the wildlife that prompted this behaviour. Now I think back and remember the general squalor of the place. There would be flocks of feral pigeons strutting all over the place taking as much food as was possible to eat without causing flight difficulties. They of course left behind their ‘calling cards’. But, and I rush to say, I never to my knowledge saw one, there must have been a population of rats that was fed better and were more healthy than many of their human landlords. The opportunities for rats and other rodents to choose a well supplied existence must have been just about endless. Beginning with the dark cellars which allowed access from house to house through all sorts of nooks and crannies, roof spaces which were elevated versions of the cellars and less likely to be disturbed by human visitors and ending with outside toilets with open access to the sewer system.
Baths involved either the indignity of sitting in a galvanised tub in front of the fire. In the romanticised view shown on many current day television shows, the water would be brimming to overflow and topped off with another six inches of bubbles. All the hot water available had to be heated in a kettle and,or pan on the range or the two ring gas burner so if you wanted a bath ‘today’, reality was three or four inches of tepid water and I have yet to know anyone who managed to get any kind of lather with carbolic soap. Carbolic soap was the generic, utilitarian red block that would shatter toes if dropped. It was used for everything from washing the floor, the people who walked on the floor and the clothes the people wore. Wash houses and baths were available for public use but not at the end of every street.
Washing in my house involved the use of a barrel-shaped, galvanised tub and a washing board, both of these items would later find imaginative use as musical instruments in the days of skiffle groups. The clothes would be dropped into the tub and agitated with a poss, a kind of upturned sieve attached to the end of a stick which would be plunged up and down in the tub. The washing would be lifted from the boiling water with a stick that was called a dolly and dropped into the sink for rinsing. White clothes would be rinsed with a chemical additive that would add a blue hue, the originator of ‘the blue whitener’. The washing would be rung out, no spin drier available of course, and hung on the washing line in the street. Of course, teamwork was sometimes required for larger items such as blankets and sheets, so neighbours would be called upon to hold and twist the other end to wring the item as dry as possible! Finally, crossed fingers for no rain and the forlorn hope of no smoky fires.
Of course there were some items that needed ironing. No electric, the iron was a lump of iron or steel that was shaped roughly the same as a modern high-tech electric one but there the similarity ends. They did a good job, as long as it was not too hot when it was gingerly lifted off the source of external heat which could be the side of the range or the top of the gas ring. The user had to lift the iron with a handle that was welded to the base and had no insulation to protect the hands so ironing involved using a thick cloth to wrap around the handle. If steam was required, splashing the material with water was the only option no plastic water sprays in those days! We still have two or three of these irons around the house, they make good door stops!
At this point I think it is time to mention the chemical works at the bottom of our street. My most vivid recollection was to walk from the front door of my home and immediately start coughing. There was no way to mitigate the cough, the aggravation at the back of my throat was all-powerful. Hunslet was a smoky place at the best of times, but I came to recognise that if the wispy, dark brown-yellow coloured smoke was issuing from the chemical plant, I would cough. I would later understand that this was a by-product of the plants’ production of sulphuric acid. Although Sulphuric acid has numerous industrial uses and was the basis for many batteries, it is a very hazardous material. It is extremely corrosive and must be handled with care. The HASAWA (Health and Safety ay Work Act) had not yet come into being and obviously manufacturers and employers did what they needed to do to make a profit. That was about it! The acrid output from the many flues and chimneys was acceptable as long as people did not drop dead. The acid was carried about on public roads in glass carbouys seated in a straw bed inside a metal cage. If the vehicle was involved in an accident, there was a good chance of leakage. There was talk of one accident where the driver of one of these vehicles was soaked in concentrated sulphuric acid and suffered an agonising death.
At some time during the nineteen sixties, a large car dealer took over part of the Laporte site and began to park vehicles on it. Most of the vehicles were new cars awaiting sale or delivery. After a time, it became apparent that fallout from the adjoining factory was causing major problems to the paintwork. New cars needing paint jobs! Later, after production ceased at the plant, cars were still experiencing issues as tyres were being badly damaged by the acid content of the ground they were parked on. We were breathing in this fallout! Incidentally, it appears that the nearest the Nazi bombers came to hitting a target near my home, before I was born but while my family were resident, was a hit at the edge of the Laporte plant. I am unaware of any casualties but Hitler might have, with better technology, inadvertently saved many Hunslet residents from lung problems!