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Wednesday, 1 January 2020

New Month Old Post: Donkey Stone

I seem to have gained quite a few new readers during the past year since starting to comment more on other blogs and discovering a lovely, friendly and supportive blogging community out there. I have therefore been thinking of instigating a regular feature “New Month Old Post” to revisit and perhaps improve earlier posts they won’t have seen, posted during the previous five years I spent blogging sometimes only to myself. Here, almost at random, is the first selection.

This has nothing at all to do with a recent accusation that I don’t post enough (YP Blog Awards Committee 2019). If anything, it’s a duplicitous way of being able to post less.

Donkey Stone

(first posted 27th May, 2016)

Advertisement for Donkey Stone

We were discussing door steps last week – I can’t remember why – and a very early memory came back.

“Did your mother ever colour your front door step with a block like a piece of house soap?”

My wife’s expression indicated she thought I was talking gibberish. It is a look I get quite a lot these days – the same expression she used for her mother before she went into a care home.

“I’m sure my mum used to rub our front door step with something called a dolly stone or something like that, which coloured it red,” I persisted. 

“What a stupid idea. It would get paddled all over the carpets on people’s shoes.”

“I think she did the window sills and round the boot scraper as well.”

My wife, who is from the South of England, still thinks some of our Northern ways are peculiar, even after twenty-five years in Yorkshire. She is particularly contemptuous of memories of the small West Riding town I grew up in. I tried to explain that the boot scraper was where you left the empty milk bottles, but it seemed inadvisable to go further and argue that, no, the colour would not have got paddled all over the carpets because we didn’t have any – we had lino and clip rugs – and the topic moved on.  

Dan Cruickshank using Donkey Stone

But there, last night on television, as clear as anything, was Dan Cruickshank in At Home with the British, scouring the door step of a Liverpool terraced house with a DONKEY stone. They were made from pulverised stone, cement and bleach, and originally used in textile mills to make greasy steps non-slip. Subsequently, house-proud housewives in terraced houses used them to clean their stone door steps and window sills. Like clean net curtains, it was a way of fooling the neighbours into thinking the rest of your house was just as spotless, even though it might have been a filthy pigsty inside. The practice died out in the nineteen-fifties and -sixties, especially after in some houses the worn soft Yorkshire stone steps were replaced by coarse concrete.

First home with boot scraper beside front door
So I wasn’t talking gibberish. We left that house when I was six, but I have a clear memory of my mum, down on her hands and knees on the pavement one sunny summer’s day, dipping a rectangular block into a bucket of water, rubbing it into a paste all over the front door step and telling me to “keep off it while it dries” (as we would have said then). One of the most common colours was yellow-brown sandstone which I would see as red (explained in Colours I See With).

The only surprise is that I had forgotten about the donkey.


The Donkey Stone advertisement is from an out-of-print 1930s directory. Inclusion of the single frame from “At Home with the British” is believed to be fair use. The last picture is of the house where I first lived. Its doors and windows have changed (excluding the attic) but it still has the boot scraper recess beside the front door.

34 comments:

  1. I remember donkey stones, dolly tubs, ginnels and calling someone a Pranock. To'ther side of the Pennines though.

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    1. Who you calling a pranock? Right! Outside! (but please don't mark the step).

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  2. Sadly we didn't have those *daan saarf* where I grew up but I remember seeing something similar on programmes on our old black and white TV set.

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    1. Your front door steps must have looked filthy.

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    2. our concrete steps were never pretty anyway.

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  3. They may have scrubbed their doorsteps but they did it in their curlers. I know. I used to watch Coronation Street.

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    Replies
    1. But they used to cover them with a head scarf tied up with sticky-out corners.

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  4. Thought of another word Tasker: Wazzock. A stupid person. Sounds like Bozza at number 10.

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    1. I don't think I heard words such as prat, pillock, wazzock until the nineteen seventies.

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  5. Yes, I remember donkey stones and my Mum on her hands and knees scrubbing the front step with soap and water before using the stone. Also the same with the outside window sill, running the stone along the front edge so that it matched the step. Memories, eh?

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    Replies
    1. I find it hard to understand now. You would have thought they had enough housework to do as it was.

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  6. I was going to comment in my usual mischievous manner but as this is a new year, I have made a resolution to only say nice, bland things in blog comments. I'm not sure how long this will last but anyway, here goes...

    Another fascinating blogpost Mr Dunham. Thank you for sharing your donkey stone knowledge with visitors to this excellent blog. I hope that you are well and that you have a super new year. All the best!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks to Northsider in his first commment above I have a new word in my vocabulary and I would like to thank you for this opportunity to use it in my thoughts.

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  7. I am quite sure we never had such a thing in Canada!

    And yes, the blogosphere is a very quid pro quo kind of place, generally speaking. The more you visit and comment on other people's blogs, the more your readership and comments will increase.

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    Replies
    1. All that prairie rain keeps doorsteps constantly scrubbed and spotless.

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  8. What a fascinating ritual with the donkey stone! I mean, it makes sense. One wouldn't want to slip and fall, after all. I wonder if that sort of attention was paid to any front steps in the New World? (-must consult Google.)

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    1. I think it was mainly a northern English thing. Don't know whether doorsteps ever got slippery but it made them look nice.

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  9. We used donkey stones here in Lancashire. However I also remember something called Cardinal red. Also used on doorsteps. It was more a type of paint. More permanent than the donkey stone. Regarded as quite posh. Dolly blue was an addition to the washing of white clothes,sheets and table cloths. Gave a slight blue tinge and took away any yellowing.

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    1. Sounds like you should have been a consultant for the Dan Cruickshank programme. My mum would probably have known about Cardinal Red and Dolly Blue - just looked up Dolly Blue and it sounds dangerously poisonous.

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  10. My mother born 1905 had an English gran who bought her up . I remember her telling me she did not tell her that she had a headache or she would be given a bucket hot water and scrubbing brush to scrub the front step. It was to take your mind off it.thanks for your blogg I enjoy reading it nana from down under.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading. You didn't get much sympathy in those days. Sounds a good remedy to me - fresh air, steam and exercise.

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  11. People living in the almost iconic row houses of our cities of Philadelphia and Baltimore still scrub their front steps. I'm sure the practice was imported from your fair land by the original colonists.

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    1. I found this link about steps in "row houses" being scrubbed white (it has a slideshow of images not just the first): http://darkroom.baltimoresun.com/2016/08/scrubbing-baltimores-white-steps/#1

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    2. Thanks for the link. An interesting read. I didn't know that the scrubbing of marble steps had pretty much ceased in Baltimore. It mkes me wonder now about Philadelphia.

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  12. We had a dolly though. Was it called a dolly something? I shall try and find a photo and check.

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  13. Replies
    1. I think my mum called it a dolly tub, which went with a peggy stick. And everyone had mangles - I remember our first spin dryer which was a separate stand-alone device. Funny how everyone jumps from donkey stones to wash days.

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  14. Once experienced, a Glasgow wash day with boiler, mangle and pulley was never forgotten.

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    1. Pulley? Is that the clothes drier hauled up on a pulley to the ceiling. We had one in the kitchen. All the clothes must have smelled of food.

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  15. Hi, great blog, keep up the good work. Please look out for an email I have sent you regarding the Donkey Stones ad from the 1930s directory. Regards Peter Topping

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    1. Thanks. Didn't receive an email, though. Could be because the email associated with this blog had to be changed because of changes to btmail and the current one hasn't worked through the associated google labyrinth. It should be taskerdunham@btinternet.com

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