Our boiler packed up on Wednesday night. We had not noticed until OH tried to run her evening bath. A quick review of the usual reasons for boiler malfunction failed to find a solution, so we fell back on our service contract with British Gas to sort out out the next day. Thursday lunchtime brought the engineer who diagnosed the problem as a failed gas valve, it’s replacement which would have to be sent up overnight. So we have enjoyed two days without central heating or hot water in sub zero temperatures. As I write, the man is fixing it and, I know, people have to put with a lot worse. But what was life like before heating and hot water were so readily available for so many?
If you tell anyone under 30 what it was like to live without such luxuries, they look at you as if you are describing life in the Elizabethan age ( or perhaps not as most people under 30 know so little about basic British history – “I wasn’t born then was I?”) Share your pre-central heating stories with those over 40 and they, in turn, glaze over as you recount the obvious and basic facts of life for most of Britain in the Fifties and Sixties.
But for two days those austere realities returned. Apart from an oil filled radiator (swiftly commandeered by the OH for bathroom use) our only source of heat was the log burning stove. So it was chopping kindling and fetching logs first thing in the morning to get the fire going. No leisurely cups of tea reading the morning papers in your dressing gown, it was dressing quickly as soon as we were out of bed, a strip wash with a kettle of water at the sink rather than a long leisurely shower. The best way to keep warm was to get on with stuff, housework, more wood to chop, sweep up leaves, anything to keep busy. If you could make a “lifestyle choice” to live on benefits in the Fifties and Sixties, you wouldn’t be spending all day of sitting around all day in your pyjamas or pink velour onesie watching daytime TV. We even took a trip to Marple Swimming pool to have a hot shower.
Less than 7% of UK homes do not have central heating these days. I can remember ice on the inside of windows, reluctant night time visits to an outside loo in the backyard during the winter of 1963, the whole family confined to one room with a coal fire then a gas fire and subtle jockeying for position to get warm. Leaving a door open was a capital offence. Homework was tough in winter; to find quiet normally meant being cold. Now, bedrooms are places of escape or haven for people with TV’s , PC’s and heat. Before central heating, who would have considered living open plan or installing laminate flooring rather than fitted carpets.