At Beamish, the North of England Open Air Museum, you can experience many aspects of Victorian/Edwardian life – as well as other periods – but one of the most fascinating visits you can make is to the hardware section of the Annfield Plain Co-operative Store, which was removed brick by brick and re-erected at Beamish. Given that this particular area of Northumberland and Durham was heavily involved in coal mining, it is no surprise to see that the Co-op hardware store is fully stocked with items that a 1913 community would need.
Here we see an array of galvanized items, stacked on the floor, against the sales counter. Galvanizing – coating with a layer of the metal zinc – is one of the quickest and easiest ways of rust-proofing a mild steel object. The zinc coating can deposited in one of two ways a) by electro-deposition, that is, an electrical current can be passed through a zinc-containing solution, in which one of the electrodes is formed by the object you wish to plate with zinc (this system was named after Luigi Galvani) or b) ‘hot-dipping’, where the selected object is dipped into a bath of molten zinc. Electro-plating gives a brighter finish, with a larger ‘cell’ structure visible, which causes the object to almost sparkle, whereas hot-dipping gives a thicker, duller coat, which offers greater protection to the steel or iron object so treated.
The selection of containers shown would have been used for everything from hand-washing clothes, to bathing a baby. The largest object shown is a typical bath used by a miner! Before the advent of ‘pithead baths’, the coal miners coming off shift used to walk home in their ‘pit dirt’. After shedding their coat and trousers (usually ‘moleskin’, a form of heavy, brushed cotton) which were taken outside to be beaten to loosen the coal dust, their flannel shirt, or cotton vest, and underwear would be removed and the miner would slide into a galvanized bathtub – as shown at the bottom of the pile. This would have been filled with hot water from the side-boiler of the coal-fired domestic grate, and our miner would wash off the coal dust in front of the fire!
The dirty clothes would go into the galvanized steel ‘dolly tub’, two examples of which can be seen on the right of the photograph. Inside these primitive forms of washing apparatus, the clothes would be agitated in warm soapy water with a ‘dolly’ (the name of which varied from region to region), a wooden ‘T-handled’ implement, with three or more wooden projections at the bottom; two of these are sticking up from the dolly tubs.
As modern plumbing arrived, along with bathrooms and washing machines, dolly tubs and ‘tin baths’ became redundant. The last resting place of many of the tubs and baths became the back garden, where they were recycled as planters for flowers or even vegetables!