Life since the Second World War in Britain has changed a great deal – the steady, productive and necessary growth in the first two decades after the war, and in the mad orgy of consumption that developed after that, and particularly in the two great Scottish cities that were known for their crowded conditions and poverty.
It was women who by hard labour and careful calculation held together lives that today we’d consider near impossible – 13 children in a “room-and-kitchen”, what we’d call a one-bedroom flat today, or half a dozen in an “end”, a studio flat, living on mostly bread and potatoes, with a smattering of meat, margarine and vegetables to create a survivable diet. It was a life of endless handwashing, scrubbing and cleaning, nursing the sick and caring for children.
In 1911 66% of the houses in Glasgow and 41% of those in Edinburgh had only one or two rooms. About the same time 43% of the single-room houses shared a sink (and water supply), consisting of “made over” older properties., while 94% in Edinburgh and 93% in Glasgow shared toilet facilities.
The lives they lived is the subject of She Was Aye Workin’, (aye meaning "always") which uses primarily oral history sources to give a vivid picture of tough, resilient women, and communities.
There was a strict gender division in most communities in both of these cities, which meant jobs and roles were clearly allocated as male or female. “Alex Kellock, growing up as one of eleven children in the 1920s, does not remember having to do ‘as much as boil an egg’ as he had older sisters who did everything for him and his seven brothers, even making their beds. He left the family home for marriage and never had to do anything in the house until he was widowed in his 70s.”
Women developed high level domestic skills to keep clean impossibly crowded, and frequently old and decrepit homes, and feed large numbers on a tiny budget. Isa Keith describes one of her mother’s specialities: “They would give you a sheep’s heid, they would cut it in half and it had tae get a lot of cleaning before you actually cooked it. She’d clean and clean it, and then she’d leave it overnight in salt water to make sure it was absolutely clean. She used to tae take the tongue and cheek, she would press it in a plate, ken, a dish, and then a plate on top and maybe the iron, and press it. And that was potted head… and it was lovely. And you’d have that with beetroot for supper.”