Rush lights and butter pats – everyday objects of times past

Alwyn Hughes’ interest in farming in the ‘horse era’ developed from his own childhood memories of life in Llanwddyn village, and more recently his friendship with a retired farmer, now in his mid nineties, who is probably the last farmer in Montgomeryshire to have used heavy horses. Life was very different in pre-tractor times; farm workers would walk their horses and equipment to the fields and back again. They would expect to plough an acre of ground in a day which would entail walking behind the horse and plough, with its 9 inch wide ploughshares, for about 11 miles. And then they would probably walk to the pub in the evenings, too! Rural communities had to be self-sufficient, neighbours would help neighbours, and food would be shared. Alwyn told of the pre-public transport three-times-a-year shopping trips to Llanfyllin by his grandmother for food essentials such as sugar, tea and salt, as well as clothes. Each village would have a blacksmith, a saddler, a wheelwright, a baker, dressmakers, a variety of small shops, and a range of other trades, but the main occupation was agriculture.

On two large tables at the front of the Girls’ Parlour were arranged some of the many everyday objects that Alwyn has acquired over the years, which he used to illustrate his talk on the 21st March.

Domestic life centred upon the hearth. In ancient times, the fire was in the centre of the dwelling, with no chimney to let out the smoke. The fires mainly burnt peat, and were never allowed to go out, whatever the season, for this was the only source of heat for cooking. A sod of peat would be placed over the fire at night to keep it smouldering until morning when the fire would be blown back into life with bellows. Then came the inglenook fireplace, and the range, and with these the cast iron cauldron and kettle. Alwyn showed examples of utensils such as the huge meat fork, and the kettle tipper (also known as ‘idle backs’) which hung from a chain over the fire. Both of these were made by a blacksmith in the eighteenth century. We also saw many examples of kitchenware made of sycamore which was commonly used because of its abundance; it scoured well, and didn’t taint the food. Bowls, a rolling pin, darning ‘mushrooms’, and spoons were examples of sycamore objects. Wood was replaced by pewter, then enamel, and later the blue and white willow pattern. Tinsmiths also produced kitchen items such as the cream jug Alwyn showed us. Fire heated the flat irons we all recognised. More unusual was an iron with a rounded base which was used for cap sleeves and collars, and goffering tongs for lace ruffs and pleats.

Fire was also used for light. Alwyn explained the process of making rush lights which were commonly used near river valleys such as Trannon, where rushes were plentiful. The rushes were stripped back to the pith, leaving just a very narrow strip of the outer layer to hold it together, and then soaked in mutton fat which had been saved in the grease pan and melted by the fire. He had a beautiful example of a rush light holder on the table, which could also hold a candle. Tallow candles were another option, using fat from their own sheep and cattle, repeatedly dipping a wick into the molten fat to build up the candle shape. These were smelly and smoky, but beeswax candles were beyond the means of most people. One innovative candlestick looked like a spring on a base – a small lever on the side adjusted the height of the candle as it burnt down. Related to these were the wick trimmers and candle snuffers, of which Alwyn had several examples. The variations and developments in many of these everyday items demonstrated the resourcefulness of the crafts people in problem solving and refining their designs. Oil lamps will have partly replaced the candle, and one curiosity on show was a Scottish cruisie lamp, which burnt fish oil, and this style of lamp has been in use for thousands of years.

Pig killing day was a great event in the rural calendar, and there on display were some of the tools for the job – a pig sticker was the large knife used to do the deed, and an improvised razor to remove the bristles from the animal while it was immersed in boiling water, before it was butchered. From the dairy came a model milking stool, which led on to one of Alwyn hilarious stories, and butter pats and stamps, also known as ‘Scotch hands’ with which the butter was shaped and marked. Butter making was very important in every farm, as surplus butter could be sold to bring in much needed income. Rabbits were an important part of the rural economy, providing meat at a time when other meat sources were a luxury. Their abundance had to be kept in check, though, and the rabbit catcher always had work to do. However, he would always leave some for next year!

A former teacher, Alwyn used his classroom skills to the full, keeping our attention, encouraging audience participation, and ensuring that it was a highly entertaining evening.

If you are interested in domestic memorabilia, you might like to visit the ‘Old and Interesting’ website at