The Sixteenth Century writer and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Cleanness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God.” It was an idea taken up by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in the Eighteenth Century, who declared “cleanliness is indeed next to godliness.”
Growing up in rural Somerset, the views of Bacon and Wesley seemed to have become an Eleventh Commandment. Failing to wash, failing to have your hair brushed, failing to have clean finger nails, were serious sins. No-one would mind if your clothes were worn or frayed or old fashioned. What people would mind was if your clothes were unwashed, if you had not made an effort to be clean and tidy.
Cleanliness was about more than just personal preference, it was a necessity of daily work. Soap was at the very heart of it.
The morning and evening milking could not have been considered without scrubbing hands before beginning the work. While the yard and the barton might have been dusty in summer and muddy in winter, the dairy where the milking buckets and clusters were washed and stored was a model of scrubbed sterility.
Hand washing was a serious matter when the vet came. Buckets of hot water would be brought out to the cow stall and the vet would wash vigorously before putting on an oilcloth apron and beginning his work. Soap seemed to be chief barrier against infection.
Before meals, hands had to be washed at the kitchen sink. My grandmother would have sent us back to the kitchen for a second attempt if our efforts to move the accumulated grime did not meet her expectations.
Farm dirt was a simple matter to remove when compared with the oil and grime of engines and farm machinery. My uncle was an agricultural mechanic working for a local farm machinery company and the servicing and repair of tractors, combine harvesters, balers and miscellaneous other machines brought layers of dirt that could only be removed with handfuls of Swarfega.
Cleanliness came with not only a definite appearance, but with a distinctive scent. Carbolic soap was used at home, at work and at school. The distinctive tar-like smell might not have been the scent of godliness, but was certainly the aroma of a healthy cleanness.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, it was no surprise to discover that soap and water were the best preventative, the soap having the capacity to break down the protein coating of the virus. Generations of farmers would have turned to such a response.