Soap and Flannel – Part 1

It’s just down to the last bit now. There isn’t much of it left. It’s gone that way – that way when there’s a grey line down the length of it and the bar gone almost sliver flat – two dimensional almost. There isn’t much of it left at all now. I could make jelly with it, if I had a soap jelly maker…

My father told me that in their house, his father used the last bits of soap for his moustache. He used to run it between his fingers and then apply. It was a moustache that he grew during his military service during the First World War. That was in Bermuda.

The soap was yellow. Well it was yellowish. It had that sort of washing smell.

Soap doesn’t really have that now. This was the days of detergent in a separate package otherwise known as the ACDO miracle. That was when real bars of soap were grated into the boiling water (or sliced and put into a little wire thingy and rattled about under surface of the hot water) when the making of suds was of paramount importance.

Washing anyway was a source of great pride and rivalry. Women would refer to certain women as “a good washer” or would recognise that there was an honesty and cleanliness – next to Godliness then – in certain washerwomen and their families. Women took in washing. It made a good income too. Some women had to take in washing. It sometimes made the only income too. As late as the 1980s the phrase “…you could take some washing in. There’s always been good money in washing…” could be heard.

But the boiling rubbing grating scrubbing and slapping and wringing and mangling and steam and coal and copper and damp-round-the-lightbulbs and clanking and rinsing and sorting and grimacing and possing and poking and laughing and talking and dolly tub and posser and mangle would all come to an end. The electric revolution was coming!

And although the concomitants of washing such as dolly cream and dolly blue and so on, would fade (the very thing that they never really did) with time, the humble feelable tangible gratable nicely-ponging heavy weighty warmfeeling bars of soap would be replaced by patent dust in cardboard boxes, stuff which smelt of dust, made you sneeze, and smelt industrial, hazily naseous, and modern.

Yes, as one’s Electrogribbler or New Electric Patent Hot Fill Shrinker (with patent hose) or Mazzler’s Patent Hygienic (with new rubber hose) or Farplister’s Electrowonder (connect direct to tap), or Ulinar’s Pluggypuggy (just get a pail), or any or all with a patent wringer (or electric mangle), and not forgetting the new Whirlibloop Spin Dryer (with patent bucket attachment), and any number of choices of wash from number one (filth) to number several (real disgusting filth) was installed (“£35/19/11d Modom, and may I say what a wise choice? your new washing machine will certainly be the envy of your neighbourhood”) and ground and bounced and paddled and slopped and shunted leadenly around the kitchen and still steamed, at least you were happy in the knowledge that you were modern and that cleanliness came in a box now, and stayed in the box now, and you only needed to get your hands damp and no longer wet…

Everybody had soap. Well more likely, everybody had had soap. And soap featured a lot in our house. My mother could never bear to be down to her last bar. Probably this would have been a wartime worry – at the least it was an insecurity inherited from the privations of war and its neatly conceived but endless rationing.

In our house we had Lifebuoy.

In those days a fine soap. Often white but sometimes pink. It washed us well and gave us the confidence to face the day. It was mother’s choice. We might not have had the latest clothes, but we were never going to be accused of the ultimate shame.

But it was Mother’s choice and it was not up for discussion. Not ever. Never. Although there was one exception. We used to be able to choose our own soap when we were going away on holiday, when along with our new sandals we would be given a new facecloth or flannel too!

I nearly always opted for Coal Tar soap, made by Wrights. Even now, if I smell this, I feel as if I am on holiday all over again!

Sometimes on Fridays my mother would dash us down to the town centre for a frenzied (there was a lot of that) complaining (there was a lot of that too) and impatient (and definitely a lot of that) visit to the Post Office, the Bank and then some shops.

These trips were never really fun and most shops were only for looking into – cakes remained where they lay, confectionery was spoken about, admired – (longed for even) – but never or rarely ever bought, (“you only eat them”); but there was something nice to look forward to sometimes, and a real treat for me was the trip into Boots the Chemist, then a wholly English concern and nationally admired and everywhere to be seen, as their paper bags showed.

Right by the door were all the bars of soap, made in Boots’ own industrial-size pharmaceutical complex in Nottingham. The scents were mezmerizing, heady, clean. Lavender mixed with Gardenia, mixed with Blue Orchid, and Green Moss (which was a type of fougere). Boots even made a powerful household soap called “White Windsor”. But to no avail! There they all lay – disappointingly to me, at any rate – unpurchased by mother, left, and actually spurned – usually with a few choice words.

Christmas might be different though and often, there would be a bar of something delightful and in the early 1970s, came the delight of newly marketed sandalwood, a fragrance unknown to many, these days.

My mother’s mother was a great soap-buyer. She patronised quite a few different soap makers too.

Firstly, there was “Sunlight” from Ellesmere Port, that was Lever Brothers. It had a delightful scent which lasted right through the bar.

Lever Brothers made this at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire

Then there was Co-op soap made by the Co-operative Industrial Society, in Irlam. That soap was green. Household soap really, for doing dishes, and washing floors and steps.

As he actress Thora Hird once said “…we were brought up Co-op…”

That smelt clean, but more of grass. And on the rarest of occasions, the more expensive Fairy would be seen living under the sink (and we had angels on the Christmas Tree!)

As my Grandmother had lived half her days in Salford, she also had several bars of Thom’s Castile, which was a soap made in their Whit Lane Works in Pendleton; Pendleton being one of the larger areas within the great and wonderfully mezmeric city of Salford, (lost forever and unknown to many now). Thom’s advertised using this card from 1910, complete with Lancashire dialect!

Somewhere in the kitchen was a block of red soap too. That smelt a bit sour and was said to be poisonous. It contained carbolic acid. It was a form of disinfectant soap, and could be used for a variety of things. Often when people had been ill before the days of antibiotics, strips of old sheets were soaked in soapy water made from this soap, and then hung over doors, and stairways in houses. Once smelt, never forgotten.

Of course, the other Salford soap was Imperial Leather.

It was made at Kersal. That was at that time an area outside the City of Salford. It was made by Cussons and it really smelt nice. The cologne was said to have been made for a Russian Prince. Nowadays, it is a shadow of its former self. But isn’t everywhere? and Aren’t we all?

But that was it. Loyalty to place. It started with the morning in the bringing of soapy hands to face and was repeated in the evening as the day’s cares were sent down the sink and then again, last thing at night before bed, the better to bring one to the arms of Morpheus.

But back then most of our towns had soap works – and that meant that each town that produced soap, produced its own scent for cleanliness.

I started off with the last bit of soap – I have actually one bar left – a nice Castile from Kay’s of Ramsbottom, possibly one of the last of the traditional local soapmakers in England, now sadly closed. I liked the soaps that they made. They kept our hands clean with their Buttermilk soap too –

– from school to public places and latterly also manufacturing exclusive soaps for use in hotels. Kay’s soap washed hands well. And it wasn’t harsh. Redolent of former days. One bar left. The ordinary become rare and special. I think that Kay’s closure was a landmark closure too. There are very few of these factories left now.

What a pity we let it all go.

But there is some hope in our modern artisan businesses and a new hope for bars of soap.

Let’s hope. Here’s hoping.

(to be continued)


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