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Backwords: Donkey Stones

These days a lot of donkey work has gone out of household chores, says Mike Shaw. Young housewives of today don't know what a donkey stone is.

A lot of the donkey work has gone out of household chores these days.

If youíre not convinced, ask the young housewives of today if they know what a donkey stone is.

Not many do, I reckon, Donkey stoning went out with the old flat irons, black-leaded fireplaces and wash wringers.

Today youíll have a job to even find a donkey stone, although I know a few folk who have hung on to them as museum pieces.

But the back-breaking womanís work of getting down on her knees and scouring the steps with a lump of white, yellow or brown stone is a thing of the past.

Why did they do it, for heavenís sake, you might ask. I suppose the answer lies in pride and tradition.

Pride in having clean steps, clean window ledges and, in some cases, clean floors. And tradition dies hard in our Pennine valleys, even though it involves hard work.

Saturday morning was always donkey stoning time at our house in my boyhood days. That was when my mother got down to her weekly scouring session.

We had a poky little porch, like no-manís land, between our outer and inner doors, and all around the doormat were stone flags which were religiously donkey-stoned once a week.

It was, I suppose, a relic of the days when working-class folk with flagged floors couldnít afford carpets or lino so covered them with a layer of donkey-stone instead.

Outside privies were also given a good scouring, along with floors in a lot of pubs, shops and mills.

Iím reliably informed that the scouring stones were made from powdered stone, mixed with water, cement and bleach. The mixture was ground into a fine, wet paste, pressed into an oblong mould then cut, stamped and air-dried.

The most common stamp was a little donkey- hence the name donkey stone - but others included a lion and a pony.

So far as I know, the last firm to make donkey stones had the marvellous name of Eli Whalley and operated from a little back yard in Ashton-under-Lyne.

Believe or not but Eli and his workers at one time turned out 2,500,000 donkey stones a year. Placed end to end they would have stretched from Huddersfield to Blackpool and back.

That was in the days when you could tell whether you were going into a house-proud womanís abode by glancing down at the doorstep.

If it was donkey-stoned you were very likely in for a good tea with plenty of home-made sweetstuff. If not you might have to make do with a cream cracker or a rich tea biscuit.

Eli Whalleyís successors tried to resurrect the donkey stones as people started using them to clean up their stonework.

But the revival was short-lived. And I believe all Eliís ancient machinery has now gone to a museum.

So the ageing house-proud women of Marsden and Meltham, Golcar and Greetland, have lost their donkey stones for ever.

Ingenuity has taken over here and there. But if you see a doorstep with what looks like a donkey-stoned edge, beware. Itís almost certainly done with a pot of paint and a narrow brush.


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