All washed up!

Imagine yourself in 1940s Britain, when it was more than likely you would be sharing an outside toilet with other houses in the street, or sharing one on the landing of your block of flats. The kitchen sink might have doubled up as a bath for the little ones in the family, and the luxury of an electric washing machine was yet to arrive in most homes.

Monday was washday for most people. And the popular choice for the weekly laundry was to tackle it by hand – using the kitchen sink or a copper pot and a wooden scrubbing board to scrub the clothes. Steam clogged up the windows and red-faced housewives used all their energy to tug at the clothes with wooden tongs, trying – sometimes in vain – to keep their hands out of the boiling hot water! It was really back-breaking work. Then it was a couple of rinses in cold water, and finally wringing out with a hand-operated mangle. Using the mangle involved feeding the clothes in-between two wooden rollers, which would squeeze the water out (making sure you didn’t squeeze at the same time). The water would then fall into a bucket below, Children were advised to keep well out of the way on washday as accidents were all too likely!

If the weather was kind, then a breezy day would mean the laundry could be pegged on the washing line – usually a thin rope strung up between two trees, if you had a garden. For city dwellers the laundry would often be strung out between houses, across the street, from window to window. Of course, that also meant that all the dust, grim and smog that was pretty ubiquitous at that time would undo much of the hard work, leaving the laundry less than ‘pure white’!

Photo by Janko Sebök on Unsplash

On wet days clothes would be hung around indoors, perhaps on a wooden clothes airer, or strung up across the kitchen, relying on the warmth from a coal fire, or a gas oven, to dry.

But for some the thought of bed linen and all the rest hanging around for days (literally!) was enough to send them off to the local washerwoman or laundry service. For a shilling or so or maybe a few pence housewives could hand over their ‘whites’ for a ‘bagwash’, with sheets and other linen going into a cloth sack for a small laundry service to deal with, or an independent washerwoman to do in their own home as a way of earning a living, It wasn’t until 1949 that the first self-service coin-operated launderette opened in London, when the charge was two shillings and sixpence for a nine pound wash (today’s equivalent of 10.5p!). And some years later before the launderette appeared in towns and cities across Britain.

Published by Isabella Muir

Isabella is passionate about exploring family life from the 1930s through to the 1960s and beyond. She has published six Sussex Crime mystery novels set during the 1960s and 1970s, a standalone novel dealing with the child migrant policy of the 1950s and 60s, several novellas set during the Second World War, and two short story collections. All available in paperback from your local bookshops, or online as ebooks. Her novels are also available as audiobooks, and have been translated into Italian.

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