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If you wanted a new colour scheme in the old days you mixed it yourself

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: April 22, 2014

By Gail Middleton

  • An old Victorian paint advertisement

  • Vintage Easter card

  • An old sparsely furnished Black Country bedroom with its whitewashed walls

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IF you're not getting away from it all this Easter, odds on you'll have some DIY project on the go. Traditionally, this is when we're supposed to get on with those nagging little jobs we keep putting off.

These days, we have modern gadgets and more shades of paint than you can shake a brush at. But, when our forebears did the decorating, it was a very different kettle of fish.

In typical two up, two down terraced homes, decorating was more or less the same for everyone in the Black Country 100 years ago. Downstairs, the main living area was the kitchen or "back", the hub of the family home.

It was here that the whole family gathered, to cook, eat, read, sew and iron. In the evenings, women and children sat down to mend clothes and shoes, make rag rugs or do some corking. And, where everyone took a weekly bath in the zinc bath tub in front of the fire.

The place had to be kept spotless - no mean feat in those days when cooking and heating by coal-fired ranges was the norm.

And, in such cramped conditions, there was no such thing as minimalist living. The kitchen was stuffed to the rafters with the necessities for daily life. Everything had to have its place.

Nothing was wasted, even old newspapers were turned into spills for lighting fires and men's pipes.

Keeping things spick and span was a constant battle and followed set procedures. In her book, A Feast of Memories (Westwood Press, 1986), Marjorie Cashmore says: "The table, the window ledges and the settle, usually known as a "screen" or "squab", were scrubbed regularly and the red quarry-tiled floor was scrubbed or mopped daily with soda water with a little ochre powder or raddle added to retain the colour of the tiles. This was occasionally followed by a wipe over with a little sour milk, giving a final glaze."

The black-leaded grate was the focal point of the room, and had to blacked and polished. Marjorie says: "Fire grates were cleaned with black lead which was purchased in block form, mixed to a paste with water, often in an empty half coconut shell and then vigorously rubbed into the metal work until it shone like polished jet."

Lighting was either by candles, oil lamps or gas, none of which were very efficient. And, with insects a constant hazard, sticky fly papers were put next to lights to trap marauding insects.

No matter how house proud you were, smoke and spattered cooking fats soon stained the walls.

Colourful rag rugs warmed the cold, tiled floors and women and children often made fringes from scraps of chenille or "plush" to decorate the mantelpiece. If you were lucky, you might have a matching plush tablecloth. But, for everyday meals, most housewives covered the table with newspaper or oilcloth.

Furniture was fairly sparse, but there was usually a chest of drawers or floor to ceiling cupboard for storing important household possessions. If you had any fancy crockery, this where it went, displayed on shelves edged with paper cut-out trim.

As for the front room, this was only used on rare occasions like weddings, christenings and funerals, or if someone important came round. Often damp and musty, through being "kept for best", the front room was also kept dark, to prevent heavy furnishings or rugs from fading. And, there was always a potted aspidistra on display.

Just like today, our forebears were influenced by decorating trends, so chairs and sofas were draped in antimacassars. To modern tastes, it would feel cluttered and overpowering, especially with dark brown brush graining on the all the woodwork. No wonder folk preferred to live in the "back".

Back then, walls were generally white washed or distempered. When it came to re-decorating, you didn't nip down to B&Q to peruse colour charts or buy paint. In those days, walls and ceilings were generally whitewashed or distempered.

So, if you felt like a new colour scheme, you mixed the colours yourself.

And, on closer inspection, it seems that most of the ingredients were already on the kitchen shelves. And, the process was no more bother than basic cooking!

Here are some decorating tips from Marjorie, which she says were from a hand-written notebook belonging to a Black Country woman, "the late Miss Muriel Powell".

The method was typical of those used in countless Black Country homes in the early 20th century.

First of all, you tackled the ceiling: "Wash off the old whitewash with hot water to which has been added a little borax. Use an old sponge and do not damp it too much. Let this dry. To make whitewash, make it just as advised for distemper, but add a little laundry blue to make it dead white instead of any colouring."

Next, came the walls: "Put a pound of whitening into a bucket and pour on enough boiling water to make it into a thin paste. Add one pound of size which has been melted down slowly in an old saucepan. Mix well, colour, if you want it pink, with a little red ochre, or if you want it deep cream, with a little yellow ochre. Add the colours very slowly until you get the right tint.

Finally, add a tablespoon of powdered alum and stir well. Set aside until the distemper is cold, when it will be like a thin jelly.

Dust the walls down well. Take the distemper on the brush and brush down the walls from ceiling to floor.

Keep doors and windows shut, otherwise it dries too quickly and shows the marks of the brush.Don't put on the distemper too thickly. Put it on thinly and then you can always put on another coat if it does not cover enough, but you will be surprised when the distemper is dried to find how little it takes to cover the walls.

Don't judge if your work is nice until the walls are quite dry."

For countless Black Country households, this was the tried and tested method for the big spring clean.

Even with the Easter DIY, our forebears found time to let their hair down, needing little excuse to enjoy Hot Cross Buns. As these were marked with a cross and baked on a Holy Day, they were thought to have healing and protective powers. Some people even saved a leftover bun to hang from the ceiling, as a charm to protect the household throughout the year. Let's hope it didn't spoil the new fresh paintwork.

Throughout the country, people also enjoyed skipping on Good Friday. And, it wasn't just children but folk of all ages, turning and jumping over the long rope. Communities across the Black Country had designated skipping venues. These took on a festive fairground atmosphere, with stalls selling refreshments to the queues of skippers waiting for their turn.

Dudley Castle seems to have been a favourite skipping venue in the Black Country. In his book, The Folklore of the Black Country (Logaston Press, 2007), Roy Palmer gives a description of the custom, which may have started in the 19th century: "No matter how cold or wet the weather may be, some hundreds of lads and lasses are sure to appear at the noted rendezvous." Apparently, the Good Friday skipping continued into the 20th century. And, as late as 1937, when Dudley Zoo was built, large crowds still gathered there at holiday times.

Happy Easter, whatever you get up to!

What are your memories of Black Country Easters in the olden days? Write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, or email editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or log on to wwww.blackcountrybugle.co.uk

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