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Posted on 3 Feb, 2017 in The Godfather: Peter Corris | 5 comments

The Godfather: Peter Corris: old school

Recently I happened to listen to our washing machine going through its paces and my mind went back to clothes washing when I was a kid. Our house in Yarraville had a wash-house, not a laundry, and my mother washed in an electric copper, which heated the water. She agitated the clothes with a thick stick, the end of which became soft and mushy. She put a knob of Reckitt’s Blue into the wash for whitening and passed the clothes through a wringer, worked by hand, into a basket.

The wash-house was built of unlined asbestos sheets and was fiercely hot in summer and freezing in winter.

The clothes were then hung out on two lines formed by two posts about 20 yards apart (no metres then) with two movable arms that allowed the lines to be set high and low.

Another primitive device at the time was the ice-box. This was a chest into which the food was stacked in the lower compartment while a large chunk of ice sat in an aluminium compartment above. The ice kept the food cool until the iceman arrived with a new block wrapped in hessian. I think this happened weekly, by which time the original block had melted away.

Dishes were washed in the kitchen sink by hand. A cake of soap was held in a small wire cage at the end of a handle and this was swished around in the water to provide cleaning power. The dishes and cutlery were dried immediately and put away. Washing up was a two-person job. A plastic drying rack came rather later.

The lavatory (not the toilet) was flushed by pulling a chain; bathwater was heated by a chip heater – I’ve long forgotten how it operated. The bathroom floor was linoleum, not tiles.

The wireless, not the radio, wasn’t wireless at all because it had to be plugged into a power socket. There it sat – big, brown, immovable – with a kind of mesh over the speaker and a large, greenish illuminated dial.

The telephone had pride of place on a table seen immediately on entering the house. It was a big, black, heavy affair made, I think, of a substance called Bakelite. There was a finger dial and the number was a two-letter prefix followed by four digits.

We had no car in Yarraville but I remember my father starting the one we had earlier in Stawell with a crank handle.

I don’t remember how the grass was cut (we spoke of cutting the grass rather than mowing the lawn) in Yarraville, but I do remember it when we moved to a south-eastern suburb, because it was my job. At first I laboured through it with a heavy cast-iron monster it took all my strength to push. Later a lighter version was supplied, which was luxury. By the time a motor mower appeared, my father, a lover of all things motorised, took over the job himself.

In a far corner of the back yard stood the incinerator – a large oil drum mounted on bricks with a hole cut low down in front for the draft. Here my father burnt leaves, other garden waste and some household rubbish. The burner was close to two paling fences but the garden hose was kept close at hand and there were no disasters. All totally illegal now, but then global warming hadn’t been heard of, although it was underway.

Did these relics put us more in touch with the earthy realities of life than modern push-button devices? Possibly, but I harbour no affection for them; they were tedious to use and time-consuming. But in some ways I’m old school – I prefer hanging clothes on a line to using the drier.


  1. I recall similar experiences in the early 50s. Washing in the first half of the century was a full day’s work. The electric copper was top of the line: the old chip heater in the bathroom and underneath the copper took some time to crank up. A clothes ringer attached to outside tubs is another fragment that remains with me. My mother, who came from the city to Lismore, had 6 kids and was an early adopter of a washing machine – Bendix(?) – in the 50s but it used to bounce around on the wooden floor. My father-in-law still used to have his cotton underpants starched into the late 50s. I haven’t seen Leah Purcell’s portrayal of the ‘The Drover’s Wife’ but these women had to kick arse in the old days!

  2. You could be describing my childhood. The copper made the laundry a bit like a very hot tropical day, my mother seemed to spend the whole of Monday in there. I am glad that today I press a button to start the washing machine and then go away and do something else, but I also like to hang the washing on the more modern version of a clothesline. My mother would get down on her hands and knees to scrub the floors, who would want to return to that.
    Now in my 60s and having had a number of joint replacements I am very grateful that life has moved on.

  3. Peter – we are clearly of the same generation. Other memories from the era were the daily deliveries of milk and bread by horse and cart and my father scooping up the horse poo to fertilise the garden. I hope he never used it on the vegie patch. Also by horse and cart came the clothes props man. The props propped up the clothes line which were wires strung across the yard attached to fenceposts. Adults had to be careful not to garotte themselves which moving to the back of the yard. Hills Hoist rotary lines eventually sent them the way of the dinosaurs too. And of course the sound of roosters crowing around the neighbourhood in the early morn.

    And yes I agree the sudden explosion of labor saving devices during the fifties were a blessing especially for our mothers. Washing machines replacing coppers, cement troughs and hand turned wringers, or mangles as some called them. Vacuum cleaners delivered women from endless sweeping, refrigerators from the messy iceboxes and for Dads it was motorised lawn mowers, electric drills and shavers. Like you the labour saving devices were a godsend but have added to coal driven electricity usage and hence global warming. And I do miss the early morn sounds of roosters crowing and the clip clop of the delivery cart horses’ hooves on the road outside our house.

  4. Oh goodness that brought a lot of memories back, Peter. The outhouse with the horrid wooden seat and no nice soft toilet paper – we had pages from the phone book slung on a nail.Dad had a friend who owned the local iceworks & I remember being fascinated at the water sent gushing out to fill the metal boxes – like making giant iceblocks. My friend and I used to sneak out the window at dawn in our pj’s and go on the milky’s cart – did it for months till we got caught! And while we waited for the bus home from town we could watch through the window of the dairy at the production line of bottles being given their foil tops. And for Christmas we used the strips of red, green, silver and gold holey foil to decorate the tree. Happy memories. Except for the toilet thing

  5. Ah Peter – memories, memories. How you stir them. Standing with Mum on Mondays (before I started school) in the laundry – yes we called it a laundry – watching her go through the whole process – first boiling in the copper, then using the wooden proper to transfer the steaming clothes into the troughs for soaking and rinsing, transferring ‘whites’ into the second trough for ‘bluing’ which apparently was to ‘whiten’ the whites. I never understood the logic of that language even as a four year old. Then my mother labouring on the wringer to ‘dryen’ the clothes, then heaving the half wet mess into a laundry basket to be carried out to the clothes lines – like yours upheld with the clothes props (did you have clothes props man in your neighbourhood?) and hung out to dry using the wooden ‘dolly’ pegs which my brothers fashioned into guns toys being acquired only on birthdays and at Christmas.

    My mother performed these herculean tasks – even in mid summer – until 1952 when my parents – thank heavens – bought a washing machine. This was soon followed by a vacuum cleaner, an electric lawn mower, a Sunbeam mixmaster, a refrigerator, an automatic roller iron (not a great success), a car that didn’t need to be cranked to start, a TV set (1957) and – when I reached early adolescence at my insistence – a hair dryer. The ’50’s was certainly the decade of the development and spread of the electric labor saving devices. One of the better legacies of the era which has continued unabated ever since. But, as my grandmother often reminded me, everything has its price. As our level of comfort has grown so has global warming and pollution. Ah well!

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