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

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Cold Comfort of early days

Big day: Opening of the Armidale electricity works in 1922. Even by the early 1950s, many homes did not have access to either electricity or town water.This is the third in a new series on domestic life and the rhythms of childhood  

One of Australian poet Mary Gilmore’s poems is called The Saturday Tub. The poem is a nostalgic look at childhood. The writer, dreaming by the fire, is thrown back where I used to be in eighteen hundred and something three.

The children line up to take their turn in front of a bath the size of a churn. It was, 'where's the flannel?" and, "Mind the soap!" Slither and slide, and scuffle and grope. Clean, they are dried, dressed in a night dress and packed of to bed with a prayer.

Today, we take a hot shower for granted, a necessity to get our day started. We forget how recent this is. Perhaps we only learn this when people start reminiscing.

A hot shower or bath is actually a complex process.. It requires water, a way of heating and transporting the water, a way of disposing of the waste water.

In most of the early town in New England and Southern Queensland water came from local streams, from wells, from the sky as rain stored in tanks. It was in short reply and not always very good.

At Hillgrove where water was always short, run-off from Bracken Street carried filth and rubbish accumulated from homes and businesses down the ridge to form putrid pools. At Inverell, the shallower town cesspits polluted the deeper water wells. In both cases, disease and death resulted.

The newly formed but short of funds municipal councils looked to improve the situation.

In Armidale, the council first developed a well in the market square, but was then forced to look for a bigger solution. The result was the Dumaresq Dam. and the first municipal water supply in 1897. Glen Innes was slower, developing a scheme to pump water from the river in 1918.

Other towns came along in their own way and at their own pace, with water supply depending upon the precise geography of the area as well as available funds. Outside the towns, the small settlements and farming properties remained dependent on tanks, dams and streams.

First gas and then electricity did spread, but the process was slow and variable. Wood remained the dominant fuel for cooking and heating in the towns and countryside and still does in many places.

As late as the early 1950s, some houses in Armidale still had no electricity nor access to town water. Other towns were in a similar position.

At Marsh Street in Armidale where I grew up, we had both electricity and town water. However, wood was still our main fuel. The house well had been filled in, but we had two big tanks, one providing water to the house, the other to the out-door laundry with its big copper and the garden.

In my next column, I will share with you some of the nostalgic memories of the days before hot showers were possible.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 9 May 2018. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017, here 2018 


Johnb said...

Hot water in my parents first house in Oz came from a ‘chip heater’ and amazingly quick to produce hot water it was too. Moving to the Northern Rivers in my independence you came into contact with the Northern Rivers County Council for your electricity supply and what a wonderful organisation it was for bringing electricity to the Bush. The dairy industry was particularly grateful as three phase power allowed for the full mechanisation of the dairy and all that followed on from that. I would imagine on the Tablelands the great beneficiary would be the shearing shed.. most hot water today is heated by Solar Power and showers have replaced baths now a continuous flow of hot water is possible. I can’t remember the last time I had a bath though some days I may take two showers.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi John. The switch from bath to shower has happened with me too. I still like baths, but a lot of places really don't have them any more. Not sure about solar heating, though, as dominant. I need to check that. For the last twenty or so years I have lived in rental properties and have never seen one with solar power.

I can imagine how important electricity was to dairying. Less so for shearing sheds because mechanical shearing came in long before electricity. You remind me that it's time I wrote up stuff in both areas

Johnb said...

I'd forgotten about the role of the steam engine for supplying mechanical power Jim. The open air museum at Inverell has a number of examples of Lincolnshire finest engineering. I remember thinking on my visit they were the engines that powered Empire.

Hels said...

A few posts ago you wrote "Monday was wash day, Tuesday was ironing day, Wednesday was mending, sewing and baking day, Thursday was cleaning day, Friday was shopping day, Saturday was for sports while Sunday was for worship and visiting". True, because with too many children and too few resources to do tasks randomly, tight organisation was the way to survive.

Melbourne did not have the same problem that plagued some houses in Armidale i.e no electricity and no access to town water by the early 1950s. Yet I remember clearly the children all sharing the same bath. Not because we would have had to chop the wood, but to save endless shower water.

Jim Belshaw said...

John, I actually haven't been to that museum yet! Blush. Perhaps on my next trip to the North. I have more to write in these domestic notes and then I might go industrial for a while!

Hi Helen. You are dead right! In an earlier series on domestic life I argued that women's liberation was only possible because of labour saving devices - I should have added the pill! Yes, the water sharing in baths was still common even after electric and gas water heating, more common where water was in short supply.