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Rod Hunt recalls a delicate, taboo aspect of College Life in the 1950s...personal hygiene!

Year group photo, 1959.

There we all are; 62 of us. Fresh-faced lads, mostly 18 year-olds in three rows starting stiffly out at posterity. 62 pairs of polished shoes - we all had shoe-cleaning kits. 62 ties - we all wore ties. And, yes, 62 white shirts. Mine, I recall, had detachable Van Heusen cutaway collars and I wore cufflinks (de rigueur or what!). Jackets? Well, half of us is sporting the green college blazer and we look like overgrown schoolboys. The other half is wearing tweed jackets, for we dressed exactly like our fathers. More unnerving, we are indistinguishable in dress from the row of college tutors at the front of the photograph.

Our, ahem, under-garments would have had a similar uniformity. Boxer shorts? Designer kegs? Nah! We’re talking here of white, baggy, slightly abrasive cotton underpants from British Home Stores and Marks & Sparks, or white, less baggy but still roomy Y-fronts. Designer labels? Exotic styles? Colours? Low rise briefs? Microfiber stretch? Profile contouring? Undreamed of! Fashion in men’s underwear was light years away.

The modern man...

Now this brings me to an even more delicate topic – our personal hygiene. It’s almost half a century ago now, so it’s a mental leap, Gentle Reader, from the daily power-shower of today with a bathroom cabinet full of moisturising creams, volume shampoos, conditioners, skin toners, shower gels, body lotions, bath essences, deodorants, pre-shave liquid, hair-gel, talcs, comfort-glide shaving foams and after-shave sprays, to the arrangements for bathing and cleanliness which we were used to way back then.

You see, I couldn’t help being both impressed and slightly amused by the odd little moulded fibreglass washroom cubicles that have been installed in every room in Fisher and Astbury houses. These units contain a small toilet, a miniature hand-wash basin and a shower. The shower compartment (not designed for the ample in build) delivers, at the press of a button, 45 seconds-worth of water at a constant temperature. Even for someone of my slim stature, stooping to pick up a dropped bar of soap proved challenging and I needed four presses to complete my shower. Nevertheless, one’s personal ablutions can now be carried out in the privacy of one’s own room, albeit in a sparing and pernickety way; a good ‘sloosh’ being out of the question.

So perhaps it is curmudgeonly of me to appear critical of these individual ‘wash pods’. Doubtless students of today, with their obsession for cleanliness, find them satisfactory enough.

In our day...

In our day, personal cleanliness was a daily social adventure. We used the variously named ‘toilet block’ ‘ablutions’ or ‘wash room’. There was one on every floor and it consisted of two baths, four urinals, four flush toilets and twelve hand-wash basins. The wash basins were arranged in two rows of six placed ‘back to back’ in the centre of the room separated by a narrow, tiled peninsular so that one stood both next to and face-to-face with someone else as one washed. There were no showers.

Choral Society, Summer Term 1958. Members were drawn from three years: First, Second and Mid, so the Second Years are only days away from leaving when this photo was taken. Director (tutor) Emlyn Roberts is front row, fourth from the right. Next to him, on the left (his right), is Bob Hornby who went on to become Senior Lecturer in Drama at Liverpool Hope University. As you look at this photo, I'm back row, second from right, with Ted Scribbens on my right (who, sadly, died in 2012) and Peter Herdman. The famous Malcolm Stowell Smith is on the front row, second from the left.

You might say that in today’s tiny individual cubicles in each room a person can, in private, do everything at once. We, in the communal washroom, did everything together.

Of course we didn’t have the bathroom paraphernalia of today. Ours was a simple sponge bag with toothpaste, toothbrush, soap and flannel. Many of us, might have a razor and shaving brush, but not all, for some of us had not begun to shave. The ‘posher’ among us might own an electric razor.

Our soaps would be a bar of Wrights Coal Tar, possibly a white tablet of Knight’s Castille, or something anonymous and yellow from the Co-op. One was ill-advised to let it be noticed that one had a bar of Pink Camay, but I won’t dwell on the reasons for that! A bar of Imperial Leather created undesirable impression snobbishness and social aggrandisement.

Teaching Practice times were the worst for there was a more urgent and crowded use of washroom than the amenities therein provided; so one queued for a toilet, then queued for a wash basin. Early mornings in this stark cavern with its echoes, slurps and gurgles was a time when certain characters disposed to being hale and hearty seemed, in this steamy, pungent atmosphere, to be at their most voluble.

Now I come to the baths. Having a bath in those days had been for almost the entire population of Britain a weekly occurrence. The washroom bathtubs, therefore, were not in great or constant demand for few took a bath more often than once a week. Next to each bath was a carton of Vim and a cloth. It was necessary to use this to clean off the grey tidemark that ringed the tub after bathing. Invariably, one would find that last person had failed to remove his tidemark so one had to clean the bath twice.

Many of us used liberal amounts of Brylcreem and the more aesthetic among us applied Silvikrin Hair Oil. Shampoos, simply liquid soap without the grease-dissolving properties of modern shampoo, struggled to cut through the film of Brylcreem or hair oil. Brylcreemed hair washed in the bath left behind the mother of all tidemarks – thick and oily. However, hair washing was not the frequent and daily ritual of today. I probably only washed mine only two or three times in any one academic term.

Taking a bath could be risky. It was common for someone to stand on the radiator adjacent to the cubicle wall and put his head over the partition. “Ah, there you are, Rod. Having a bath then?” “Well, it seems so.”  “Right, um, could I just nip into your room a borrow a couple of tea bags?”

I won’t linger over toilets. It is sufficient to say that the toilet paper was hard and shiny and each sheet bore the legend San Izal. It doubled nicely as tracing paper. Some softness of use was to be had by crumpling sheets tightly then smoothing and flattening them out before use. I didn’t linger over the toilets in those days, either.

There may well have been degrees of cleanliness among us all, depending into which category we fell. Among us were three categories – The Lads, the Swots and the Poncers. The lads, being macho, sporty and players of soccer and rugby were probably the cleanest for they took showers after matches and games. At any rate, they smelled pleasantly of wintergreen ointment based on the premise once overheard in the changing room: “Well, lads, if we can’t be fit, at least we can smell fit.”

The poncers (those who ponced about the college, wore waistcoats, carried umbrellas, smoked pipes, listened to Tom Lehrer LPs and discussed existentialism) may possibly have had the edge in personal hygiene over the swots (whose title is self explanatory) but as a self-confessed poncer, I may be biased here.

We all had in common the weekly laundry service. We were allowed to submit certain items, for which we had an allowance, to be laundered weekly – shirts 2, pants 2, singlet 1, socks 2prs, 1, pyjamas 1, towel 1 etc. We had to parcel the dirty items up in brown paper for collection on Thursdays in the ground floor stairwell. Clean laundry was delivered on the following Tuesday. It was not unknown for individuals to forget to put their laundry out, occasionally.                                                               

Personal hygiene? Thinking back, I can’t recall that we were aware overmuch of lank, greasy hair, BO, cheesy feet, grimy collars, and sweat-stained armpits, but  . . . well, that’s history and the march of progress for you. The sanitised looking back at the unsanitary who didn’t ever know they were.



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