• Deborah Ismay

Winter's Day

Family stories are one element of family history that really create a strong connection with the past. If you’re lucky, then tales will have been shared and passed down through the generations.

I’m incredibly fortunate because my Mum wrote several stories about her childhood in Tanfield Lea, a small mining village in County Durham.

Here’s one she wrote about a typical school day in the wintertime c. 1950.

I’m still trying to encourage her to write more now she’s retired so let me know if you enjoy this and I’ll pass on the feedback!

Winter’s Day by Patricia (Rushmer) Ismay

Pat (Rushmer) Ismay

When I wake up it’s very early and I can hear my Gran outside the window, brushing the snow away to make a path to the toilet outside so that the men won’t trail the snow into the house. She’s very house-proud, my Gran.

It’s so cold I can see frost patterns on the inside of the window, and I snuggle down further into the bed with its big feather mattress and eiderdown, not wanting to get up and feel the icy lino on my feet. I hear voices downstairs and realise suddenly that my Mam hasn’t left for work yet, she catches the bus at six thirty and I’m usually still asleep when she leaves. I hare out of bed and run down the stairs just as she leaves the yard and closes the gate behind her. There’s a big lump in my throat. It seems such a long time ‘till half past six when she comes home again, but I jump onto the big couch in front of the kitchen window to watch her walk down the road and as if she knows I’m there she turns and waves. I feel better now and wave back ‘till she’s out of sight.

My Gran comes bustling in, stamping the snow off her feet, and seeing me up so early tells me to get close to the roaring fire, which doesn’t give off much heat yet as it’s just been lit. She puts out my school clothes in front of the fender(1) to warm and tells me to hurry and get dressed before the men come down. My Grandad and my two uncles are all on day shift today and it’s a rush when they are all trying to get dressed and have breakfast before the buzzer(2) goes. Getting dressed takes me quite a while as I struggle with vest, liberty bodice(3) (fleecy lined with suspenders attached), flannel petticoat, navy knickers with long elasticated legs, grey ribbed stockings, white blouse and navy school tunic and cardigan. The shoes come last, a bit difficult these shoes as they are stout and heavy, and I can’t do the laces by myself.

After I’m dressed, I go over the snowy yard to the lavatory. It terrifies me this lav. Just a big piece of wood over a midden(4) with a hole in it. I’m frightened I’ll fall down it one day and they’ll never find me, so I hang on to the edge like grim death as I sit there. Pieces of the Radio Times are strung on string and hang on a nail on the wall so I always have a look at the pictures and see if I can read any of the words. When I’m back in the house and washing my hands, I hear the rest of the family in the kitchen. My Gran and my two Aunts giving the men their breakfasts, the smell of bacon making my mouth water. We have our breakfasts after they’ve stomped off over the yard to the pit head, the buzzer sounding in the distance and their heavy pit boots with the metal studs ringing on the pavements. I have bread and an egg and coffee for breakfast (I can’t stand tea, but my Gran reckons coffee will stunt my growth, so it’s so weak I can hardly taste it).

It’s half past eight now and nearly time to go to school. My Aunt took me the first week but now I go on my own with Joan. She’s my best friend, sometimes. First, I have to have my hair plaited and this I hate. Its parted in the middle and the plaits drawn back so tight it stretches the skin round my eyes, so I have a permanent smile on my face. My hair is very straight and I wish I had curls like Joan. My Gran said that if I eat the burnt parts on my toast my hair will curl, but nothing’s happened yet and my Mam says it’s an old wives tale, and my Gran said “who are you calling an old wife?”

With my coat buttoned up to my chin and my pixie hood fastened tight I go along to the end of the street to call for Joan. She’s different from me, there’s only three of them in the house. Joan and her Mam and Dad, and her Mam doesn’t go out to work. I don’t like her Mam much though, so sometimes I wish she did. Her Dad isn’t a miner like all the other men in the street because he’s got a club foot(5). He works in the colliery offices doing the wages, which Joan’s Mam reckons put them a step above us. Grandad laughed when I told him about this and said “where there’s muck there’s more money”. Joan and I hold hands as we walk to school, so everyone will know we’re best friends, but then we start larking about in the snow and have to make a run for it when we hear the school bell ring. I like school. It’s mostly playing in a sand pit and counting on coloured beads. My Mam says I mightn’t like it so much next year when I move out of the nursery class and have to do proper lessons.

We go home for dinner because we live so near. I’ve heard some terrible tales from the other kids about the awful food you have to eat if you stay for school dinners. When I get home the scullery’s full of heat and steam because it’s washing day and everything has to be boiled and then possed(6) in a tub in the yard and rinsed and dolly-blued(7) and put through a hand wringer before it’s hung to dry. The Hankies have to be scrubbed and the linen things starched and it takes my Aunt Eva and Aunt Ida and my Gran all day to get finished. Everybody in the street washes on a Monday and then it’s all hung out on lines in the back street to dry. Joan and I are always getting wrong for getting dirty marks on things as we run through the rows of wet washing.

L to R: Aunt Ida, Gran and Aunt Eva

I like Monday afternoons at school because it’s story time and today its someone’s birthday as well, one of the boys, and the teacher gives us all a sweet each and we sing Happy Birthday to You (I forget his name). School finishes at three thirty and we’re supposed to come straight home, but the quickest way is through the park and it’s hard to resist having a go on the swings. Doesn’t time fly because there’s Joan’s Mam at the park gate yelling blue murder and marching us both down the street home. I tell my Gran she told us off and she says “never mind Hinny, her tongue’s so sharp she’ll cut herself one of these days”. My Gran shouts a lot too, but she never really means it.

It’s nearly four o’clock now and the men will be in soon. Dinner’s cooking on the black-leaded stove and the water’s boiling in the boiler at the side of the stove. These are good houses and we’ve got a proper bath but it’s only got a cold water tap and we have to carry the hot water through from the kitchen and pour it in. I only get bathed twice a week, but the men have to have a bath every day, they get so mucky. My Grandad always has the first bath and my Uncle Les and Uncle Bill lie down on the clippy(8) mat in front of the fire with their heads on the fenders ‘till it’s their turn. They don’t dare sit on any of the chairs with their pit clothes on, my Gran would go mad. They look like strangers lying there in their filthy pit clothes and coal dust all over their faces and hands.

While they get their baths, my aunts are busy getting the dinner on the table. There aren’t enough chairs so we have to use a bench at one side of the table. This is where I always sit, on the end. If I’m slow finishing my Uncle Bill sits on the other end to stop it tipping ‘till I’ve done.

When my Mam’s due off the bus I slip out and wait for her on the corner and walk the last bit with her. I like these few minutes when it’s just me and her and if I’ve done anything wrong that day, I get to say my piece before any of the others can tell on me. I seem to do something wrong most days!

After the dishes are all washed up my two aunts and two uncles get dolled up to go out. Both my aunts are courting and when their young men come to call for them they sit and wait on the two seats at the end of the fender. Just like two bookends, my Grandad says. They’re always very polite to my Grandad. Everyone seems a bit scared of him, but I think he’s lovely. He slips me Victory V lozenges(9) and takes me up to the allotment when he goes to see his mates and if my Gran’s going on a bit he just says “Ethel!” and she shuts up like magic. Anyway, after they’re all away out, courting or to the club, my Gran sometimes gets the frames out and we make new clippy mats for the fireplace. I have a bit of a job doing my bit but somehow the next day it always looks better.

I hate going to bed. Gran won’t let me waste light, so I lie there in the dark, watching the funny shapes the hat bags on top of the wardrobe make, and imagining they’re monsters ‘till I’m frightened half out of my wits. I try to stay awake ‘till my Mam comes to bed because she sleeps with me, but I hardly ever do. I hate Joan's mother!


1. Fender – the low metal frame bordering the fireplace to stop burning coals from falling out.

2. Buzzer – A very loud siren sounded at the start of each shift to summon miners to work. This could be heard throughout the mining village.

3. Liberty bodice – a sleeveless undergarment for women and girls, invented towards the end of the 19th century to ‘liberate’ women from the corset. It was often made of warm, fleecy fabric with suspenders attached.

4. Midden – The toilet system consisted of an outhouse built over an earth waste pit. Eventually replaced by pail closets and flush toilets.

5. Club Foot – a birth defect which led to one foot and leg being smaller than the other. Those affected wore a built up boot at this time and it was a fairly common sight in poorer communities.

6. Possed – laundry was washed in a dolly tub and a posstick was a tool used to agitate the water.

7. Dolly-blued -a household product used during laundering, especially to improve the appearance of white fabrics.

8. Clippy Mats – also known as ‘proddie mats’ were rag floor mats made from fabric ‘clippings’ (leftover, short pieces of fabric), which were prodded through the matting using a hook.

9. Victory V Lozenges – a British brand of liquorice flavoured lozenges known for their long lasting strength and warming qualities – definitely an acquired taste!

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