When I dig around in my tin of old photos I find a picture of my brother – just a toddler at the time – standing in the kitchen sink to be washed. In 1940s Britain this would have been a typical scene in many houses as few had indoor bathrooms, with the only running water being a cold supply to the kitchen sink. Perhaps an gas-fired Ascot water heater would provide a little hot water, but for many families the only way to heat a large amount of water – enough for a bath – would have been to put a large copper pan over a coal fire to heat it up. The water, once heated, would be poured into a tin bath that would be taken down from its hook on the outside wall of the house and placed into the middle of the kitchen. Imagine how much work! The water would be shared by each family member, and then, once the children and/or adults were washed clean the water would have to be emptied.
And it wasn’t only the physically demanding work involved with the filling and emptying of the galvanised tin bath that created hardship for 1940s families. In February 1942 soap was rationed – ensuring that much-needed oils and fats could be used instead for food. Every kind of soap was affected:
One coupon would yield:
- 4 oz (113 g) bar hard soap
- 3 oz (85 g) bar toilet soap
- 1⁄2 oz (14 g) No. 1 liquid soap
- 6 oz (170 g) soft soap
- 3 oz (85 g) soap flakes
- 6 oz (170 g) powdered soap
And when the war ended in 1945, the soap ration was reduced still further and it wasn’t until September 1950 that soap finally came off ration.
To make matters worse, in March 1942, coal was rationed – making it even more difficult to heat large quantities of water. Coal rationing continued until the late 1950s as Britain struggled with devastating weather events and economic crises.
No wonder then that many people chose to use the public baths or wash-houses, which were available in almost every town. Here’s a report from one person in her late twenties, arriving in London in 1948 after military service in India and Burma:
‘I found a public Baths building – after queuing for an hour got a good hot bath for 6d.’Austerity Britain by David Kynaston
Clearly it was a popular choice – how many of us now would be prepared to queue for an hour for a bath?!