Harrismith’s Mild Winters

I just read a lovely post from an Irish woman who grew up in the sixties. She wrote:“In 1960, we had no fridge, no TV, no car, no central heating – only open fires, water heated by an old ‘pot-bellied’ stove, no electric immersion heater, no automatic washing machine. Chilblains were a fact of life every winter. Stuffed material sausage dogs were at the bottom of many doors to keep the draughts out (and there were many draughts!)”

. . . and those stuffed sausage doorstops got me thinking. So I wrote a bit about what I can remember about “Harrismith’s mild winters” and asked friends to add their sixpence worth! How cold was Harrismith?

Ceilings had no insulation and the windows were wooden sash or steel frame, single-glazed; Windows would mist over, but you would still try and see if Platberg had its table-cloth on. Always coldest when the east wind blew and put a ‘blanket’ or ‘table cloth’ on the mountain like this:

Weather – that blanket settles on our mountain
Door-stop ‘sausages’ to block the icy breeze whistling under doors – sometimes plain sausages, sometimes made into sausage dogs!

Huddling in front of a red-hot bar heater giving a little ring of warmth;
Move back a yard and the room was frigid!

The black coal stove in the kitchen was lit through the whole of winter, thank goodness; A cruel boyhood confession: I murdered a few flies at this stove in our kitchen! Tore off their wings and turned them into ‘walks’ then tossed them into the stove to die! Yikes! Here’s an old one, no longer installed, no longer black:

coal stove

On the beds lots of blankets, no duvets; If you were lucky your Mom would cut the tassles off the Standard Woollen Mills blankets and sew on a strip of smooth silk-like tape that didn’t tickle your nose! I remember some of our old pillows weighing ‘a ton’. Probably a quarter ton of feathers, a quarter ton of live mites, a quarter ton of dead mites and a quarter ton of sweat and snot! Luxury was having flannel ‘winter sheets’ rather than those smooth, thin, cold ordinary cotton sheets.

We were lucky to have hot baths from an electric geyser warming us up. You would wallow in the big old iron bath with ball-and-claw feet, trying to get your scrawny carcass under the shallow water, then start dreading having to get out; Soon, though, the decision would be an easy one, as the water cooled rapidly.

Getting into those long flannel winter jarmies was such a treat. Cosy. Some of ours were hand-made – machine-sewn by Mom.

Leaving for school in the mornings was jersey on, socks pulled up high, gloves on, and off you’d go on yer bike; Riding along Stuart Street your eyes would water and your nose would run, so gloves and sleeves had to do snot duty; When you got there you’d slide your hands off the handle-bar grips as they didn’t want to ‘uncurl’! Your bare knees would be frozen yet somehow you didn’t feel them as much as you felt your toes in your socks and shoes! Funny that. As uncool as it was, sometimes you’d even wear the grey balaclava Mom had knitted for you.

I remember it like this:

Except, it wasn’t really. That’s Europe and maybe their winters are worse!

We had a horse trough in the backyard about 2m long, 40cm wide and 40cm deep. It was concrete grey but later on it got painted Caltex green. A lot of our stuff got painted Caltex green. Thanks, Annie! The water in the trough would freeze solid. The ice would thaw a bit by day and freeze again every night. That was OK, though, we didn’t have horses.


Harry ‘Pikkie’ Loots added his memories:

How about: Frost in the fields, with little wind blown ice crystals making it look like a sprokiesland instead of the grey-yellow vrystaatse vlakte that it was once the frost melted . . .

frost on dry grass2

The little black tube-shaped coal stoves in the classroom where we thawed our hands – remember how it hurt as they ‘defrosted’? . . Newspaper under your mattress to stop the cold coming from below . . Taping up the air vents in the bedroom to stop the cold air from coming in . . Doing homework (occasionally) by the coal stove in the kitchen . . Hot water bottles . .

And a couple he remembered from his gran, who lived in Clocolan: She never had – nor apparently ever wanted – an indoor bathroom or toilet, despite her children offering to have one installed for her; The potty under the bed so that you didn’t have to walk to the outhouse in the middle of the night . . And bathing in a tin bath in the middle of the kitchen, filled with water boiled on the coal stove . .


sprokiesland – fairytale land

vrystaatse vlaktes – like the Siberian flatlands


2 thoughts on “Harrismith’s Mild Winters

  1. Love this. Made me think of Monty Python. Sheer luxury. Four well-dressed men sitting together at a vacation resort. ‘Farewell to Thee’ being played in the background on Hawaiian guitar.)

    Michael Palin: Ahh.. Very passable, this, very passable.

    Graham Chapman: Nothing like a good glass of Chateau de Chassilier wine, ay Gessiah?

    Terry Jones: You’re right there Obediah.

    Eric Idle: Who’d a thought thirty years ago we’d all be sittin’ here drinking Chateau de Chassilier wine?

    MP: Aye. In them days, we’d a’ been glad to have the price of a cup o’ tea.

    GC: A cup ‘ COLD tea.

    EI: Without milk or sugar.

    TJ: OR tea!

    MP: In a filthy, cracked cup.

    EI: We never used to have a cup. We used to have to drink out of a rolled up newspaper.

    GC: The best WE could manage was to suck on a piece of damp cloth.

    TJ: But you know, we were happy in those days, though we were poor.

    MP: Aye. BECAUSE we were poor. My old Dad used to say to me, ‘Money doesn’t buy you happiness.’

    EI: ‘E was right. I was happier then and I had NOTHIN’. We used to live in this tiiiny old house, with greaaaaat big holes in the roof.

    GC: House? You were lucky to have a HOUSE! We used to live in one room, all hundred and twenty-six of us, no furniture. Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of FALLING!

    TJ: You were lucky to have a ROOM! *We* used to have to live in a corridor!

    MP: Ohhhh we used to DREAM of livin’ in a corridor! Woulda’ been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woken up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us! House!? Hmph.

    EI: Well when I say ‘house’ it was only a hole in the ground covered by a piece of tarpolin, but it was a house to US.

    GC: We were evicted from *our* hole in the ground; we had to go and live in a lake!

    TJ: You were lucky to have a LAKE! There were a hundred and sixty of us living in a small shoebox in the middle of the road.

    MP: Cardboard box?

    TJ: Aye.

    MP: You were lucky. We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down mill for fourteen hours a day week in-week out. When we got home, our Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!

    GC: Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o’clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, go to work at the mill every day for tuppence a month, come home, and Dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were LUCKY!

    TJ: Well we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox at twelve o’clock at night, and LICK the road clean with our tongues. We had half a handful of freezing cold gravel, worked twenty-four hours a day at the mill for fourpence every six years, and when we got home, our Dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.

    EI: Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, (pause for laughter), drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing ‘Hallelujah.’

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

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