Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

History Revisited - flypaper and chip heaters

Each period of New England life has had its own rhythms. Last week, I told a story from New England’s Aboriginal past, the week before I mentioned Masyln Williams’ evocative picture of Tablelands’ life during the 1920s.

Reading Williams reminded me of two things from my own past, things that older Armidale residents will remember that have now largely vanished.

Armidale has always had a problem with flies, both the blowfly and the common housefly. Hiking though the paddocks with the 2ndArmidale scouts (I still don’t know what happened to 1st Armidale!), the blowflies used to gather, attracted by the salt in the sweat that soaked our shirts under the packs we carried. Looking forward while walking in file, each scout carried his own crowd of flies hovering around the pack, diving to settle on the sweaty patches exposed as the pack moved.

As an aside, I had assumed that the blowfly was an Australian pest. Apparently not. It appears that the sheep blowfly arrived in Australia from South Africa in the mid to late 1800s, causing a major outbreak of fly strike in many areas in 1897.

The fly position in town was worse. Very few houses then had fly screens, doors and windows were always open in summer, allowing flies to congregate inside. What to do? Well, flypaper was one answer. This was a longish thin strip of paper coated with a sticky substance, sometimes impregnated with poison such as arsenic. This impregnation featured in two famous British murder trials where the accused was alleged to have soaked the fly paper in water to extract the arsenic for later nefarious use.

Hung from the ceiling or from an often begrimed dangling light shade, the flypaper was hardly an attractive sight. For that reason among others, it went out of fashion, despite its sometimes effectiveness in attracting and killing flies.

The second vanished item was far more attractive.

Many Australian places and especially in the country, had no access to gas or electricity. Water for bathing had to be heated on the stove and then carried to the bath or tub. This world was captured in a nostalgic poem by Mary Gilmore, The Saturday Tub. There, standing in a line by the fire, the children take their turn

To stand in tub the size of a churn,
It was, 'where's the flannel?" and, "Mind the soap!"
Slither and slide, and scuffle and grope

Despite Mary Gilmore’s childhood nostalgia, the process was very time consuming. An Australian invention from around the 1880s came to the rescue, one that took advantage of the relative availability of wood. This was the chip heater.

The cylindrical heater included a fire box that was fed with paper, pine cones and chips from the woodheap. Water circulated through the firebox, providing a supply of hot water for bath or shower.

Many older Australians have nostalgic memories of the chip heater drawn from child hood. We had one for a brief period when I was young, and there was an immense thrill in being allowed to light it and then feed the fire! They could be cranky and noisy, but they were also fun.

By the 1960s, the spread of electricity as well as water heated from slow combustion stoves had destroyed the market. The chip heater went the way of fly paper, leaving just memories behind.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 10 October 2012. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012 (Belshaw's World), 2012 (History Revisited).

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