“A pen’orth of soda and a bit of soap”: London’s Municipal Washhouses: 1899

Mangling Room, Hornsey Road Laundry (London). Charge for use ofthe laundry, first hour, 2c.; second hour. 3c.: each succeeding hour, 4c. 30,420women used the laundry for the year ending March 3lst. 1896.

Mangling Room, Hornsey Road Laundry (London). Charge for use ofthe laundry, first hour, 2c.; second hour. 3c.: each succeeding hour, 4c. 30,420women used the laundry for the year ending March 3lst. 1896.


A Remarkable Charity Maintained in the Slums of the Big City


Hundreds of Thousands of Poor People Benefited

An Idea Born of the Cholera Epidemic

Cost of a Washing.

 LONDON, Sept. 8. I had often heard of the great municipal washhouses of London and what blessings they have proved to the overwhelming slum element of the grimy east end of the biggest city in the world. With the true spirit of the American abroad, I resolved to ask no questions, but, on the contrary, arrayed myself in an old dress, did up a  bundle of clothes, and after the manner of a bona fide London “missus,” I too disappeared into the washhouse.

Passing a turnstile, which registered what number of washer I was, I found myself at the “box office.” Here a slip of paper was given me stamped with the time of my entrance.  I also bought with my best cockney accent “a pen’orth of soda and a bit of soap,” for added to the horror of London’s filth is the hardness of the water, which renders it useless without a liberal supply of softening. Then I entered a large room clouded with steam and reeking with the concentrated odor of innumerable wash days. An attendant took my time slip, and discerning that my old clothes were a degree less dilapidated than is usual followed me to the cloak room with warnings in all keys:

“That’s a good jacket, don’t leave it here. They’ll steal it , mum,” pointing out to the washers. “They’ll tyke everything you ‘ave , the flowers out of your ‘at, heven your ‘at pins, you’ll tyke ’em all with you, if you tyke my hadvlce.”

A Good-Natured Neighbor.

I was then assigned a section in a long row of washers and found myself in possession of a large zinc tub separated from my neighbor’s by a half partition. It was divided crosswise into two, and there were many faucets and discharge pipes, the working  of which I did not understand. I accordingly turned to my neighbor for informatlon. Although time meant very precious pennies to her, she willingly stopped to help me, and did so from time to time, as it was necessary. This illustrates the good nature characteristic of the London common people, and I could not help contrasting it with an experience in the same position in a Paris wash house. The response given when information was asked was “Go back to Germany and find out.” Thus I discovered that the front tub is for washing , the back for rinsing, and when these processes are over by an ingenious device steam may be introduced through a perforated pipe and the clothes boiled. I then repaired to the steam wringers. Here the women stood with arms akimbo waiting their turn and gossiping meanwhile , their garrulous voices rising above the din of wringers and running water: “I sy, Dolly , I’m In love,” or “Dysie, think of a lydy’s keeping a byby out till yght o’clock at night!”

Rags and Jags.

What queer figures they were! I could not help thinking ot the old nursery rhyme:

“The beggars have come to town

Some in rags and some in jags,

And some in velvet gowns. ”

On a shelf was a hat covered with roses and ostrich plumes getting limp in the clouds of steam and near me a woman was wearing a dirty velvet waist with one sleeve dangling, ripped from wrist to shoulder. Here again came a contrast between the English and French working woman. French workers in the same posltlon would be dressed in neat black skirts with clean bodices of blue jean or print; when they went away the washing would be wrapped In a black bundle handkerchief, a black crochetted cape thrown over the shoulders, the hair brushed to almost Japanese gloss and no hat at all. English women, on the contrary, those I saw around me, wear clothes trimmed with silk and velveteen, dirty and slouchy, the skirts almost invariably dragging on the ground, and the poorer the woman the more pretentious the hat with its elaborate architecture of feathers and flowers. In summer, instead of folding away the winter cloak , they wear it through the hottest weather, principally as a screen to hide the rags beneath. A French friend seeing for the first time a crowd of girls pouring out of a London factory took them to be beggars, but her surprise reached the maximum when she saw the charwoman on her knees on the front walk “clay-pipeing” the steps in a black dress whitened with dust and a white apron blackened with dirt, her slovenly figure surmounted by a bonnet trimmed with velvet.

In laundry work, as well, I could not but remark the inferiority of the English woman, whose pathetic bundles of filthy rags emerged from the wash in about the state where a French woman would plunge them Into the tub. In three minutes my clothes were wrung and I pulled out the wooden horse which had been placarded with my name, and, hanging the clothes around the ribs, I pushed it back into the hot-air chamber.

Here again a disinterested “party” warned me to keep a sharp lookout lest “they” steal all my wash. In twenty minutes they were dry, and I carried the fresh crisp bundle, missing, however, the sweet odor of linen dried in a country garden, into the mangling room. This was a large light room, as clean as a new pin, where several women were rolling towels and sheets in the great steam mangles, and adjoining I found the ironing room. This was small, with all the necessary appliances, such as hot irons and blankets. Only one woman was here, a professional laundress, who told me that the day before she had washed and ironed ten dozen clothes in eight hours.

At the exit my ticket was again stamped with the hour. The entire expense for the three hours I had been there was 10 cents. The average rate is 6 cents the first two hours, and 4 cents every hour after.

Started by a Liverpool Woman.

The very poor live not in flats which are a luxury for the rich , but in rooms of old houses abandoned by the middle class which have no conveniences, and to them especially these wash-houses are a boon. In the year 1897-98 they wore used by over 400,000 washers. They are entirely municipal, being under the control of the local vestries, who have invested over $3,000,000 in them.

The idea originated with a woman, Catherine Wilkinson, the wife of a laborer living in the crowded part of Liverpool. During a cholera epidemic she allowed her neighbors who had no means of heating large quantities of water to wash their clothes on her premises. The ladies of the District Provident, realizing the great benefit of this privilege to the poor, hired additional rooms, enabling Mrs. Wilkinson to provide for eighty-five families a week. Seeing the eagerness of the poor to avail themselves of these meager accommodations the corporation of Liverpool determined to erect, at the public expense, wash-houses in connection with the baths for the people. Their venture, opened in 1842, was the first establishment in England. They are now to be found in all the principal towns.

As far as I can learn there is only one municipal public laundry in the United States, that is in St. Paul, and for the use of men. It is a question for American women to consider whether in the crowded slums of our great cities such establishments might not prove a wise provision for the poor.

 The Omaha Daily Bee 14 September 1899: p. 7

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  One wonders if the discouragingly ill-cleansed clothes were the result of a lack of a pen’orth to purchase washing-soda. Hard water renders any laundry day more difficult.  Equally, Mrs Daffodil feels that the investigative authoress was unkind in her comparison of French vs. English work-a-day fashion choices. The used clothing trade was brisk in England, but, other than the “slops” for sailors, working-class clothing was worn literally to rags and rarely survived to be resold. Possibly the only items on offer (or available to steal from the washhouse cloak-room) were dresses trimmed with satin and velveteen: the cast-offs of the upper classes, as well as those spectacular hats, which were a kind of badge of honour for the working-class female.  And what profiteth a neat jean bodice if it be not accompanied by the good nature characteristic of the London common people?

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



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