Wartime memories of Farnborough Kent children


by John Riches. 2005.

Germans or no Germans, Mondays was always Washday in Farnborough during the war. Washing then was hard physical work for women. As our parents couldn’t afford the luxury of sending our dirty washing to the Limes Laundry on the opposite side of the High Street from our cottage in Pleasant View, they had to wash their families’ clothes themselves.

Behind our semi-detached cottage a brick built lean-to with a corrugated “tin” roof served as a scullery for both tiny homes. In its middle stood a brick built stove with a tall tubular chimney protruding through the roof into the open air. Embedded in the top of this stove stood a very large copper basin complete with wooden lid. During the week my Mum would walk in the woods near our home and collect twigs and sticks and bring them home in a bodge or trug – like wooden baskets. They were dried in our shed next to the chicken run for a few days. On washdays Mum would half fill the copper with cold water drawn from our solitary tap, place scarce newspaper under the copper and then pile the sticks on top. Once the fire was lit the flaming wood heated the copper and it wasn’t long before the water inside was boiling away merrily.

Once old Mrs Owen had moved into next-door after the roof of her house at 34 High Street had collapsed one day, she would have first turn at washing her clothes – including those she took in to wash for other people. By the time she had finished, the water appeared very dirty and it was my Mum’s turn! Our clothes were pushed into the boiling cauldron and swirled and pummelled with a long dolly stick that had been used for so long that its wooden end was frayed. After being left to boil away for a while so that the soap flakes used as the cleaning agent could take effect they were pulled out with a pair of wooden laundry tongs and dumped in a large metal basin. Remember – detergent powders and plastic bowls hadn’t been invented back then in the 1940’s. Mum inspected the hot washing in the bowl and anything that still looked grubby was pushed back into the water and the soiled parts rubbed vigorously with a large block of green Fairy washing soap or if we could get it from the shop down the village, the Co-op’s own brand as that was cheaper.

Perhaps it was the tablet of blue contained in a muslin bag that she had popped into the wash that did it, but amazingly the washing that came out of that apparently filthy water was gleaming. The clothes were left to cool and then Mum wrung them by hand to remove as much water as she possibly could. Old Mrs Owen had a mangle, a large cast iron machine with two six-inch diameter wooden rollers. By turning a handle the rollers rotated and the washing was passed through squeezing out much of the excess water. Some people even owned a more modern wringer that had smaller rubber coated rollers. But Mum reckoned that she could wring more of the water out of her clothes by hand than Mrs Owen could with her mangle. And she didn’t smash a lot of the buttons up either.

Clothes for grown-ups were not too much of a problem because most had some bought in pre-war years that could be worn again and again and again. But for we children it was much more difficult as we were constantly growing and needing new ones. It was a particular problem for me. Even as a young child I was very tall and by sixteen when I finished growing was almost seven feet tall. But that’s another story!

All our clothes back then were made from naturally produced materials such as wool and cotton. Nylon had only recently been invented and ladies stockings made from this new man made wonder material went on sale in the Unites States in 1940. But when the following year the USA entered the war, nylon was needed to make such things as parachutes rather than stockings. But still the rumour went round that American and Canadian stationed in Britain could get hold of nylons – so these troops became very popular with the girls. But there were no Americans around Farnborough so my Mum, who fancied herself as rather glamorous, simply shaved her legs and dyed them a very light brown to simulate nylons. She even went to the trouble of tracing a thin black line down the back of her calf to imitate seams.
  Our Government introduced Utility Clothes in 1942. These were a very limited range designed by top couturiers and made from robust materials that would last. All these clothes, that were supposed to be for rich and poor alike, had the Utility logo printed on their labels. This consisted of two solid black circles with a quarter segment removed so that they looked like two letter ‘C’s with a large figure 41 embedded in the right hand segment. This symbol CC41 quickly entered washday repertoires as “Come Clean For Once.”  

By today' standards we were scruffy, but we knew no different, and our frugalities really helped the war effort. The photo shows John Riches, Donald Curd and Graham Wood FRS and his dog Sally, c. 1946.   Photograph provided by Mrs Doris Curd.

Every person had a clothing ration each year and was issued with a Clothing Coupon Book. Despite air raids and doodlebugs we usually caught the bus into nearby Bromley and spent our clothing ration in the large Co-op Department store in Widmore Road. Casual clothes had yet to be invented. We bought best vests, shirts, shoes, plimsolls and shorts plus a navy blue raincoat and wore them until they were worn. Then they would become casual wear that we used for cricket, football, playing up the fields, climbing trees, helping with the harvest and doing all the things that healthy young boys ought to do. Imagine, by the time I was thirteen I was over six feet tall and had never owned a pair of long trousers, as boys wore shorts until that age! Anoraks, trainers and jeans had not even been thought of as far as we were concerned.

But our Mums and Grannies were resourceful people. Old woollen jumpers were unwound and re-knitted into pullovers and gloves. My Gran darned my worn socks using a large needle and a mushroom shaped implement. Old curtains and unwanted clothes were simply taken to pieces and the material used to make coats, shirts and shorts.

When holes appeared in the soles of our shoes they were repaired. Jack Toms our local snob as we called him, who had a wooden cobbler’s hut on a small piece of land opposite the scouts’ hut repaired shoes for us. His hut dated from just after the First World War when returning troops were provided with buildings such as Jack’s so that they could ply a trade. Jack’s hut always smelled of leather and dye. We would sometimes ask his permission to watch as he placed a worn shoe on his last, ripped the sole off, cut out a piece of stout leather from a large sheet and tacked it onto the shoe with pins he kept between his lips. Then he would securely stitch the new sole to the uppers, dye its edges to match the colour of the shoe and then proudly place his completed work in a large brown paper bag with his customer’s name pencilled on its base. This was then placed on a rack amongst other completed jobs in alphabetical order to await collection. Jack took great pride in his work and one pair of shoes lasted a long time until we’d outgrown them.

By today’s standards we were scruffy, but we knew no different and our frugality really helped the war effort.

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