Washing was a hard and painful task

The stepping stones of the River Wansbeck, a good place to wash clothes. Picture by Roger Hawkins.
The stepping stones of the River Wansbeck, a good place to wash clothes. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

Washing clothes was always women’s work, and hard work at that.

Not only so, but in the days before soap became cheap and widely available, the people who did it — housewives, women servants, washerwomen and laundry maids — were the repository of a good deal of practical science.

The 1820s scullery at Pockerley Manor, Beamish. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

The 1820s scullery at Pockerley Manor, Beamish. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

Many of the skills needed and the utensils used on washdays prior to about 1850 have been lost. Washdays were taken for granted so we have few written sources to go on. Helpfully, however, pictures do exist of domestic scenes, which the artists presumably drew from every-day life.

Some of these pictures show women washing clothes by the side of a river, where they could squeeze and wring them in running water, and even better if there were some big stones to spread the clothes out on while they were rubbed or beaten.

In the days when water had to be carried from a well or a pump, rivers had the supreme advantage of providing at least cold running water without the trouble of carrying it.

Edward Burt, in Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland, 1754, said that everywhere that he had been in Scotland, you would see women “with their coats, (i.e. petticoats), tucked up, stamping, in tubs, upon linen by way of washing”. (Quoted on www.oldandinteresting.com)

When we talk about laundry nowadays, we mean everything from washing to finishing, but in the greatest houses there was a distinction between the wash-room and the laundry.

The flood walls that line the Wansbeck today make it hard to imagine people washing clothes like that, but the following incident, from Sykes’s Local Records for 1796, leaves no doubt that they did. The only difference is that the unfortunate girls were washing vegetables.

“August 18.— From a great quantity of rain having fallen, the rivers and brooks were swelled to an uncommon degree, which was attended with the most tragical effects.

“At Morpeth, two young women of most excellent characters, the daughters of Mr Thomas Purdy, gardener, were carried away by the current and lost.

“They were washing turnips for sale, by the side of the Wansbeck at that place, when one of them attempting to catch a piece of timber which was floating down, unfortunately slipped into the stream, and her sister attempting to save her, shared the same fate, in the presence of their distracted parents, who could yield them no assistance.”

One of the girls was about to be married.

Even when clothes were washed at home, beating still figured largely. And where we now have draining boards, they had beetle-stones, battling blocks and washing stocks, the latter being a board on legs.

Beating in this case was done with laundry bats, also known as beetles or battledores. We have this reference to them in the 16th century from a somewhat surprising source, a treatise on the divorce of Henry VIII by Nicholas Harpsfield, the last Roman Catholic Archdeacon of Canterbury.

It was pitiful, he says, “to hear of the naughty and dissolute life of these yoked priests (and) their pretended wives, wherein the women were nothing behind for their parts, and to hear of the strifes, contentions, and debates that were amongst them; among others there was one in Kent, which all-to beat her yokemate with a washbeetle or battledore, upon whom he complained grievously to the Judges at the Sizes, and, the more to exaggerate his injury, showed them openly the said battledore.

“These and many other inconveniencies...fell upon this poor realm after and by occasion of the King’s divorce from his first and lawful wife Queen Katherine.”

Brute force could be improved upon with chemistry, and the washing of ordinary clothes came to involve three basic processes: soaking (also called bucking), working and boiling. Soaking overnight in a strong lye allowed it to act on the grease in the cloth, whether inherent or from wearing or use, and this actually improved its detergent qualities because some of the grease turned into soap.

While the clothes were in soak, the women would work them with their hands, making their arms and hands red and sore from the lye, or spread them on a washing board for beetling.

The actual washing was more of the same, but in warm or hot water, and finally the rinsing and hanging out. Having wet hands in cold weather again made their hands and arms sore.

Until the 19th century the vessels used, shallow bowls, troughs and tubs, were mostly made of white wood. Dark woods might stain the clothes, and the lye likewise, if made from wood ash, ought to be made from white wood for the same reason.

From medieval times up to the 18th century washtubs were bound with hazel rods. When iron hoops came into general use for tubs and barrels, you had to be careful that there were no nails coming through, otherwise the clothes would get iron mould.

One of the most visible features of pre-1850’s washing was the drying or bleaching green, a large area of clean grass, not too short, with a fence round to keep animals out. One still survives as a place name, in Bleach Green Farm, at Ovingham.

Sunlight is a great bleacher so newly-made cloth was laid out on the grass, sprinkled with water in dry weather, and left out for several days or weeks. Washed sheets could be laid out in the same way, or in the case of garments could be spread out over bushes.

These arts were most highly developed in great country houses; and it is a pity that Belsay, Wallington and Cragside, although they make creditable displays of their kitchens and kitchen equipment, tell us little or nothing about the arrangements for washing clothes, which must have been equally as elaborate.

When we talk about laundry nowadays, we mean everything from washing to finishing, but in the greatest houses there was a distinction between the wash-room and the laundry.

The women and girls who worked in the wash-room had to hang the clothes out. This brought them into contact with the men servants out of doors, allowing the other female servants to look down on them for being insufficiently lady-like.

The laundry, by contrast, was where the clothes were finished, either for wearing or for putting away, so that there was little or no contact with the masculine world outside. The basic skills in this department were airing, mending, smoothing and folding.

I remember as a child seeing an ancient box mangle in the Newarke Museum in Leicester. Anything less laundry-like would be hard to imagine; its predominant feature was a wooden box filled with stones and brick-bats, with wooden rollers (battledores) underneath. It was for smoothing sheets or table cloths, either by laying them flat or by wrapping them round the rollers, and was not intended for wringing the water out.

Reference: Nicholas Harpsfield, Treatise on the Pretended Divorce between King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, c.1575, Camden Society, 1878, with modern spelling.