My Heritage Victorian Laundry.

This piece of family history gives a small clue where my interest in writing retrofuturism was born.  In many ways my life has spanned the past world of Victorian England (in my grandparents’ experience) and the intrusive future that we live in today.  In knitting them together with fiction I deepen my contact with the past and the present. It’s a journey everyone will take some time in their lives.

Laundries were in my maternal grandparents’ family. Around the beginning of the last century, they owned the Hamilton House Laundry on Putney Bridge Road, in a suburb of London on the south bank of the Thames. When my grandfather came home from the Boer War in 1901 he became a laundryman – I believe he drove the laundry delivery cart.

Hamilton House Laundry was gone when I was a kid, but Mother and I walked past the building once. We still had one left in the family – Heathfield Laundry at Crowthorne, Berkshire. Mother and I visited at least annually when I was a boy to see her aunts. I believe the building is gone today – I looked for it on Google Maps and that corner is part of a housing development. Of course, it hadn’t been a laundry since around 1960. But I swear it was the last Victorian laundry in captivity.

Crowthorne had few paved streets in the 40s and 50s when we visited most. The one the laundry was on was unimproved surficial sand (geologically speaking), as were all the others in that part of the village. The houses, and the laundry had no electricity, the people worked by gas lights. Remember gas lights? No, I expect you don’t. They did have indoor plumbing and running water, but the outside toilets still existed, and everyone had water butts that collected the run-off from the roofs. Things changed slowly in those days, and everyone knew where they were – but the big water tank that collected water from the roofs was invaluable to the laundry. You couldn’t let all that soft water go to waste.

Without electric power the laundry ran on woman power. Nellie, built like a plough horse, provided the arm power that turned the tubs of the huge wooden barrel-staved washing machines. She also heaved the buckets of hot water from the copper and poured them into the tubs when the outer and inner hatches were opened and the dirty laundry piled inside. I used to enjoy watching the end of the cycle when the brass spigots at the bottoms of the tubs were opened and the grey soapy water ran out into the little channels in the floor that directed it to the outside drain. I used to dream about building my own soapy water canals to float matchbox boats on – instead of getting in the way of the women when I floated them on theirs.

The wet laundry was carried outside to dry – in the drying sheds if the weather was rainy or outside on all the clotheslines that filled the huge lawn toward the south of the property. Beyond there the lawn vanished into the woods and the footpath to the next street, where the parish church stood, made straight for a wicket gate in the fence. I enjoyed the drying sheds on cold days, but could never stay long because the well-stoked coke stoves and the humidity rivaled any Finnish sauna. The dry laundry went one of two ways – the sheets went to the motor driven ironing roller, like a huge wringer from an old washing machine – the smalls went inside to where my Aunt Clad and the other ladies ironed everything by hand. I liked watching Cousin Gwen feed the sheets in between the rollers to the accompaniment of the chuff chuff of the motor that drove the operating belt from outside. Mr – there, I’ve forgotten his name – came once a week to tend the motor for sheet ironing day.

The irons were all flat-irons, of course, and were heated on racks afixed to the sides of a large upright coke stove, until Dolly or Aunt Clad came for a fresh one and tested the temperature by wafting the backs of their hands over the surface, or holding them close to a cheek. I used to watch the ironing and the starching of collars for the masters at Wellington College – the biggest customer. It was a fine warm room to stay in on a cold rainy day but barely tolerable during a hot summer. Everything was ironed to perfection, all seams straight and square, and if any item of wash was observed to be worn or missing something it would go in the hamper for Aunt Nell.

Aunt Nell was the owner, ever since Mr Budge had gone to the great wash-house in the sky. She occupied her own room where she sewed missing buttons back on, turned the worn collars of shirts, repaired rips, and sorted the items into the approprate piles for delivery. She and Cousin Gwen lived in the brick house at the end of the brick built ‘works’ building. Being relatives of the owner Mother and I could repair to the kitchen inside for afternoon tea, while the working women took their thermos of tea and packet of cake to either the warmest or coolest room of the works – according to the time of year. I think the wages were very modest – in fact the whole operation probably ran on a shoestring – but the workers were almost an extended family and spent their whole working lives there.

Somewhere near 1960 things changed. Perhaps my Cousin Jean’s husband and I started an inevitable progression when we installed the first electric wiring and lights in the house. But perhaps it had something to do with the fact that everyone was becoming old and grey. Aunt Nell and Aunt Clad worked until they were over eighty, and I suspect the working ladies were well past 65. In the end they bowed to the inevitable when Wellington College announced they were switching their laundry contract to a larger and more modern business. The house was retained but the works and most of the grounds were sold to a businessman who made electonic parts. Thus the Victorian holdover jumped from 1860 to 1960 almost overnight.

The Aunts’ retirements were short, but Cousin Gwen enjoyed many years in the little bungalow built for her in the old rose garden. The ‘machinery’ was scrapped instead of going to a museum, where it belonged. And I suspect the masters at Wellington College never had their shirts and collars so well cared for ever again.

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4 Responses to “My Heritage Victorian Laundry.”

  1. joylene Says:

    Fascinating story, Chris. It’s good you’re getting all these memories down. They’re going to be a treasure for your family.

    My cousins owned a laundry when I was a kid. I remember being so awestruck by all the gadgets. But it was very warm in there. Especially mid-summer. And kinda scary too because of all those hot irons.

    Intriguing place tho.

  2. Allergy Treatment : Says:

    i think that using flat irons with solid ceramic heater cores is the best`’~

  3. Jill Goodman Says:

    Hi Chris,
    Just found this entry after mum (Irene) told me my brother Stephen had found it. I can remember going there after school on the days mum worked there and playing in the garden and on the drying lawns.
    Aunt Clad died in 64 or 65 aged 84 and Aunt Nell was over 90 when she died sometime later. Aunt Clad lived with us and worked until she got too ill with cancer.
    I’ve not been back to Crowthorne and I don’t suppose I’ld know it now.
    Best wishes,
    Jill goodman (ne Gilbey)

  4. Korey Says:

    I have read so many posts concerning the blogger lovers but this paragraph is
    actually a nice post, keep it up.

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