Washing Day

For centuries ‘Washing Day’ was always women’s work and in cottages and houses up and down the country it was usually done on a Monday. You may see the name ‘Laundry Cottage’ on your travels which reveals that this would have been an early and vital cottage industry.

This photograph of the laundry in the Dorset village of Nether Compton (by kind permission of Michael Goodden) was taken around 1904 and it shows in the foreground the long cottage where all the work was done and where the successive laundresses lived. If you look very closely you can see the washing lines strung out in the back garden.

laundry reduced

The Nether Compton laundry was run by a succession of women, as recorded in the censuses. Elizabeth Leader with her daughters Louisa and Arabella appear in 1851 and Eliza Thorne with her daughters Elizabeth, Mary and Louisa in 1861 and 1871. Emma Beaumont was aided by the sisters Jane and Carmine Carne in 1881 and by 1901 Annie Allistone with her daughter Nellie and her married daughter Annie Palmer were running the laundry. It was easy to pinpoint the location of this laundry in the village as it was right next to the school. In the final available census, for 1911, Elizabeth Marshall gives her occupation as ‘Laundress for private house’. This has led me to believe that a lot of the work of the village laundry would have been carried out for successive generations of the Goodden family who lived in Compton House.

mangle reducedThis magnificent mangle, still in the Goodden family and discovered some 30 years ago hidden behind one of the buildings in Over Compton, looks to be in very good condition. It has the name ‘Harden Trevett & Son’ on it.

Mangle Harden Trevett

advert reducedThe business became a limited company in 1926, trading as Harden, Trevett & Son Ltd, Ironmongers, Hardware and General Merchants and operating from South Street, Sherborne. It was common practice for ironmongers to have their names cast on items they sold. The mangle must predate 1926 but by how many years we do not know at the moment and further research is ongoing.

There would have been plenty of washing to be done for the residents of Compton House as there was a large family in residence at times, over the years, plus visitors and household staff. There would be weekend house-parties and ‘shoots’ and they would have resulted in a great deal of work for the village laundresses. Would the laundry cater to anyone else – perhaps the vicar and his family? I think this is most likely. Did those  living in the cottages send some of their washing to the village laundry? This I do not know. In my family’s cottage there was a ‘copper’ built into the corner of the kitchen and another one outside. A fire could be lit underneath the heavy iron cauldron and the water heated.

Cauldron reduced

A friend now has a couple of the cauldrons, which were in use originally in Nether Compton, in her garden. For more on this essential domestic item see here.

To aid the washing, blocks of soap would be used and these could be grated to make soap flakes. Washing soda and later Borax would help to get the washing clean. I remember the ‘blue bag’ used in the last rinsing water to whiten the clothes and was surprised to find that Reckitt’s Crown Blue is still on sale today.  Starch would stiffen the clothes and just think of what it would have taken to clean and stiffen the white shirt collars of the day? Originally the large oblong sinks in the laundry would have been made of wood and I can remember some of these in use in one of the barns, many years later, for the hens to lay their eggs in.

flat iron reduced flatiron reduced

And then there was the ironing. When we cleared my granny’s house in 1974 there were half a dozen flat irons still in the kitchen and I kept the smallest (a Number 3 made by E Pugh and Co of Wednesbury) which I had assumed was for the most delicate work, and the mind boggles at how the laundresses would have managed.

Clothing reducedlaundry mark reduced

I also kept some lovely little clothes long abandoned in an old trunk in the loft. They had rusty pins attaching little paper labels with ‘6d’ written on them. The name ‘Goodden’ is hand written onto a couple of them and I believe they were donated to a long-ago jumble sale and perhaps the handwritten name was to identify the clothes when they were sent to the laundry. I do not know how many years after 1911 the laundry continued with the work but at some point, still to be determined, it closed and became a private house and is known today as Vine House.

When I was very young my mother did not have a washing machine and each week she would pack some of our dirty washing into a big strong, oblong cardboard box which was collected and later returned with our laundry washed, starched, pressed and ready for use. She would still do quite a lot of washing by hand and there was a special large heavy pan to boil up certain items on top of the stove. At the earliest opportunity, and certainly well before we had a refrigerator, the very first family washing machine was purchased. This was in the early 1950s and may have been just in time for washing my brother’s nappies. I went to school in the ‘50s and early ‘60s and one of my school friends was surprised to find that in her domestic science book she had carefully copied out a description and a little drawing on ‘How to wash and pin a lace collar’.   So were we really being prepared for domestic service with the swinging ‘60s just around the corner? Hard to believe now!

When my Mum went out to work my Dad, if he happened to be around during the day, would do the family weekly wash in the Hoover  ‘twin-tub’ but he would wait until I got home from school for me to hang it on the washing line. I now realise that the reason behind this probably lies somewhere back in the mists of time when this was most definitely seen as women’s work and it was a step too far for my Dad to be seen by the neighbours to have crossed over this line!

With many thanks to Graham Bendell for sharing his expertise in all things mechanical, metallurgical and more.

Barbara Elsmore

24 May 2016

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7 Responses to Washing Day

  1. Carol says:

    Barbara: I enjoy your posts and for some reason love those old flat irons!

  2. I remember irons that plugged into light sockets too and I think hair driers did as well. I do remember getting a shock from accidentally getting my fingers somehow into the live socket at some point – I think it was part of the great learning process!

  3. Kerri Curtis says:

    Wonderful story Barbara! I recall my mother (here in Australia) using a copper and mangle when I was very small, although it is a fairly dim memory. She used a clothes line with props to raise the line until she acquired the most wonderful invention – a Hills Hoist or rotary clothes line. When I was first married in 1973 I had a Hoover Twin Tub washer and a few years later I felt very privileged to have a fully automatic washer! Blue bags were still around in the 70s although I didn’t use them, but they were commonly used to relieve the pain of bee òr wasp stings – and they worked!

    • Hi Kerri – great comment – I remember when we came to buy our first washing machine I agonised over whether I should go the tried and tested Hoover twin-tub route like my mother or to step into the unknown and go for a new fangled automatic! Needless to say the automatic won the day.

  4. Margaret Bryant says:

    Have just joined this group. Congratulations on a great delve back in the past on washing day. When we 1st married I had to stoke up a copper in the back yard to get the water boiling to “do the sheets”. The washing was strung up on a clothes line held aloft by a wooden prop and we used dolly pegs. This was in Australia where it only took a couple of hours to dry.

  5. Prevaricat says:

    Hi Barbara… more strolls along Memory Lane and I can accompany you on this particular route… In the 1950s I well remember my mother having to do all the washing in a big pan on the gas stove; it took all day! She used the ‘dolly blue bags’ for the whites too (I could never figure out why a blue dye would make sheets look white but it did).

    I’d help with the mangle sometimes, holding up the sheets as they went through so they didn’t trail on the floor, and then the laundry would be hung all over the place (we lived in a flat and so didn’t have a garden). Most of all, I shudder at the safety issues as her iron had to be plugged into the electric light socket, which meant she kept going until it was too dark to see 😀

    When I think of these things it feels that we were born back in the Dickensian age but it was less than 60 years ago!

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