Primary History

World War 2: Wartime homes

  • Homes in the 1940s

    Many children in the 1940s lived in small houses or flats. In towns, many people lived in small terraced houses. There were blocks of flats too, though not as tall as the 'tower blocks' built after the war. A typical family house had a sitting room and kitchen, with two or three bedrooms upstairs. Not all houses had bathrooms or indoor toilets.

    Many houses had windows stuck over with paper tape. In an air raid, the blast-force of a bomb exploding could shatter windows along a street. Tape across the windows stopped the glass shattering into thousands of pieces, and causing injuries.

    Back to top

  • In the Sitting Room

    In many homes, people sat to relax in the sitting room (also called the lounge, parlour or simply the 'front room'). Here they would read, listen to the radio or chat. They ate meals in the kitchen, or the dining room if there was one. The sitting room was often the 'best room', kept for visitors.

    In most homes a coal fire warmed the sitting room. There were gas and electric fires too, but few homes had central heating. In cold weather, people sat around the fire.

    It was a good idea to keep a candle in every room. During air raids, bombs often hit power cables and gas pipes. Then people were left in the dark, without electricity or gas to light their homes.

    Back to top

  • Blackout time

    Some homes had gas lamps, but by the 1940s gas lights were a bit old fashioned. Many homes had electric light. Every window had 'blackout curtains', which were drawn at night. If not, the ARP warden came along, shouting 'put that light out'. 'Blackout curtains' stopped light from rooms showing from outside. There were no street lights either. The idea was to stop lights from towns guiding enemy planes to drop bombs.

    Coal fires kept people warm in winter. Coal was a very important fuel. It kept people warm. More important, it kept factories and trains working.

    Back to top

  • Children's rooms

    In families, children often shared bedrooms. In bed, they snuggled down under blankets and eiderdowns - very few people used duvets. Some bedrooms had a jug and basin for washing your face and hands in the morning. Not every home had a bathroom. Children kept books and toys in their bedrooms, but there were no TVs, and no computer games of course.

    Some homes had only an outside toilet, and in many homes it was chilly going to the bathroom at night. So small children often used a 'chamber pot' (potty). The pot was made of china and was kept out of sight under the bed.

    Back to top

  • Baths and Toilets

    Not every 1940s home had a bathroom. Many poor families washed in the kitchen, and had baths in front of the fire. The metal bath was filled with hot water from pans and kettles. In bathrooms, hot water often came from a gas heater.

    The wartime ration for a bath was 5 inches (12.5 cm) of water once a week. The idea was to save water. In some families, it meant several people used the same bathwater, one after the other!

    Not all homes had an inside toilet. You used an outside toilet in the backyard or garden. To avoid a chilly walk in the night, you could use a pot kept under the bed.

    Back to top

  • Doing the Washing

    Washday meant hand washing or boiling dirty towels and sheets in a 'copper' or 'boiler'. This was a metal tank filled with water heated by gas. Few people had washing machines. A washboard made scrubbing easier.

    After rinsing (in clean water), wet clothes were squeezed through a 'mangle'. The mangle had two rollers, turned by a handle. As you turned the handle, the rollers squeezed water out of the wet washing. The clothes were then hung on a line over the fire or outside to dry. They were 'aired' on a fold-up wooden 'clothes horse'.

    Back to top

Fun Facts
  • In 1942 Utility furniture went on sale. Chairs and tables were made for 'utility' or 'use', from wartime materials.

  • There was such a shortage of furniture that people were asked to look in attics for old tables and chairs.

  • Wartime rationing meant smaller books printed on recycled paper.

  • People moved around a lot during the war. There were 60 million changes of address.

  • By 1941 over 2 million homes had been destroyed by bombing.

  • Cutting bath towels in half meant less washing, and so saved water.

  • One tip was: stand a saucepan of water in the hot oven after you finish cooking. Then you had hot water for washing up.

  • Cottonwool ear-plugs helped muffle the noise of air raids.

  • Not all wartime hot water bottles were 'bendy' like today's - they were made from pottery.

  • Many people were worried that their pets would be frightened by air raids. Pet shops sold 'Fit and Hysteria' powders - to put in a pet's food, to keep a cat or dog calm and quiet.

  • Some children became good at telling grown-ups how to look after their gas masks. Never put it near the fire! Don't carry it by the straps!

  • One idea was to cut the wooden legs off an old bed, and turn the bed into a sofa.

  • At Buckingham Palace, the king and queen banned all flowers, unless they were picked in the palace garden.

  • One not-very-sensible suggestion for a wartime Christmas present was a bullet-proof wallet, to keep your money safe!

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

air raid
An attack by planes dropping bombs.
air raid drill
Practice for what to do in air raid, such as going to the shelter.
air raid shelter
A building to protect people from bombs.
Countries (including Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the USA) who joined forces to fight the Axis Powers.
Small plot of land for growing vegetables.
atomic bomb
Weapon first used in 1945 when two bombs were dropped on Japan, killing more than 100,000 people.
Axis Powers
Germany, Japan, Italy and other countries that were allies in World War 2.
Wartime ban on street lights and other lights at night.
German air raids, from a German word 'blitzkrieg' which means 'lightning war'.
British Empire
Countries ruled by Britain.
Controlling what people say or write.
People not in the armed forces.
Civil Defence
A network of civilian volunteers who assisted in the war effort by helping in air raids and rescuing people from bombed buildings.
Group of friendly countries almost all of which were once part of the British Empire.
concentration camp
Prison where Jews and other prisoners were kept by the Nazis.
Slip of paper marked or torn out of a ration book.
6 June 1944, the date Allied forces landed in Normandy, France.
department store
Large shop selling different things in different departments.

E to G

Someone who was evacuated, moved from a danger area to a safer place.
Places where things are made.
The Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy and other services.
Frank,Anne (1929-1945)
A German Jewish girl who spent two years hiding from the Nazis in a house in Holland. Her wartime diary was published after the war.
gas mask
Face mask to protect people against poison gas.
general election
Vote to choose Members of Parliament, and a new government.
Machine for playing music records.

H to L

Hitler,Adolf (1929-1945)
Leader of Nazi Germany.
Mass murder of Jews and other people by the Nazis.
host family
People who took in evacuees to live with them.
Attacked and taken over by an enemy.
People who follow the religion of Judaism.
To free from an enemy's control.

M to O

military uniform
Clothing worn by soldiers, sailors and airmen.
To do with the navy or warships.
A fight between ships at sea.
Short for National Socialist Party (in Germany), a follower of Hitler was also called a Nazi.
Taken over by enemy forces.

P to S

prime minister
Leader of the government of Britain.
prisoners of war
Soldiers captured by the other side.
Controlling news media (such as radio) to show your side in the best way.
Controlling the supply of food, clothes, petrol and other things.
A person forced to leave their home, often by war.
A list of names. In WW2 people had to register with shops before they could use their ration books there.
Fighting back in an occupied country, for example by refusing to help the enemy.
scrap metal
Waste metal such as old cooking pans.
Machine that made a wailing noise as a warning when enemy planes were seen.
A catchy phrase or saying.
Soviet Union
Country made up of Russia and other states that are now independent.
steam train
A train pulled by a locomotive burning coal.
stirrup pump
Small hand pump for squirting water to put out fires.

T to Z

A short message sent by phone, then printed out and delivered.
London's Tube rail system.
United Nations
Organization set up in 1945 by the Allies to work for world peace.
People who don't eat meat.
war crime
Mass murder or cruel treatment of people during a war.
Wooden board with ridges, for scrubbing dirty clothes on.