The really skint Thirties in Scotland

23 November 2018
3092936941_d5980b8417_o-97966.jpg The really skint Thirties in Scotland
Life pre-world war two was tough for the average family, remembers Henry Shanks. The General Strike had just finished and the Great Depression begun.

Family budgets were stretched to the limit but parents considered it essential to maintain standards. We children were still able to enjoy ourselves, even on a limited budget. Christmas presents were manufactured by father from a cardboard box then painted, and decorations were mainly coloured sticky paper chains hung from the ceiling.

1930s family life

In the early 1930s our family, with two sons, wasn’t considered large. In two years another son was born and during the second world war, twin sons arrived. My father was a petrol tanker driver, which was considered a fairly well-paid job for the times. 

We rented a small cottage in a lane near Lanark town centre which had an inside toilet but no bath. Our weekly bath was inside an attached wash house. Sturdy shoes or boots were essential, with grey stockings which inevitably landed down at our ankles.

Saturday mornings for my gang of friends and I meant an expedition to the local loch. No danger of us having a knife battle with a rival group, since the only argument was about the quality of the fish paste in our ‘piece’ which our mothers wrapped in greaseproof parcels.

Sometimes our Cub pack went on an expedition to cook sausages over an open fire in some windswept field. We never emulated the Scout Handbook by baking a dead hedgehog in a clay straitjacket. Our half-raw sausages were only just edible after hours over a single flame.

Household chores

Monday was always washing day. This meant that our midday meal was broth made from the Sunday joint, then cold meat with stovies. Our mother heaved at the mangle as she wrung out the sheets with the steam pouring out of the wash house door as her damp hair hung down under her headscarf. Yet she always made sure we had time to give her a hand to hang out the washing before we went back to school.

As we clattered down the cobbled lane to school we always looked in the smiddy where there was usually a huge Clydesdale horse stamping its feet waiting to be shod. The red-hot shoes being fitted to the sizzling hooves seemed cruel to us but clearly the horse didn’t mind, only giving the occasional stamp.

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In the early years of the decade we managed to have pens, nibs and blue jotters at school but as we approaching the war years and felt the impact of shortages we had to revert to the old Victorian slates and slate pencils which were discovered in various cupboards.

The main hazard of using pens and inkwells was from the miners’ sons who dropped pieces of carbide into the desk inkwells, which foamed up very satisfactorily, but the smell was awful. As gas mask drills had become a regular item in the school curriculum we argued this would be valuable experience for the imminent gas attacks during the war. As the end of the decade approached, all of our young male teachers disappeared. Conscription, we were told. But that’s another story…

QUICK LINK: Remembering washday

Image copyright Rijks Museum

(Originally published November 2018. Reviewed July 2023)

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