The Washerwoman’s Genes

June 15, 2006

English Laundresses: A Social History, 1850-1930

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 10:59 am

English Laundresses: A Social History, 1850-1930
Patricia E. Malcolmson. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986. 220 pp.

This is a scholarly study of English laundry women in a time period during which two of my own ancestors washed clothes in America. During these eighty years, Malcolmson says, the occupation changed greatly, from a predominantly manual task to a mechanized one, and from an individual or family enterprise to a more professionalized one. In Britain, the history ultimately dovetails with those of unionization and women’s rights.

The situation of British laundresses must to some extent parallel the washerwoman’s situation in the U.S, especially in the early years. There seems to be no such parallel study of American washerwomen; this book is published by the University of Illinois Press as part of series of studies of labor history, and the author is a health care administrator in Ontario, Canada.

The background chapters (Chapter 1: “Hand Laundry and the Family Economy”; Chapter 2: “Regulating the Trade”) are especially rich in details of the work life and personal life of nineteenth-century laundresses.

For one thing, Malcolmson details the process of doing the linen, demonstrating the arduousness, even the brutality, of the work, as well as defining the craft of what is sometimes considered mindless labor.

The laundress did more than wash. (Perhaps this is one reason why Malcolmson uses laundresses to the exclusion of washerwomenlaundress suggests a person who oversees laundry from soiled bundle to wearable garments, whereas washerwoman conveys just the washing.) Laundresses who worked at home essentially converted their dwellings to a factory for part of the week, for getting the laundry up took days. In fact, the sheer disruptiveness of home washing was precisely why wash was sent out by all who could afford it.

Although we associate laundry with a weekly pattern, by the nineteenth-century it was considered prestigious to own clothing enough to put off laundering for several weeks, again because of the rigmarole it involved. Malcolmson quotes a “well-known chronicle of English rural life” by Flora Thompson in which it is said of the town postmistress in the 1890s that she

kept to the old middle class custom of one huge washing every six weeks. In her girlhood it would have been thought poor looking to have had a weekly or fortnightly washday. The better off a family was, the more changes of linen its members were supposed to possess, and the less frequent the washday (24).

Of course, the “back-breaking aspects of laundry labor” (26) also impelled the more middle-class to hand out the work. Malcolmson writes:

So unpleasant was the task before piped and heated water and domestic appliances eased the burden that paying someone else to do the laundry was a top priority of many households when funds permitted . . .washing entailed a great deal of lifting and carrying, as well as . . . the extraordinarily heavy job of wringing out sodden linen (26).

The four days of laundering were often marathons, beginning predawn and stretching late; if the weather were rainy or the tub must be shared, the process was further elongated. The washing began on Monday, in keeping with the ancient tradition of the weekly cycle.

Beyond explaining how the wash was done, Malcolmson describes who did it.

Since the requisite skills were widespread and the basic equipment was readily acquired, it was a trade often turned to in adversity; indeed, contributing to the purchase of an item of laundry equipment, such as a mangle, was one of the neighborly strategies employed to help a widow support herself and her children (xiii).

The occupation was largely the province of older women, widows—or divorcees—as well as married ones who had income problems. Sometimes their husband’s work was seasonal, such as the building trades (mason, anyone?) or farming, or required absence, such as the army; other times, unemployment, illness or injury, drought or blight, or other conditions—drunkenness, gambling, laziness, irresponsibility—might prevent the husband from adequately supporting the family. Washing combined well with family life, while at the same time rendering it oppressive and complicated. But washerwomen got to keep their children, rather than placing them in orphanages, workhouses, or out as servants (36), and that was a plus, even though family life had to be shared with the ongoing messy sloppy laundry process, and was often brutally distorted by an absent or overworked mother. Malcolmson notes that because so much of this work was done alongside of marriage and family life, in the “background” despite it often being a family’s means of survival, it has gone unreported and unstudied (xiii).

The fact that lower-class physical labor was brutal is hardly news, but Malcolmson elaborates on the context and social effects of women taking on such work.

Marital life, for example, was often disrupted by a woman’s laundry work. Malcolmson writes, “In particular, the importance of a wife’s wage-labor in the family economy must have led inevitably to a blurring and sometimes a reversal of traditional marital roles. Working-class men normally dominated their households: they usually received a disproportionate share of food (often the only meat), clothing, and leisure—an allocation of resources that was justified by the family’s dependence on the man’s labor for their survival.” (39) (Malcolmson references an article by Laura Oren here.)

Malcolm continues, “The literature about the laundry trade is full of allegations from middle-class as well as a few working-class observers that some husbands felt little obligation—at least after they discovered the abundance of the opportunities for laundry work—to ‘take money ‘home’” (39). She cites a proverb from North Kensington, that “the best ironer gets the worst husband”; a clergyman’s comment that “to marry a laundress was a good as a fortune”; and an informant’s comment to the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws of 1909 that “it is well known amongst the poor that men move to North Kensington for the purpose of being kept by their wives.” A call for unionization stressed that “no class of women workers supported husbands more than the laundry- women did.” (39) Likewise, she says the men in Bath, Oxford, and Headington Quarry, all laundry centers, were reported to rely on their wives, so that in some places the “laundresses’ husband’ was almost a “recognized profession” (40).

At times, this situation was invoked to plead for higher wages and more human hours so that the lives of children dependent on laundresses would be improved. For others, however, the working wife was considered a cause of male degeneracy and emasculation.

Pragmatically, the necessity of a woman’s employment was part of the poor family’s survival; men and women often split the costs of the household, or spelled each other when work was seasonal or difficult to find. Cases of men assisting in the laundry work were hardly rare, and they often tended children and the house if the mother were not available. This paralleled the situation in which a wife helped out in her husband’s craft: “shoemaker’s wife,” Malcolmson notes, was as much an “occupational as a social designation” (40).

A laundress working at home would, in today’s parlance, be an entrepreneur. As such, she was typically not the delicate Victorian lady. The Royal Commission on Labour reported the comment that laundresses were “the most independent people on the face of the earth.” (As Malcolmson points out in a later chapter, this was not a compliment: women, especially servants, were supposed to be deferential (104).) They were likely to choose their own hours, to seek to work overtime to get more money, and to speak crudely and act assertively. Running a business required more than knowing how to iron a lace collar or having the back for heaving sodden linen about. The author cites the experiences of a laundress’ daughter cited in Kathleen Woodward’s book Jipping Street:

When we got to Mrs. Moody’s in Thames Street, we wedged our feet in the front door lest it be shut in our faces with out the washing money; and our emotions were divided between the agonizing uncertainty of Mrs. Moody’s finances and the inexpressible relief of the day behind us. (41)

Much of the latter half of the book concerns the shift from unregulated handwork to organized industry staffed by organized labor, both overseen by regulatory laws. Other types of factory work were more visible in society and came under regulation first, but by 1895, Malcolmson writes, laws began to encompass the laundry trade in so far as it involved employment of women in professional laundries.

It is the image of the isolated woman performing handwork that is most suggestive to me. Both my washing grandmothers were independents, I believe. My grandma Jennie, I know, was a servant to a “big house” and did all their laundry; whether she took in others’ as well I don’t know. But she worked at home or close to home. And I imagine that Jannette was similar, working on her own, in her home; “being your own boss” is a goal on that side of the family.

This description from Ronald Blythe’s The View in Winter of a servant’s life is heartbreaking:

She used to wash for the big house and all this linen was brought to her cottage in a wheelbarrow. How she used to manage all this washing in her cottage without the use of anything, I don’t know. She had an old brick copper. She said she’d stand up till two in the morning ironing with a box iron. Sixpence an hour she was paid. He husband was away in the army and she washed. (34)


Blythe, Ronald.The View in Winter: Reflections in Old Age. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980. 117.

Thompson, Flora Lark Rise to Candleford, London: Reprint Society, 1948. 471.

Oren, Laura. “The Welfare of Women in Labouring Families: England, 1860-1890,” in Mary Hartman and Lois W. Banner, Eds., Clio’s Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women, NY: Harper, 1974. 226-44.

Woodward, Kathleen. Jipping Street: Childhood in a London Slum. London: Harper, 1928. 13.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Florence Louisa, Elizabeth Ada and Edith May Watts, were all at school and Sarah was working as a Laundress. […]

    Pingback by Alfred Newell – 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Week 23 | Intwined — July 6, 2018 @ 3:13 am |Reply

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