Nostalgia: ‘The smells that take me back to my childhood’

Eve Willard's Grandad
Eve Willard's Grandad

Eve Willard, from Chichester, recalls the strong scent of her youth...

“A traveller writing 200 years ago remarked that he could smell Paris from five miles away. I imagine London and Chichester ponged a bit in those days, and up until recently, on market days and Friday evenings, traditionally the time to empty lavatory buckets.

Eve Willard's Granny

Eve Willard's Granny

“Since the closure of Shippam’s paste factory, there is no distinctive smell lingering over our city. Unless, perhaps, it’s the smell from the numerous shops.

“Raised as I was in a downland village in the late 1930s to 1940s, I grew used to the smell of the great unwashed. Very few houses had running water or bathrooms. To organise bath night was a real palaver – draw water from the pump in the year, heat it in the wash-house copper, unhook the tin bath from the long nail on the wall, then all the family were dunked in the same water, 
one after another, then hurried back indoors to dry off by 
the fire.

“I say ‘all the family’ but that didn’t include grandad. ‘Me ablutions is me own business. I reckons too much bathing weakens ya.’

“As a manual labourer, he carried his own smell. This was true for many men of that time who worked with horses, cattle, ferrets, slurry, and who sweated in rarely-laundered overalls and corduroys. ‘He stinks to high heaven,’ muttered granny, but it was said without blame attached.

“I was a smelly kid too, in winter doing without a bath, surviving on a lick and a promise. My playmates lived the same way. We smelt of Vicks vapour rub, had nits, impetigo, ring-worm, scabies and worms. The village nurse propped her high bike up against the gate, after her the health visitor, to put things right temporarily with a lecture on hygiene.

“Babies were smelly bundles too. Terry towelling nappies and thick bibs reeking of vomit, curdled milk and worse. Clothes could only be changed infrequently.

“Getting washing dry was a problem. ‘Thank God for a good drying day,’ women would call to each other over the hedge. On winter days, they strung up lines, the kitchen draped with washing taking advantage of the range or dying embers of the front-room fire. It was some years before the arrival of washing machines and refrigerators into working-class home.

“These were days of the outside larder and the outside privy, set some distance from the house, which meant a pot under the bed was essential.

“It didn’t matter that grandad didn’t bathe. He stropped his razor, got down his shaving mug, lathered his Erasmus shaving stick and scraped off his bristles. I adored the smell of him as I snuggled up close or dozed on his lap. Perspiration and embrocation; gran wafted Sloan’s linament.

“Have we gone too far in our efforts to eradicate all natural smells? Deodorants, body lotions, sprays and gels for bodies and bathrooms. Even something similar for the dog!

“Scent, perfume, fragrance – it all amounts to the same thing whatever the advertising jargon. Expensive too – you can’t expect to get many millilitres for £50. And who wears these perfumes? Stressful, excitable, tense names: I couldn’t wear Gorilla, Guilty, Graffiti or Alien.

“Would you be tempted by the charms of a man wearing Urban Edge or City Rush? In confined spaces, even pleasant smells can be offensive. ‘The best smell was a waft from far off’ can sometime be true.

“In these times, we couldn’t live up to the motto ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ –nowadays, cleanliness has overtaken Godliness.

“Where can I find California Poppy, which my mum used to smell of when she was going off to the pictures to see Fred and Ginger?”