THE old fashioned Donkey Stone was moulded from a cement like mixture into a soft stone varying from white to cream colour. It was used to decorate or whiten a doorstep, pavement edge or window-sill.
Lancashire women have always had a reputation for hard work, hospitality and cleanliness and the scrubbing and mopping of the doorstep, window-sill, pavement and in some cases the edge of the kerb were a ritual once each week for any respectable housewife or factory worker. This passion and habit for keeping the pavement and front-step clean via the Donkey Stone has been practised in Lancashire since the early years of the 19th century and was the final touch to decorate the door-step and flag-stone pavement adjacent to the doorstep.
The original Donkey Stone was the brand name of stones made by Edward Read and Sons Ltd., of Manchester from about 1834. Other manufacturers used their own brand names such as ‘Lion’, ‘Gate’ and ‘Wild’s Big Ben’, but it was the brand name of ‘Donkey’ that stuck in people’s minds and became a household name for generations of housewives right up until the 1960s.
Pride in this task was of paramount importance and woe-be tide any woman who neglected this chore — they were given short-shrift by their neighbours!
Donkey Stones were usually obtained from the ‘Rag-and-Bone’ man in exchange for old clothes, empty jam jars or rags. Nowadays this tradition has largely disappeared, but in hidden corners of Lancashire there are still people around who religiously mop and stone their steps every week.
On speaking to people who once used to Donkey Stone their steps and immediate pavement, it is interesting to learn that the colour of the stone often used to denote the user’s status in society. If a deep yellow stone was used, it was usually by a factory worker; whereas pale cream or white stones were used if the man of the house had a white collar job. This varied, of course, from area to area, but many people in the towns which I’ve visited have confirmed this basic idea of ‘social statuses’ by the colour of the Donkey Stone used.
On the same theme, some women who wanted to ‘upstage’ their neighbours would not only mop and Donkey Stone their front pavements, but would actually swill and scrub part of their back alleyways as well, edging these with Donkey Stone as a final flourish. Indeed, many people from the areas of Blackburn, Burnley, Darwen, Accrington and Rossendale, have told me that "it was a crime not to clean and scrub the back of the houses as well!"
Modern road surfaces and pavements, and, of course, the equality of the sexes has brought about the demise of Donkey Stoning; but many older people remember with affection and nostalgia the days when all the women in the street mopped their flags and gossiped together.
DONKEY-STONING - A Verse
When I wer young, aye—and long before,
We used to run to our back door
When we heard Rag ‘n’ Bone man’s call: "Rags er jars—I’ll take em all."
So out we’d rush, rags in hand’ an’ many a jam-jar, if we’d planned,
And in return, from t’Rag ‘n’ Bone, we’d each receive a Donkey Stone.
On t’ Saturday, wen t’mill wer shut, an’ t’cloathes washed in t’ dolly-butt,
Mi mam ud tek tin bucket an’ mop, an’ on her bended knees she’d flop.
Yes, t’flags wer scrubbed wi-out a moan, then edged around wi’ a Donkey Stone.
Ochre; yellow; white er cream; this last one wer the rich man’s dream.
If you had cream then you wer a snob, one up on next door’s Alice and Bob.
Round t’doorstep, window-sill as well—if you edged t’pavement you wer quite a swell.
An’ it looked good to ony crowd, an’ med the housewife proper proud.
Then t’housewives, wi ther buckets o’ watter, all leant on t’ mop an’ had a natter
‘Bout this an’ that—did you know number 10? Well, whose expectin". "No, nod agen!"
The years have passed and customs changed, th’owd flags n’ doorsteps rearranged;
An’ now it’s tiles on t’ step fer madam—an’ t pavements are all Tarmacadam!
Gone are the Donkey Stoned steps, forgotten; part of the past like Lancashire’s cotton.
Lancashire Mixture by Benita Moore, ISBN 1-873888-65-1, Published by Owl Books 1993