logo - Join me in the 1900s mid C20th
The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

Being 'frozen up'
before central heating in homes

YOU ARE HERE: home > housing > suburban housing > facilities & equipment > heating

Winters were much colder when I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s - or was it just that heating was inadequate? Homes started being centrally heated round about 1950 or 1960, but the date has to be an approximation because wealthier homes and public buildings had it earlier and poorer homes later.

Before central heating in homes, being 'frozen up' was a regular winter hazard. It meant that the water inside water pipes froze solid. This not only meant that no water could get through to taps, but there was worse. Because water expands on freezing, the ice forced cracks in the pipes which began to drip and even gush once the thaw started. To make matters worse, no-one had any idea which part of which pipe would give way first. So we had to be vigilant with buckets and bowls ready to collect the drips.

No-one I knew in the 1940s and 1950s had central heating at home and coal for heating was rationed.

to top of page

Why pipes froze up in winter before central heating

The pros and cons of lead pipes in Winter

The problem of burst pipes was lessened (but not eliminated) in that pipes tended to be made of lead, a flexible metal. However lead is poisonous. So where water was left in the pipes for any length of time, it not only tasted bad but was actually poisonous. Fortunately water was seldom left in pipes for long enough to cause significant hazards, although there were cases of lead poisoning.

Gradually lead pipes were replaced by copper or plastic pipes.

Peter Johnson

Cold water tanks tended to be in lofts which were cold. (Hot water tanks were in airing cupboards in one of the rooms inside the house - the bathroom where one existed.) These cold tanks, which were themselves cold in cold weather, were fed and topped up from cold water mains supplies which, being outside the house, were inevitably colder still. All too often pipes were not lagged.

to top of page

Life while frozen up

Making tea with no running water

On the first day of being frozen up, we would make our breakfast pot of tea from the water in our hot water bottles. It didn't taste nice but it was better than nothing.

Ethna Comerford

It was colder at night than in the day, so in freezing weather householders woke up to the fear and question of whether or not one of their pipes had burst They couldn't tell of course, because water frozen solid does not drip. The first sign was that a lavatory wouldn't flush or that there was no running water.

The frozen outside lavatory

In our Victorian terraces we had an outside lavatory that would freeze solid in cold weather. The cast iron tank high up on the wall would be a lump of ice. So my father would turn off the water inside the house last thing at night, then flush the bowl. This way the tank was empty of water and would not freeze up. Then he would put lots of salt into the bowl and put an old rug over the bowl. If one of the family needed to go in the night there was the chamber pot under the bed.

Peter Johnson

Existing water in the tanks might suffice if the frost wasn't prolonged. It wasn't common to bath or shower every day anyway.

It was common on a winter's morning to wake up to find ice on the insides of the windows of my bedroom, where the condensation had frozen. Milk arriving from the milkman was frozen solid.

A compensation was that ponds were frozen solid, which was fun. In really bad winters, people were skating on the pond in Canons Drive Edgware. My mother took me to see, but wouldn't let me on the ice.

'Sanding' the pavements

Everybody would save the ash from their coal fires to spread onto the pavement to stop people slipping over. This was also done in the playground of Silver Street School, and where children crossed the main road to get to school.

Peter Johnson

In retrospect I am surprised that skating on ponds was allowed, but health and safety was not an issue then. I have since heard that people were trapped in broken ice once the thaw started, and some had to be taken to hospital.

Keeping warm in bed

The two smallest of us children slept between mum and dad to keep warm and the remaining three all slept in one bed. We resorted to putting house bricks on the fire until they changed to a light colour when hot, then lifting them off onto a shovel. They were then wrapped in an old piece of blanket and put into our beds.

There was a fireplace in the front bedroom but the coal ration didn't stretch to that being used! The two other bedrooms had no fireplaces so we relied on bottles, bricks and body warmth. Some people had rubber hot water bottle from before the war, these were no longer available for the duration, so when these wore out it was back to the old house brick and stone hot water bottle.

Peter Johnson

Ice patterns on windows - admired from the warmth of bed

ice patterns on windows

Lacy ice patterns on a bedroom window before central heating.

On cold Winter-mornings I used to love to look at the swirly patterns of ice on the inside of the window panes. My children can't believe that I used to sleep in such conditions. I am glad that they sleep in their warm double-glazed modern bedrooms, but part of me is sad that they will never experience the thrill of seeing those unique icy-patterns for themselves first thing in the morning.

David Harriman

to top of page

The thaw after being frozen up

Once the pipes began to thaw, the search for leaks started. This was not always straightforward because water can seep along surfaces and just drip from its lowest point. The worst fear was that the drips were above a ceiling because if allowed to continue they could bring the ceiling down.

Unfortunately it was seldom quick to get a plumber to come out to the house because so many houses were calling on plumbers' services. While waiting for a plumber's arrival, buckets were placed to collect the water. If it was a bad leak, emptying and replacing the buckets was continuous work. Where sinks were frozen up, the emptying had to be outside the house - a cold job.

When a plumber did arrive, he dried the outside of the pipe - normally in the loft - and went along it with a blowlamp or a hot water bottle. This encouraged more ice inside the pipe to melt, making it seep out more quickly so identifying where the problem lay. He then replaced that portion of pipe-work.

to top of page