A severe drought in the winter of 1933-34 meant Britain adopted emergency measures to help protect water supplies ahead of what was predicted to be an intensely hot and dry summer. In this article from July 1934, the author – writing under the initials YY – discusses creative and unconventional techniques to limit personal water consumption. This article pays particular focus on recycling bathwater to use in the garden. Since outdoor water usage was limited to those who held a licence during this time, bathwater became an invaluable commodity or “a precious thing that should no more be thrown away rashly than the juices of the vine”. Whether it is by syphoning water or reusing household waste such as old treacle tins or the inner tubes of tyres, the author is inspired at the resourcefulness that humans find “when cast away on a desert island or left in similarly challenging circumstances”.
If we may judge from the correspondence columns in the press, one of the most absorbing topics in Great Britain at the moment is the use of bathwater in the garden during a drought. Hitherto most of us have scarcely given a thought to bathwater. It was water spoiled for common use through its defilement with soap and the soilure of our bodies. As children, we maintained a keen enough interest in it till the last pint of it had disappeared with a terrifying gurgle down the waste pipe; but that was because our nurses, in order to compel us to come out and be dried, had invented a legend that we, too, might be swept down the pipe, where a beast of the family of the Loch Ness monster lay in wait for us. Shades of the prison-house began to close about us, however, and the golden light of credulity was no longer able to penetrate our darkness. Romance gave place to that form of blindness which is called realism. Bathwater, when once used, became to us mere dull and dirty water. It was not even saleable, like old rags and old paper. It was the most worthless and most uninteresting thing in the world.
It required the prolonged drought to convince most of us that it is a mistake to adopt an attitude of contempt, even to bathwater. Men and women of all classes have suddenly become alive to the fact that, in the absence of rain, bathwater is a precious thing that should no more be thrown away rashly than the juices of the vine. It is, some of them even declare, more beneficial than the rain itself would be to the roses and violas in the garden. That admixture of soap, which we once believed ended its uses, appears to give it new qualities of enrichment and to provide it with alkalis that are among the luxuries beloved by the flowers. The very offscourings of our bodies, it may be, are a sweet dish to a pansy. Who can tell? All living things except man have queer tastes. Does not the cow eat grass and the donkey thistles?
Man, however, is a lazy animal. Realising that the flowers in his garden are craving for this once-despised bathwater, he is still perplexed as to which is the easiest way to transfer the dirty water from the bathroom to the garden. To scoop it up in a bowl and to pour it into a watering can and then to walk up and down stairs again and again with the watering-can till he has filled larger outdoor receptacles with the contents of the bath is tedious work even for a man who has nothing else to do. If he is addicted to a cold bath, he may, of course, pour each canful, when he takes it down, straight on to the flower bed, but in blazing sunshine that may do little good to the flowers. Whether the water is hot or cold, he will probably find it best to store the precious stuff up till the approach of sunset, when every flower, gasping like a fish on dry land, will be able to appreciate his showers of blessing before falling into its evening slumbers.
Readers of the Times have been suggesting a variety of labour-saving devices for getting the bathwater into the garden. One reader recommends “syphoning” the water from the bathroom to the outer world. Another reader says that he knows a better method. He has “attached an old inner-tyre tube (cut) to the end of the waste-pipe, near the drain; and then, by means of either old treacle-tins or tinned fruit tins, with their bottoms cut out, he put on as many more inner-tubes as necessary. The tins,” he explains, “make a perfectly water-tight joint, as the soft rubber tyres can be stretched well over them. The resultant ‘hose’ is moved to a different place each night, and the bath water does the rest.” How ingenious human beings become when cast away on a desert island or left in similarly challenging circumstances! How Nature comes to their aid, too, with a supply of inner-tubes and old treacle-tins, as in The Swiss Family Robinson! I, unfortunately, should have to do an injury to my motor car in order to procure an inner-tube, and I should not know where to lay my hands on an old treacle-tin if my life depended on it. I do not even know whether we use tinned fruit in the house, and in these hard times it would seem scarcely decent to try to borrow an old tinned-fruit tin from a neighbour. Besides, even if I had an old treacle-tin or an old tinned-fruit tin with the bottom cut out, and an inner-tube, and all the rest of it, I should be perfectly incapable of putting them together in such a way as to devise the elaborate contraption by means of which the Times correspondent waters his garden. I should feel exactly as I should feel if someone gave me all the parts of a motor car or a wireless set with instructions how to put them together. Tasks such as these are for scientific giants. If my flowers depended on my engineering capacity, they would indubitably die of thirst.
At the same time, this correspondent’s letter confirmed me in my belief in the worth of worthless things. Not only has he found old bathwater useful: he has found even old innertubes and old treacle-tins useful. Who will ever again be able to throw anything away with a good conscience? I once knew a man who, when he had lit his pipe with a match, always put the dead match into his waistcoat pocket. He realised that, by relighting it at a gas-bracket, he could use it again. That man seems now to have been a pioneer. He saw that there was nothing, however worthless it seemed, that was really worthless. Yet how many things we throw away carelessly every day – empty cigarette packets, empty bottles, old corks, old newspapers! I myself am something of a miser as regards useless things, and can scarcely bear to throw away even an old postcard. I hate to see the medicine cupboard cleared of its old half-finished bottles. When I get a new shaving-brush, I am still faithful enough to the old one to wish to preserve it for a rainy day. If the house were full of old treacle-tins, I should, I am sure, be reluctant to see them committed to the indignity of the dust-cart. It now looks as though this hatred of throwing things out may have a basis in common sense. Hitherto I have been credited with nothing better than indolence.
I had no sooner grown complacent as regards my appreciation of worthless things, however, than Lady Maud Warrender published a letter declaring that all these tubes and tyres are entirely unnecessary for the purpose of getting bathwater into the garden. “Why,” she asked, “worry about tyre tubes and treacle-tins, when you can place a tank on the ground outside and fill it with a tin can from the bath-room window? Having shot tigers and targets,” she added, “I find it easy to make a good hit at the tank for the benefit of my thirsty garden.” This seems to me to be turning the needs of the flowers into an occasion for sport. Moreover, in the course of her tiger shooting, Lady Maud must sometimes have missed the mark. What if she misses the tank with one of her canfuls of bath water? May not a peony suffer in consequence? What is fun to her may be death to the lupins. I cannot say I like the introduction of the element of blood-sport into the provision of those innocent creatures, the flowers, with their need of bathwater. Little drops of bathwater should not be used as the ammunition of a big-game hunter when the forget-me-nots have such need of them. Better the tedium of the treacle-tins than such heartless play.
The question arises, however, whether the citizen has the right to use the bathwater in his garden during a water-shortage. Recently, a villa-dweller, believing that an Englishman’s bathwater was his own to do as he liked with, carried the soapy water out of his bath to the flowers in his garden, and, being observed by one in authority, was asked whether he had a licence for the outdoor use of water. He admitted that he had not, was prosecuted, and fined. He was punished, I suppose, on the theory that anybody could carry any amount of clean water from the bathroom into his garden and pretend that it was only bathwater. The water authorities take no risks, feeling justly that no man who loves flowers is to be trusted. If the use of the hose is to be forbidden even to those who have taken out a licence, however, can we be sure that the licence-holders will play the game if still permitted to use their bathwater? Will some of them not be tempted to fill the bath extravagantly full in order to have enough water for their flower-beds? Will others of them, deprived of the hose, not brazenly fill their watering-cans at the bathroom tap, with a story ready for the inspector, if he calls; that they were merely using water they had already bathed in? I have a high opinion of human nature, but I do not trust gardeners. It will be a pretty problem, if the drought continues, how far the State can take the risk of allowing the citizen to make what use he pleases of his own bathwater. Meanwhile, mine goes to enrich the grateful earth. How pleasant it is to feel that one is of some use in the world after all!
Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).