At the back of my grandmother’s home was a wash house, typical of the Victorian period, which contained a galvanized ‘wash tub’ (sometimes called, in Derbyshire, a ‘dolly tub’) and a mangle. From the 1830s until the late 1940s, hand-wound mangles were an essential tool of the working class family, a part of every wash day. The dirty clothes, having been agitated in warm soapy water by a wooden tool called a dolly, which had three or five ‘legs’, were rinsed then ‘wrung out’ by passing them through a large cast-iron framed mangle. Here you can see such a device, gently rotting away in one of the reconstructed miners’ gardens at the St Fagans National History Museum (in Welsh -Sain Ffagan Amgueddfa Werin Cymru), which is part of the National Museum of Wales. The Museum, on the former estate of the Earl of Plymouth, is a wonderful collection of buildings from all over Wales, which have been re-erected in the grounds of Saint Fagans Manor. The mangle revolutionized the life of the working class, from about 1850s onwards, when the antecessor of the current company, Taskers of Accrington, Lancashire, first started to market this development of the box mangle. By gently squeezing out the majority of the water from the sopping wet clothes, the whole washing process was speeded up tremendously. You can see the two rotting wooden rollers (probably beechwood), between which the clothes were drawn by turning the large wheel on the right of the machine. The gap between the rollers was altered by screwing down the handle at the top, and the pressure applied by the semi-elliptic leaf spring, which was usually made of steel strips. You had to be careful not to put on too much pressure, as you could break the fragile bone buttons on your shirts!
Behind the mangle you can see a fine bed of rhubarb. Grown from rhizomes, the ruby-red stalks of this vegetable (which is classified as a fruit by the United States Department of Agriculture) were a favourite of mine, growing up in a tiny mining community in Derbyshire. Able to be harvested as soon as April in a temperate climate, they make superb pies, jam and puddings, although the taste of young, raw, stalks is quite amazing, with just with a little bit of sugar sprinkled on them. Rheum rabarbarum, (usually its commercial variety Rheum x hybridum) is only one of the typical plants to be found in a miner’s garden. To the right of the mangle can be seen some leeks. Allium ampeloprasum porrum, as well as being a superbly tasty member of the Allium family, is one of the national symbols of Wales, and it is mentioned as such by Shakespeare (Henry V, Act 4, Scene 7). Leeks were not just grown for the pot, but competitively, and there were many leek contests in mining communities around the UK, especially Wales and the North East of England.
Finally, you can see, hanging up on the wall of the outhouse (most Victorian houses in this community had outdoor toilets) an old galvanised ‘tin’ bath. This used to be the means whereby the home-coming collier would clean himself (invariably in front of the coal fire) when he came back from the mine. Pit-head baths had not yet been introduced!
Here we have then, in microcosm, the miner's home life of the period. Spectacularly mis-represented by Hollywood, 'How Green Was My Valley', 1941, (trust me, I KNOW this culture) a far better picture of this life is obtained from the writings of D.H. Lawrence, or from Pwll Mawr ('The Big Pit', a wonderful coal mining museum in Blaeavon, South Wales). All this now is swept away - there is no more mining in Wales, and it only lives on in the dreaming memories of a few of my father's generation.