Victorian Washerwomen (Guest Post)

Our first guest post comes from the author of the fabulous facebook page, Victorians, Vile Victorians. I came across the page some weeks ago, and was pleasantly surprised. With informative and humorous posts about various aspects of Victorian life, this page was certainly about more than just corsets and crinolines.

As the page intro promises, the posts are about “the real Victorians, the ones in the history books and the ones left out, who, for better or worse, left the world transformed.” I followed the page in silent admiration for some time, before I approached the admin to do a guest post for my blog.  The author prefers to remain anonymous, so let’s call them VV. VV describes themselves as “English, and getting on a bit in life”.

Of the Victorian era, VV says: “Everything changed in the 19th century. Someone who was born the year of Waterloo would live on to see the first powered flight. The core of that change – change which is social, scientific and political, as well as technological – occurs within Victoria’s reign. For all their rambunctious vigour, the late Georgians are alien: we have to stretch our imagination to the utmost to understand the world of Thackeray. By the end of the nineteenth century, we open The Diary of a Nobody and find people we can completely identify with.”

VV prefers to explore stories of those history forgot. VV’s Victorian grandmother was a cook in service who started as a scullery maid at the age of twelve. VV’s grandfather was a poacher and labourer, who came from a long line of labourers, none of whom ever made it into the history books.

Fittingly, the guest post today is about The Victorian washerwomen – the forgotten labourers of the Victorian era.

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The Victorian Washerwomen
by VV

All too often, when people think about the “Victorian woman”, they think of the enforced idleness of the “lady”, whose status required she never do a single useful thing, and whose daily activities were circumscribed by an excruciating web of polite expectations.

Within the Victorian working class, there were graduations of respectability and degradation every bit as complex, and every bit as clearly understood as the minutiae of middle class etiquette. The lowest one could sink, and still look one’s neighbours in the eye, was “taking in washing”.

“Genoese Washerwomen” Extra illustration for Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens in the Household Edition

Ironing was done with solid iron (hence the name) “flat irons”, heated on the range. No ironing board: the kitchen table would be covered with blanketing. No temperature control: one spat delicately on the soleplate to check the temperature was right. Starched linens had to be caught at just the right stage of dampness: too wet and they’d steam sullenly, refusing to crisp: too dry and the wrinkles would already be set firmly. How often must laundry have been returned, still on the wet side of dry? And who, then, had an “airing cupboard”? No wonder beds were often damp, and children’s clothes had to be aired in front of the fire before wearing.

Laundry maid with her mangle, pail and clothes basket. (1870)

As opportunities for women to work increased, finding someone to do your washing for a pittance became harder. Even lower middle class women found themselves facing the prospect of doing the laundry at home, and hiring a woman by the day to help didn’t mean keeping your own hands clean and dry. Machines for taking the slog out of washing, and keeping one’s skin away from the near-boiling water, were invented all over the place (America, where labour was in short supply, was as usual first off the mark for semi-automated devices): all were still hand-powered, but turning a wheel or moving a lever was better than bending double over a steaming tub, up to one’s elbows in water. But for many women, laundry still meant boiling the washing in a coal-fired vat, either in an outhouse or the scullery, and lifting it into the rinse tub with big wooden tongs.

Each Victorian lady, whether she enjoyed her idleness or resented it, lived at the top of a pyramid of female labour. Useless as she seemed, her economic function  was to channel her husband’s money back to the worker; socially, she was something to admire, envy, and imitate. One thing is sure, whatever the lady thought of her life, the washerwoman would swap with her any day.


Thank you for the guest post, VV!
Follow VV’s facebook page Victorians, Vile Victorians.

Readers, as you load your washing machine and clean your clothes with the press of a button, and retrieve dry, fluffy clothes from the dryer, spare a thought for the Victorian washerwomen – the invisible labourers of the Victorian era.

[Photos are sourced from and pinterest.]

Punch 27 (1854) Caption: Lord A–n: and Lord J. R–l. Johanne. “When’s the fighting goin’ to begin, George-ena?” The cartoon depicts Lord John Russell assisting the chief, Lord Aberdeen, as if they are Irish washer-women having to clean up the mess in Parliament late in the autumn of 1854, probably by dismissing some ministers and conducting enquiries into the logistical and health support problems In the Crimean camps.

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