Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: We all need to relearn how to ‘get on’ and deal with the chill

Family watch TV in a 1950s living room without central heating

Family watch TV in a 1950s living room without central heating - Credit: Archant

Autumn’s in. I’ve always rather liked the season myself, with its muted misty mornings and its unpredictable runs of mild days.

I was coming back from town the other day, with a gallon of paraffin on the back of my bike, and it suddenly occurred to me what an odd sort of thing it was for anyone to be doing nowadays. I have a knowledge of paraffin, and its various uses as a fuel, which is pretty arcane. When many years ago I finally moved out of the last house I’d lived in which wasn’t centrally heated, I hung on to my paraffin technology – just in case.

When I was a child, paraffin heating was a part of everyday life. Many people who grew up during the mid 20th Century – right up until the late 1970s – will remember paraffin heaters well. Paraffin was that damp, homely heat encountered in the halls of houses, in bathrooms, in sheds and in workshops. Paraffin use was so common that many people had weekly deliveries of it.

There were even TV ads. To the tune of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, a little cartoon man crooned: “They asked me how I knew it was Esso Blue / I of course replied, ‘With lower grades one buys, smoke gets in your eyes.’”

Attempting to explain to people under 40 years of age, how we all kept warm in days before central heating, is difficult.

In the winters of the 1950s and ‘60s, without central heating, houses were cold. Mostly, you’d only warm that room which the family members were all in together. On a schoolday afternoon, just before you arrived home, someone, usually your mum, lit the coal fire in the living room in order to take the chill off it, so that you could watch TV after doing your homework.

On Saturdays and during school holidays, after breakfast, you were sent outside to play. The kitchen was usually the one room which was warm, so on really cold days you’d hang around in there.

Most Read

Sunday was bath-night. The bathroom was warmed up by the lighting of a paraffin heater. Heating the water for the bath was a quite separate procedure. Either an electric immersion heater was switched on beforehand, or a gas-fired geyser had to be lit. This involved lighting a pilot light before turning the water on. The pilot then ignited the gas with a great ‘whoomf!’ after which the contraption would heat just about sufficient water for a bath, taking about 20 minutes to run. Often, too, a sibling would use the bathwater after you.

Unless it was exceptionally cold, or you were ill, the bedroom wasn’t usually warmed up either. So you wore vest, pants, pyjamas, a dressing gown and took a hot water bottle to bed. There was no central heating. In very cold weather, a paraffin heater might be left lit in the hall – just enough to take the chill off it.

If you accidentally left a light on, other than for that room which you happened to be in, someone, usually your dad, would yell, “This place is lit up like the bloody Crystal Palace!” The emphasis was always on not wasting energy.

Now, my description here, is of ordinary domestic life when I was about 10 years of age. Many people back then lived exactly as I have described. They didn’t feel deprived. In fact, by that time, they probably felt quite well off, since food rationing had only finished about a decade earlier.

I’m glad that I recall these times, because with power cuts threatened and fuel prices rises imminent, I’ve been paying more than the usual attention to my winter contingency plans.

As I mentioned earlier, I still possess a bit of low-tech heating and lighting: a couple of paraffin heaters, two lamps and adequate candle stocks. I also have a small working coal stove. Each autumn I trim the wicks of my devices, then prime them and re-fill them. I make sure that whenever they’re lit they burn with the correct colour of flame and don’t smell too strongly. It’s real ‘old geezer’ stuff. But it’s all useful – specially with my computerised gas central-heating, which if the electricity fails, cuts my boiler out too. Isn’t modern technology great? Oh and apparently it’s not a power cut any more – it’s called an ‘outage’. Outrage, more like. Like most people, I’m annoyed with the transparent rapacity of the fuel giants, with the impotent blathering of our rulers and with the tedious finger-wagging of the eco lobby.

Conversely, I also think that as a people, many of us in the UK have simply forgotten how to manage. Nowadays, we all expect to shimmy from house to car to shop and back without even putting on an extra layer of clothing. We expect every room in the house to be permanently warm and then we feel hard done by if the bed’s a little cold when we get in. Quite a few of us need to man up, is what I reckon. Because if some distant fuel baron wants to hold us hostage over the trans-continental pipelines – or some neo-puritan leader is Canute-like enough to believe that we can counter climate change by rasing fuel taxes – then we might all need to re-learn how we used to get on when there was simply no choice.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter