Based on the webmaster's childhood recollections
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.
The problem of burst 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.
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, 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
No-one I knew in the 1940s and 1950s had central
heating at home and coal for heating was rationed.
Why pipes froze up in winter before central heating
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
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
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
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.
Existing water in the tanks might suffice if the frost wasn't prolonged. It
wasn't common to bath or shower every day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times. It is © Pat Cryer.