Few working class families ever had visitors who came to stay except when there was a wedding or a funeral. When they did arrive they were given the better bedroom, and were expected to wash themselves in the bedroom, using a wash-basin and jug. In some houses these utensils stood on a marble-topped wash-stand, known locally as a “wash-hand-stand.” Poorer families borrowed a jug and basin from a neighbour. In a soap-dish was a piece an inch thick, cut with a knife from a 3d bar of “best soap.” A boy was once sent to a grocer’s shop in the village, and said to the shopkeeper, “mi Mam sez, con shay ev the money back on this bar o’ soap, cuz er viziters dint cum?”
A male visitor would be provided with a shaving mug filled with hot water, and a small piece of the same “best-soap,” in the receptacle at the top of the mug. He would also be lent a strop to sharpen his hollow-ground razor, known as a “cut-throat.”
The Front Room
This part of the dwelling was used only occasionally. Villagers always liked to have something in reserve, and distinguished between “working things,” and “best things.” This applied to “working clothes,” and “best clothes;” “working boots,” and “best boots;” “ordinary pots,” and “the best pots;” “the house,” and “the front room.”
The room was set aside for festive occasions, especially Christmas, Easter, the Wakes, weddings and baptisms. Relatives gathered sorrowfully round the coffin in the room when there was a death in the family. When visitors came, they were entertained in the front room. The only exception to this rule was on a wet washday, when the “house” was festooned with damp clothing, and the family had to take refuge in the better room.
A typical front room had a small black iron fireplace, with a cupboard on one side, and a shelf on the other. In the middle of the room was a deal table covered with a table-cloth, and the best oil-lamp standing on it. One lady, describing the home of her childhood, said, “mi Dad’s grandfather clock and best woodin cheer wor in theer, which ‘im an’ Uncle Sam carried from Segruf or sumweer. As this got to Sileby, somebody shouted out, ‘ay, eent yo gorra watch?”
The room might contain an old couch donated by some other villager, “yo con ev it fer nowt, ef yer’ll cum an gerrit.” Poorer people were proud to possess a couch covered with woven black horse-hair, even if the stuffing was bursting out in places. A well worn couch could be uncomfortable, because the stiff projecting horse-hairs pricked the skin through thin clothing.
The bare floor-boards were covered here and there with home-made pegged rugs.
The back room of a “two up and two down” cottage was the living-room, but was always called “the house.” Here the family lived, cooked, ate their meals and washed themselves. There was no unnecessary furniture in the room, because a large family occupied much of the space. For example: “In the centre was a scrubbed-top table, which on special occasions was covered with a green cloth. There were seeral wooden chairs; father had one with a high back, and curved arms, and mother’s chair had the legs out short to assist her when nursing the babies, and was called ;the low chair.’ Also a small side-table.” This seems to have been a typical living-room, as “theer wornt room fer owt else when way wor all in it.” On one was a frame with a verse printed in silver letters on black paper:
“A Sabbath well spent, brings a week of content
And peace with the gains of the morrow.
But a Sabbath profaned, what else may be gained,
Is a certain forerunner of sorrow.”
The upper rooms were even more sparsely furnished, containing a bed and a chest of drawers.
The bedstead, painted yellow; with a wood-grain, and “a knob on each corner,” was bought from a second-hand shop, or inherited from some poor deceased relative. Many people slept on straw palliasse, “as hard as a board,” and often the residing place of troublesome parasites which had prodigious leaping powers. “When thi burnt thi owd straw bed, yo ed to stand clear, or ywd bi covered wi flays.” “way uster tek ar dug ter bed wi us ter kep us warm. Ay wor full o’ flays, but as way ed as many as ay ed, it dint marra.”
There was a wardrobe. Clothes hung from nails at the back of the door. Best hats were kept in a tin box under the bed.
One family, “weer the gels wor wukin” and a little money was available, tried to persuade their father to have some “lino” on his bedroom floor, but he preferred the bare boards, stating that “lino” was “cowd t’the fate.”
Victorian home life seemed to be centred on the black iron fireplace, in which a fire burned summer and winter. It warmed “the house,” cooked the food, heated water and aired the clothes.
When cooking, saucepans were placed on the grate and tins or earthenware utensils in the oven . Food was placed on the hob to keep warm. When cooking in the oven, the poker was used to move the coals to the left side, so that maximum heat might be obtained. This was effective for stewing and roasting, but as there was not an even distribution of heat, it was difficult to cook pastries in quantity. In Sileby they used to say that mince pies which were furthest away from the fire came out of the oven “white-faced.” Rice puddings would boil over, and salt was then sprinkled on the bottom of the oven to clean it.
On the right side of the fire was the boiler , which was filled with water from a bucket, or a large jug, after raising the lid. The hot water was drawn off by a polished brass tap. Few houses used the boiler for this purpose, because the interior became rusty, and red-brown water which came out of the tap was not fit for household use. The boiler was generally used for drying sticks to light the fire, but when the fire was burning well, the boiler became so hot, the sticks began to smoulder, and filled the house with smoke and fumes. Under both the oven and the boiler were spaces for hot ashes to increase the heat, and when the fireplace was being cleaned, the cold ashes were raked out by removing the two plates . To control the smoke, there was a metal dust-preventer between the grate and the chimney, which could be adjusted backwards and forwards.
The ironwork of the fireplace was polished with pumbago, a form of graphite, commonly known as black-lead. A knob of black-lead could be bought for ½d from a grocer or ironmonger. It was crushed, then mixed with water or some other fluid, until a thin black paste was obtained. This was then applied to the fireplace with a brush. It dried almost immediately, leaving the surface dull, but when polished vigorously with a special curved brush, the ironwork shone like a black mirrow. Friday was “black-leadin’ day.” Many houses had a steel fender, which was rubbed regularly every week with emery-paper to give it a gleaming finish.
The bricks at the back of the fireplace were painted with pitch obtained from the Sileby Gas House. Most people gave the bricks a polished appearance by the use of black-lead.
The bricks of the hearth were scrubbed, then painted with red roddle. The idea probably originated at the brickyard, as this substance was used there for staining bricks during their manufacture. It was also employed for marking sheep. Roddle could be purchased from an ironmonger by the place, and looked like a lump of rough red chalk. After crushing, it was mixed in a bucket by hand, until, up to the elbow, “yo wor all uver roddle.” The hearth was painted with the red fluid, which dried giving a clean but dull powdery surface to the bricks. Red roddle was used also to paint doorsteps and windowsills.
Before 1900, most of the smaller houses in the village were not supplied with gas. The “house” was illuminated at night by a candle, or an oil lamp. Although candles were cheap at 3d per dozen, some of the poor villagers made their own from string and mutton fat. “Muttin canduls” were not very satisfactory, as they spluttered, and burnt quickly and unevenly. Many houses had two lamps. The best one had a polished reflector. In Sileby, it was the practice to drop a moth ball into the oil to make the lamp burn brighter.
New bedroom furniture in 1890, as illustrated here, cost £6.5.0. Beds were sold separately. A full sized bedstead cost 10s 6d, and a wool bed to fit, was also 10s 6d. A new straw palliasse was priced at 9s 6d in Leicester. A kitchen table cost 7s 6d, cane chairs 2s 6d each, and Windsor chairs, 2s 9d. When these prices are compared with a weekly wage of 15s, it is seen that furniture was dear from the view of the labouring man, and he had to put his home together the best way he could. Some people never had a piece of new furniture as long as they lived.
(the writing in italics is the way Sileby people talk)
All information came from the magazine 'Bygone Sileby'.