Blessay 52: On the Washing of Clothes

There was a time, way back in the 20th century, when Monday was washday. For generations of housewives (How ancient that title now sounds with its unspoken instruction that women are married to their houses once obtaining their spouses) washday was a hard physical drudge. In the 1940‘s / 50’s / 60’s life without the washing machine and tumble dryer meant the hand-washing of clothes or if you could afford it the washhouse or the launderette.

In Liverpool in 1962 it cost one shilling (5p) to use the council washhouse or 3 shillings (15p) to play and / or play at ‘my beautiful launderette.’ Poorer women chose the first option and stuffed their pram with laundry to wheel together to a kind of municipal communal wash factory. Huge machines, supervised by middle-aged men who delicately poured in the detergent, provided not a consumer product but consumer cleanliness. The stained clothes of the poor were made to shine and smell fresh again: their poor materials were not alchemised into finer cloth, for women only desired the pride and respect of cleanliness, a chat and a cup of tea. This epiphany of pure clean whites only lasted till the next Sunday night when newly accumulated grubbiness waited for dawn and the re-commencing of the Monday wash cycle.

In Lodge Lane, Toxteth, public baths and washhouses were opened in 1878. And from 1909 some of them had film shows as well.* After pummeling clothes on a washboard or dolly tub hot drinks and Kinematographic entertainment was made available. I wonder about those film programmes. Where they themed to be aquatic? Lumiere’s 44 second long-take Washerwomen on the River (1897) or Melies’s Under the Sea (1907)? I suspect it would have been the latter as it’s the famous Jules Verne story. Or maybe filmed water was the last thing that you wanted to see on washday!

*This window for showing films in wash houses only lasted from 1909 – 13. The Livery board didn’t want to renew the licence for Lodge Lane or Walton. Only Garston in Liverpool 9 was approved for renewal. I wonder if the reason for this was something other than class discrimination.  Did clean clothes for the seamen and dockers take priority over other workers because the docks were so economically important? Best keep the housewives entertained with movies as they worked and keep the capitalist wheels in motion.


But what was most personally fascinating for me was to learn not a film connection but a photographic one. In 1962 Henri Cartier-Bresson was in England to help with work on a TV documentary about the Northerners of England. I’ve  been unable to discover if this project materialised. Cartier-Bresson scouted the streets of Liverpool and actually visited Toxteth. (My birthplace) and took a photograph of a group of empty prams just outside of the public washhouse (Not in view) in Grierson street, off Lodge Lane (Go Google images, please.) Our house was at Cedar Grove, just a 15 minute walk way from the washhouse. I was 13 and at school at Princes Park Secondary Modern in Princes Park Road a continuation of Lodge Lane. I would have had no idea who Cartier-Bresson was but three years later, in my first job, and in my lunch-hour, came across a reference to him on reading an article on the French New wave in Sight and Sound.

My imagination wanders. I could have passed this iconic Frenchman with his camera whilst, after school, walking up Lodge lane to visit the library, very close to the washhouse. But no, of course not, it would have had to have been a Monday morning.And Mondays at school were double periods of English and maths. Even if my mother had passed him by, she’d wouldn’t have given him a second glance.

Today it’s Monday again, but not of course my time tabled day for washing clothes. It could have been any day as I stuff my shirts into the washing machine, apply Vanish to their collars, and feed them Daz.

It wasn’t till my forties that I bought myself a washing machine. Before that I took my clothes in my backpack to the Swiss cottage launderette (now long gone). But I was never a person to sit and watch my wash spin round, preferring to visit the library and read the newspapers.

In other photographs from 1962, Liverpool housewives carried their laundry bundles on their heads, Asian style. My backpack was the closest I ever got to being bodily connected to the laundry. There was no 1990’s equivalent of Cartier-Bresson to photograph me, and why would they want too? For I was torn out of any ritualistic context with the group or crowd: no line of guys like me heading for the launderette,

“Under the window somebody was singing. Winston peered out, secure in the protection of the muslin curtain. The June sun was still high in the sky, and in the sun –filled court below, a monstrous woman, solid as a Norman pillar, with brawny red forearms and a sacking apron strapped about her middle, was stumping to and fro between a washtub and a clothes line, pegging out a series of square white things which Winston recognised as babies’ diapers.. Whenever her mouth was not corked with clothes pegs she was singing in a powerful contralto:…He could hear the woman singing and the scrape of her shoes on the flagstones, and the cries of the children in the street, and somewhere in the far distance a faint roar of traffic, and yet the room seemed curiously silent, thanks to the absence of a telescreen.”

1984 – George Orwell


Home and Kitchen Section – – 2017

“But as for washing-up, I see no solution except to do it communally, like laundry. Every morning the municipal van will stop at your door and carry off a box of dirty crocks, handing you a box of clean ones (marked with your initial of course) in return.”

As I Please in Tribune 9th February 1945 – George Orwell

Mr. Eric Blair certainly got around on the washing circuit. To him and the rising up of the Proles, female and male, hanging out their ‘Monday wash’ I dedicate this essay.


7 thoughts on “Blessay 52: On the Washing of Clothes

  1. Great piece. I still use the launderette, and I do enjoy watching the laundry circling – after a while it has quite a hypnotic effect, and it’s cheaper than Tramadol!

    Happy New Year,


    From: vastland To: Sent: Friday, 29 December 2017, 21:10 Subject: [New post] Blessay 51: On the Washing of Clothes #yiv4155581398 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv4155581398 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv4155581398 a.yiv4155581398primaryactionlink:link, #yiv4155581398 a.yiv4155581398primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv4155581398 a.yiv4155581398primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv4155581398 a.yiv4155581398primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv4155581398 | alanprice69 posted: “There was a time, way back in the 20th century, when Monday was washday. For generations of housewives (How ancient that title now sounds with its unspoken instruction that women are married to their houses once obtaining their spouses) washday was a hard” | |

    • Returning from the library I quite enjoyed the launderette’s last spin and rinse. Best washing of clothes happened in India. Never been so clean but much threadbare from being bashed against rocks by the riverside. Perhaps I should write a companion piece on the Zen of ironing the wash!

  2. Hi Alan

    Thank you for all your Blessays!

    I’ve just tried to send you an email but it’s been returned with the message “Undeliverable Happy New Year”!

    What is your current email address?

    And Happy New Year!



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