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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Times (Just) Past: Spills, Winter Underwear, Six of the Best, and a load more

We, who are older, all know the feeling of visiting museums or exhibitions and saying, 'We used to have one of those at home when we were young'. And, this to the utter astonishment, even disbelief, of any young child with us.

My eight year old grandson, a few weeks ago when we were enjoying our brief summer, could not believe me when getting into his mother's air conditioned car that we had no air conditioning in cars when his grandmother and I were young (and middle aged for that matter!). 'Tempus fugit', as the PM might say.

So here are a few lost, or nearly lost things (words, objects, etc) that I have been mulling over recently.

  1. SPILLS.

To light something from an open fire, such as a pipe or even a candle. To act as a firelighter too on occasions. Usually kept on the mantelpiece. above the open fire, in a specific container. Today people even hunt through antique shops and auctions in order to buy purpose produced spill cases, dating mainly from mid 19th century. Many made homemade spills out of newspaper, whereas others bought spills, usually in multi-colours of red, green, blue, yellow, and natural. I have memories of plaiting these colourful objects as a young child. I checked whilst writing this blog whether spills were still around to be bought today. Yes, they are. You can purchase 100 for £1.55. There is an exercise in inflation for us. The advertising on the net for these modern spills reads, '....old fashioned would be very much an understatement for these wooden spills as they date back to the 15th century'. Actually, of course, they date back far earlier than this, even if records don't exist. The problem with everyday objects is that the further back in time you go the less likely you are to find references to them. Your only hope often is archaeology, but for obvious reasons small wooden spills used for lighting don't exist in the archaeological record.


When I was young it was quite the event when the coalman arrived with the coming winter's supply, to be loaded into the outside coalhouse (some of you would have had coalholes instead). My grandmother would watch carefully to ensure that the coal at the bottom of the sacks was of the same quality as that at the top. A well known coalman's dodge. I meanwhile was more interested in making friends with the great horse that pulled the coalcart. Research shows that in 1800 London received by sea from the North East 1.2 million tons of coal p.a. This equated to 12 million sacks p.a. delivered by a staggering two thousand horses. By the 1890s, London was consuming 8 million tons of coal p.a., and employing over eight thousand horses to deliver it.


Much smaller than the coalman's horse, the milkman's horse came daily and was a real friend. I can't now recall the name of the horse, but the milkman's name, working for Hornby's Dairies in Bristol, who delivered our milk, was Horace. Now that's a name seldom heard today.


I notoriously used this greeting when meeting the fire brigade in London, when an errant caretaker at The City Lit set light to the caretakers' restroom. Much to the amusement of my colleagues, I have to say the phrase just popped out.. Today, almost no one would say 'How do you do?' 'Hi' seems to be the preferred greeting. This is a sad loss, as the origin of the phrase can be dated back to The Towneley Mystery Plays of the 1370s. Actually, it isn't the full blown greeting phrase as yet. The script reads (in modern English), 'How do they in Goshen, the Jews, Can you tell me?' The first reference to the phrase we used to use dates to Thomas Middleton's play, 'No wit/help like a woman', first performed in 1611. A line from the play reads, 'Gentlemen, Outlaws all, how do you do?'


As children in The Fifties many of us, well boys mostly I guess, collected those wonderful coloured bus tickets. They all had numbers on them and we used these in childish divination to see how we might fare at school that day. If the numbers added up to 21 luck was on your side. If they added up to 14 you could claim a kiss (not one for those of us attending single sex schools). But heaven help you if your numbers added up to 13. You were destined to have a dreadful day, especially in my case if a maths test loomed.


A dreadful phrase for a caning which was only too common, at least for little boys. Unfortunately the origin of the phrase is unknown. My guess is the sick humour of a schoolmaster in the dim and distant past. We can date its first use, however, to the early 18th century and fear of it lingered on well into the 1960s. The vindictive and sadistic HM of my Bristol Prep School had a cupboard of canes, of different lengths and thicknesses, all with personalised names. You could on occasions choose your own for your caning. The wise never chose a long thin one. These would strike the victim twice. Once on the bottom and, curling viciously round, once on the thigh. In the final series of Blackadder, Lt George says what he will do if he captures the Kaiser ..... give him 'a real British flogging, six of the best, belts off, trousers down'.


Gentlemen's stiff starched collars (often only bearable if rubbed with soap before use) with front and back studs. All assigned to the past. I even had a schoolmaster friend who wore wing collars with his evening dress into the 1960s. Homemade, that was the key to life in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Homemade jumpers, summer shirts, socks, ties, gloves, and bedsocks - in my case. My mother and grandmother were still using up parachute silk from the war for their own underwear into the early 1950s! A family friend was wearing his RAF demob overcoat to football well into the 1960s. Finally, not forgetting, seasonal underwear - changing from winter to summer and then back again. Just don't mention string vests, PLEASE.


Of the 1950s. How innocent they were, followed by coffee bars. My future wife and I on walking from the college where we both worked to her parents' home in Ramsgate passed one topically named 'Telstar'. Now, of course, we have very trendy coffee bars, virtually no milk bars, and the growing sight of micro pubs. Personally, I would like to visit a Fullers Cafe one last time, with a slice of raspberry layer cake. Oh well, one can but dream.



Tape Recorders



and many more I am sure .............. How long will we retain cash?

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