One of Australian poet Mary Gilmore’s poems is called The Saturday Tub. The poem is a nostalgic look at childhood. The writer, dreaming by the fire, is thrown back “where I used to be in eighteen hundred and something three”.
The children line up to take their turn in front of a bath the size of a churn.
It was, “where's the flannel?" and, "Mind the soap!" Slither and slide, and scuffle and grope. Clean, they are dried, dressed in a night dress and packed of to bed.
Today, we take a hot shower for granted, a necessity to get our day started. We forget how recent this is. Perhaps we only learn this when people start reminiscing.
A hot shower or bath is actually a complex process. It requires water, a way of heating and transporting the water, a way of disposing of the wastewater.
In most of the early towns of New England and Southern Queensland water came from local streams, from wells, from the sky as rain stored in tanks.
At Hillgrove where water was always short, run-off from Bracken Street carried filth and rubbish accumulated from homes and businesses down the ridge to form putrid pools.
At Inverell, the shallower town cesspits polluted the deeper water wells. Disease and death resulted.
The newly formed but short-of-funds municipal councils looked to improve the situation. In Armidale, the council first developed a well in the market square, but was then forced to look for a bigger solution. The result was the Dumaresq Dam and the first municipal water supply in 1897.
Glen Innes was slower, developing a scheme to pump water from the river in 1918.
Other towns came along in their own way and at their own pace, with water supply depending upon the precise geography and funds. Outside the towns, the small settlements and farming properties remained dependent on tanks, dams and streams.
First gas and then electricity did spread, but the process was slow and variable. Wood remained the dominant fuel for cooking and heating.
As late as the early 1950s, some houses in Armidale still had no electricity nor access to town water. Other towns were in a similar position.
At Marsh Street in Armidale where I grew up, we had both electricity and town water. However, wood was still our main fuel. The house well had been filled in, but we had two big tanks, one providing water to the house, the other to the out-door laundry with its big copper and the garden.
In my next column, I will share with you some of the nostalgic memories of the days before hot showers.
Jim Belshaw’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com.au and newenglandhistory.blogspot.com.au