Demeter Archive - Family Life

In the photographs and images donated to the Demeter Archive, Belfast women can be seen in all phases of family life. These images and stories give details of daily life and the challenges and joys of growing up and starting families of their own.

Prime Cut Demeter Archive - women paddlingPrime Cut Demeter Archive - 3 ChildrenPrime Cut Demeter Archive - Bath Time

For most of the 20th century family life centered around the home. With large families, shortages in housing and  low wages, working-class women found life that life in Belfast could be (was often) challenging. Women were responsible for all of the tasks associated with the running of the household. Once women were married, they did not work outside the home some worked within their homes often sewing, knitting, washing and ironing or baking for other women and families to supplement the family’s income.  With none of the labour saving devices common today, work in the home was physically exhausting and repetitive. Even up 30 years ago women devoted an entire day each week to the washing and another full day to ironing. Women relied on help from their children, usually their daughters, with these jobs.

Bathtime in BelfastFamilies in Belfast would have lived in a “kitchen” or “parlour” terraced house. In a “parlour house” there was a living room reserved for good or special occasions, and a back room where food was cooked and much of the everyday home life took place.  Beyond that was a scullery, an area with a sink and worktop. There may have been a larder and meat-safe where perishable food would be kept cool. Outside in the yard was a toilet, a coal house and maybe a garden. As late as the 1940s there was no toilet paper but scraps of magazines or newspaper sewn together with a needle and thread by the younger members of the family. Babies and children were washed outdoors in big metal tubs, if it was sunny.   A kitchen house, described by Demeter Project participant Mary Cummings, was “really just a living room, another room, a scullery where the cooking was done, the dishes and clothes were washed and the men shaved in there, everything really. Because there was no bathroom.”

In homes in the early 20th century there was just a fire or range in the kitchen for cooking and heating but there was no such thing as central heating or electricity.  Hot water bottles would have supplied heat for the bedrooms. Some families had running water and the washing was done by boiling water on the range for whites or using a washboard, soap and scrubbing brush. This chore, sometimes done by the younger girls in the family, was followed by ringing out the clothing by hand and hanging it on an in-door clothes line.   Other chores done by younger girls in the family often included peeling potatoes for dinner, sewing or caring for the younger siblings. Ruth Martin remembers sewing sections of flour sacks together to use as sheets, these sheets were  made from cotton flour bags and were boiled, scoured, and bleached to remove their lettering. “I came from a large family and we were all independent in my family, we always have been….. We were all taught to do things with our hands, to be self sufficient.” Brigid Black remembers waking up in the mornings with the imprint of the flour sacks crease on her leg.

  Prime Cut Demeter Archive - Lilliput WashworksPrime Cut Demeter Archive - Nugget Shoe PolishPrime Cut Demeter Archive - Whites Wafer Oats

In the 1950s -1960s as new materials and modern appliances were introduced after the war, from vacuums to freezers/fridges and washing machines, along with new housing and electricity homes and especially kitchens changed. This changed many of the daily routines of women.   Some women in Belfast remember “renting” a washing machine, a man would deliver the machine in the morning and she would do all of her washing before he picked it at the end of the day, only to bring it to a different house the next day.

Electricity and televisions were a luxury and many women remember the electricity being installed in their parent’s homes and getting their first television. It was customary for the lights to be turned out and everyone to crowd around the television and watch it like they were in a cinema/like sitting around a fire. If some children in the neighborhood didn’t have a tv of their own they might watch their neighbors through the window.

Whether a small or large kitchen, 1925, 1965 or 1995 the daily ritual of tea has always been a central and important part of family life. Everyone, both young and old, enjoys the tradition of a good cup of tea. Tea is not simply a meal or snack but a ritual that women of all ages and backgrounds take part in. This is where stories are shared, advice is passed on and women share intimacies with one another. It was during The Demeter Project that some of the stories collected were told.  The preparing of the tea- from heating water in the kettle and setting the table to serving it with biscuits, is a ritual known to almost all families in Belfast.

 Brigid Black remembers her mother, Mary Cummings’, baked goods for tea as a staple of family life  growing up in the Cummings family home and bake shop o the Antrim Road inn Belfast. “ my mummy always baked the best sweets and breads.

Games and Toys

It was lovely because we played wee house games

Because many homes were small and families were large, street games and playing outside were very much a part of children’s lives growing up in Belfast. Children had fun with simple things.

From the 1930s well into the 1960s many women remember playing games like Hop Scotch, Skipping Rope, Kerby, Uppies/Downies or Perrie and Whoop Hoop Stick. Girls played with dolls, sometimes made out of rags and also played games like  “house” on the street, sweeping dirt into straight lines to mark “rooms” in “houses”.

Another popular game was “shop”, where each child would take a turn being in charge and used broken blue, green and brown glass as money. Almost all the games and songs were made up and didn’t cost anything to play as most parents had very little money. Yet women remember being very happy to use their imaginations to create their own toys and games. Camping out in the backyard and telling ghost stories was another favourite.

Toys and special games would be saved for special occasions like birthdays and Christmas. Briege O’Hare remembers waking up on Christmas morning and going outside to play with the other children in the neighborhood. Gifts might have been a new book, a doll and pram or a new bike though fruit and sweets was typical.   

Dances and Growing Up

In their teen years, sometimes as young as 14, women generally went to work in the mills and factories.  With the friends and money they made at work they began to explore what life offered outside of the home.  Short holidays might be organized by the workplace like day trips to Isle of Man and Portrush by Gallaher Tobacco Factory.   

After handing over their pay to the mothers, women received a weekly allowance for things like going to the cinema or the “pictures”,  or sweets. As they got older many women attended dances lessons and enjoyed dancing at places like The Plaza, Fiesta and Dosser’s Ballroom. 

“ We were dancing at the plaza. We hadn’t been going together long and one night while we were dancing he says I have to ask you a question, Would you marry me? Now before you answer I want you to think about it for a week. And then he never mentioned it again so I thought he forgot about it. But a week later he asked me if I had an answer and I said yes.”  

Getting Married, Birth Stories and Setting Up House for the First Time

Before the 1960s women working in the civil service, mills or factories had to leave their jobs once they married.  So a wedding was a significant milestone which could mark the end to working outside the home. This was a transition from a girl’s/woman’s role in the family from daughter of one family to wife and mother of her own.

Since hands-on crafts and skills were very much a part of daily life in Belfast in the early to middle 20th century preparation for weddings began in the home with the making of dresses. Wedding dresses much like dresses for dances and other occasions were made by hand by the bride or a family member rather than purchased in a shop. Weddings were small affairs involving a church service followed by a wedding breakfast or lunch at the church hall, family home or hotel. The breakfast cooked by friends and relatives before the bride and groom set off on a brief honeymoon perhaps in a borrowed car driving to a few local cities or a train trip to Dublin for the weekend.

Moving out of the family home into a home of their own greatly depended on finances. For instance in some families it was customary for the new bride and groom to live with a family member like a granny until they could afford to rent a home of their own. Though once the new family started to grow and women had children of their own privacy was desired.

“The doctor advised me to have a birth at home because if there was a serious matter with the baby that the hospitals had barricades and it could be difficult.” Ruth

“I bought my first house for 900 pounds” Briege

In the 1960s and 1970s women in Belfast found more opportunities for work and education. Though dances at the plaza were no longer happening, teenagers and young women still went out to listen to music and spend time with their friends. Martina McCrossan describes her ritual as a teenager in the 1970s, following beauty routines from Petticoat magazine and dressing in high heels on a Saturday night. Despite the Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s music played a significant part of life for teenagers.  Bands  played in Belfast to eager audiences and music like Michael Jackson satisfied teenagers.  Though teenagers no longer buy records or cassettes, they still have an obsession with music and bands Justin Beiber, JLS and Rihanna are some of today’s favourites.