The soap made in England in the Middle Ages was evil-smelling and used mainly for de-greasing wool to make cloth.
Soap is made with fat and alkali, or lye.
Washing clothes was women’s work. And until the comparatively recent invention of automatic washing machines and quick-drying fabrics, it was both arduous and time-consuming. Even the weekly wash is a comparatively recent innovation.
You could make it at home, but until good quality soap became cheap and plentiful, people preferred to wash their clothes in lye.
An old Gloucestershire farmer, William Hall Sexty, writing c.1946, said: “Will tell a bit about wood ashes and how they were used for domestic purposes in making lee for washing and softening water.
“You remember that copper furnace at the back, well, when I was a boy it was used for brewing beer and when not in use it was filled with lee for washing clothes.
“This is how lee was made. First you put the ashes in a bucket with holes in it and this was stood in a tub of cold water. Boiling water was then poured through, and the lee kept till needed.
“If you put your hand in it, it would cut your flesh.
“It was used before soda and there was no powders in those days.”
(In C.H. Warren, Adam was a Ploughman, 1947).
Any vegetable material can be used to make lye, and Celia Fiennes, writing in the late 17th Century, noted that people in parts of the midlands collected ferns and burned them to ashes, which they then rolled up in balls to make alkali for washing.
Another source is kelp, or seaweed.
Frank Graham, in Lindisfarne or Holy Island, 1958, tells us that the monks of Holy Island burnt kelp in the 12th Century, the earliest known example of kelp-burning in Northumberland.
The Newminster Chartulary records that Adam de Camhous gave the monks all of his land in ’Miderig’ and on the Snook, and with it leave to take seaweed “to fertilise the same land” (ad impinguendam eandem terram).
The brethren of Newminster engaged in a variety of industries, including cloth making, coal mining and salt making, and it seems unlikely that they would not also have known about burning kelp and wood to make lye.
An alternative was stale urine, or chammerly. The chemistry was different, the active ingredient being ammonia.
It was a valued raw material well into the 19th Century.
In 1822, James Burn was apprenticed to a hatter, a Mr Rutherford of Hexham.
“Twice a week I had to collect stale lant (urine), from a number of places where it was preserved for me.
“I carried this fragrant liquid on my head, and had often the agreeable pleasure of having it streaming down my face.”
(James Dawson Burn, Autobiography of a Beggar Boy, ed. David Vincent, 1978).
Stale urine was used for washing clothes on board sailing ships.
Water was too scarce to use for this purpose so it must have persisted into the 20th Century, as long as there were sailing ships making long-distance voyages.
On land, however, washing clothes was women’s work.
And until the comparatively recent invention of automatic washing machines and quick-drying fabrics, it was both arduous and time-consuming.
Even the weekly wash is a comparatively recent innovation.
The Rev James Woodforde (1740-1803), Rector of Weston Longville, Norfolk, often mentions ‘Washing Week’ in his diary.
This on June 10, 1799: “Monday...Washing Week with us this Week.
“We wash every five weeks. Our present Washerwomen are Anne Downing and Anne Richmond.
“Washing and Ironing generally take us four days.
“The Washerwomen breakfast and dine the Monday and Tuesday, and have each one Shilling on their going away in the Evening of Tuesday.”
The pattern is clear: Two days with extra help for the heavy part of the wash, then two more days for the ladies of the house and the regular servants to do the ironing and finishing, or longer if the weather was bad.
Mr Woodforde’s housekeeper was his niece, Nancy. Either she or a trusted servant had to be in charge.
Thus in March 1783, when everybody in the house, including the servants, went to Norwich to see a parade, “Betty, my Upper Maid stayed at home being Washing Week.”
Likewise in September 1786, when he was visiting his family at Cole in Somerset:
“Sister Pounsett stayed at home being Washing Week.”
Illness meant that extra help had to be got in.
“Aug. 26 (1783)...Lizzy and Jack very bad today...Lizzy’s mother came here Sunday Evening and slept with her daughter, and is to stay here during our washing, she breakfasted, dined, supped and slept here yesterday and did the same to day.”
And in 1793: “Feb. 25, Monday... We were to have washed this week but Betty being bad, it was put off for another week.”
Good weather was good news, as in August 1795, when he was again in Somerset.
“Wednesday...Washing Week at Cole, & very luckily charming Weather.
“A very large Book of Cloaths, nine weeks if not more.”
‘Book’ is a dialect form of ‘buck’, a washtub or soaking tub. In this case it just means a big wash.
But in bad weather:
“November 24 (1800), Monday...A dull, dark & wet Morning and Afternoon.,,,Our Washing Week this Week, it being but indifferent Weather for the same, our Females made long faces.”
In 1795 he replaced his wash-boiler.
“Nov. 21, Saturday...Ben returned from Norwich.
“He brought me from Norwich — a Box from London with a Cheese in it that came from Cole — A new substantial Washing Copper from my Brazier, Manning... 26 Inches and a quarter wide, 19. Inches half deep, weight 45 lb half, wch. at 1s 5 and a half d per lb. is ...”
He didn’t finish the sum, but it comes to £3 6s. 4d., a big outlay at the time.
I imagine it was what we call a set-pot, and if so would still need fitting.
Washing week put everything else on hold.
On August 9, 1784, having had invitations to visit people, and someone else announcing their intention of coming to stay with him for a few days: “It is also,” he writes, “our Washing Week and don’t know what to do.”
It even ruled out ordinary hospitality.
On Monday, October 23, 1797, Dr Thorne called on his way to see a patient, leaving Mrs Thorne at the parsonage in the meantime: “I did not ask them to dinner having a plain dinner and also Washing Week with us.”
A good washerwoman was invaluable.
In September 1791 he sent Betty to Norwich to buy material to make “my two old Washer-women Mary Heavers and Nann Gooch a new Gown apiece which I intend giving to them.”
And on October 3, “Monday...Gave my two Washerwomen (Mary Heavers and Anne Gooch) this Evening as they went home each of them a new stuff Gown ready made.”
Note: Engravings from Thomas Bewick, History of British Birds, 1809.