Back in the 1940s when I was a baby - or a “nipper” as she would have it - my gran would wash me in the kitchen sink. She would sit me on the draining board, stick my feet into the basin and fill it with water heated in a saucepan. In the days before central heating, this was the only way to get a supply of hot water unless you had a gas or coal-fired ‘wash copper’ in the scullery or a geyser in the bathroom…if you had a bathroom. As recently as the 1960’s many families were obliged to take their laundry and even themselves to a public bathhouse because of the lack of decent washing facilities at home. In my early youth, a tin bath in front of the kitchen stove was still the norm in many poorer homes.
Why I remember all this I don’t know. Was it because of the luxurious comfort of our war-time kitchen? I doubt it. The kitchen was a sub-basement and cold and damp with it. Was it the loving gentleness of my gran’s washing technique? Hardly. She was a firm and stated believer in what she called “a lick and a promise” - a quick dribble round with a damp cloth and a promise to make a better job of it tomorrow. Was it because as she sloshed about in the sink she always sang the songs of her own youth? Certainly.
Maria Harriet, known to all and sundry as Totty, was a Victorian, born in 1885 and living in Hackney. Before she married Alfred Willis and like many working-class girls of the time she was in service. Her only entertainment were the many music halls in the area. Long before the development of microphones and amplification, the singers she enjoyed relied upon the power of their own voices and the catchy, easily remembered songs that they sang. There were songs about henpecked husbands like Gus Elen’s “It’s a Great Big Shame”…
It's a great big shame And if she belonged to me I'd let her know who's who Nagging at a fellow that is six foot three And her not four feet two. They hadn't been married for a month or more When underneath her thumb goes Jim Oh isn't it a pity that the likes of her Should put upon the likes of him.
Or Vesta Victoria’s sad tale of a jilted bride…
There was I waiting at the church Waiting at the church, waiting at the church When I found he'd left me in the lurch Lor', how it did upset me All at once he sent me round a note Here's the very note, and this is what he wrote "Can't get away to marry you today, My wife won't let me"!
There were tales of disaster like Billy Williams “When Father Papered the Parlour”…
When Father papered the parlour, you couldn't see pa for paste Dabbing it here, dabbing it there, paste and paper everywhere Mother was stuck to the ceiling; the kids were stuck to the floor I never knew a blooming family so stuck up before.
Or the tragic “A Mother’s Lament” unbelievably re-recorded in 1968 by Ginger Baker and Cream!
"Your baby has gone down the plug-hole Your baby has gone down the plug The poor little thing was so skinny and thin It should have been washed in a jug Your baby is ever so happy He won't need a bath any more Your baby has gone down the plug-hole Not lost but gone before."
But the song that has really stuck in my mind is Albert Chevalier’s sentimental love song “My Old Dutch”, a poem he dedicated to his wife after 40 years of marriage. Is it because it brings back memories of Totty singing her heart out to a nipper in a sink in a damp basement kitchen or is it because my own dutch and I have been together for 40 years of marriage and I still feel the same about her….
We've been together now for forty years, An' it don't seem a day too much, There ain't a lady livin' in the land As I'd "swop" for my dear old Dutch.
My Old Dutch is Cockney Rhyming Slang from Duchess of Fife = wife. Here is a recording of the song made in 1923 by “Red” Newman
– from Martyn Day