In 1901 over 180,000 women were recorded in the census as working in laundries as washerwomen, ironers and manglers. Every town and village had women working at laundries, small hand laundries existed by the thousands in large towns and the suburbs of London. Alongside these were homebased workers, and also the vast, steam driven laundries employing hundreds of women.
Unlike today with our automated laundry systems and electric irons with steam facilities, doing the laundry in the 19th century was hard physical work, and to do it correctly required skill. A report in The Pall Mall Gazette or 1890 describes how the process was being taught to fortunate young girls in a number of School Board Schools in London.
“Every girl of the right sort delights in a doll’s washing, and so it is little wonder that the large class-rooms at five different centres which serve pro tem as wash-houses and laundries become the school paradise and promotion to a laundry class is eagerly earned by good attendance and steady work… Twelve little irons have heating on gas stoves, and soon, three at a table, the little laundresses are smoothing, glazing and goffering. Little glossing-irons are produced, and such a gloss do collars and cuffs receive as shall astonish the proud fathers and brothers who are to wear them on the following Sunday.”
Many books and newspapers carried advice on how to launder and iron – in many the advice is simply to take the ironing to a professional – “Laundry-work, like everything else, requires care, attention and neatness. Scorched linen and smutty collars, although too often seen where the washing is done at home, ought not to be, any more than at the large laundries where ironing is paid for by the article and everything badly ironed is returned by the manager to be redone.” The author advises that: “The irons must be hot (yet not hot enough to scorch) and smooth. Some ironers stir the starch round with a wax candle when it is made, or put a scrap of butter in it to prevent the irons sticking; others rub the irons on the knife-board (dusting them afterwards) for the same purpose. But one great secret is to have bright, clean irons, and to starch the articles evenly – not ot have llumps of starch sticking here and there. Firm pressure upon the iron is necessary, and a good ironer knows how to fold each article neatly and daintily.”
Ironing was a complicated, drawn out process – the irons needed to be heated on the stove taking care not to get smut and dirt on the hot plate, and then the clothes were pressed. An iron was not just an iron – there were multiple irons of different sizes for different jobs including the glossing-iron and for frills a goffering-iron.
Each needed heating, and then placing back on the stove to heat up again as they cooled – however, if the iron was too hot it would scorch and maintaining the heat meant standing alongside a stove – hot, physically demanding work. It was a job that required a great deal of experience and skill to do correctly, the little girls in the Board Schools were being prepared to care for their own homes and washing, but also to be able to work in the hand and steam laundries :
“Washing is carried on in low, ill-ventilated rooms, the walls and ceilings of which stream with moisture, the floors of which are broken and undrained, so that the workers stand in a slop of dirty water, while wet flannels dangle round their heads, and their cotton dresses are soaked with steam and perspiration. In another room, more often than not, built overhead, the ironers ply their work around a gas-stove radiating noxious fumes, while the heat draws a damp steam up through the boards. The ironers literally drip with heat, and towards night-time their failing strength is stimulated by draughts of beer, which, bought wholesale and retailed, yields a profit to the employer. Even in well-managed laundries, the workers often take their meals sitting on turned-up pails with their feet in the water.”
Not only were the conditions the women were working in appalling, the hours worked were described as ‘murderous’. Writing in 1896 Miss March Phillips, creating a report on Women’s Industrial Life, wrote that Monday was frequently a short day for ironers – the washing needed to be washed first after all, but on Tuesday through to Friday most would work until 11 or 12 at night, frequently later still in the season. It was suggested that it was nothing unusual to finish work at around 3am on a Saturday morning, sleep for a few hours, and then begin again at 8am working though until Saturday afternoon. The work was dangerous, the machinery used could result in fatal injuries and was frequently insufficiently fenced, and sanitary conditions were found to be very poor in many instances. In 1894, The report on the employment of women, by the Lady Assistant Commissioners, described ironers were the best paid workers in commercial laundries, and how women with children preferred to work in hand laundries as these were generally not requiring ironers to work on a Monday, thus giving them a free day to tend to their households. Jessie Boucherett, the author of the report suggested that this was not a job for young girls, the heat in the ironing room which frequently reached 80-100 degrees was simply too much for them, not to mention the skill required to ‘get up’ (press) the more complicated garments – petticoats, ruffled shirts etc – was beyond their experience.
Ironing then was a job for experienced, older women, who were paid the best wages in the laundry. Charles Booth states that while “women at the tub received from 2s to 3s a day… shirt and collar ironers earn from 8s to 15s a week according to capacity, and work from four to six days… Shirt and collar ironers who do clean work for shirt and collar warehouses are better paid. The work must be done well, and 4s to 5s a day can be earned.” This certainly compared favourably with the wages for laundresses in general – girls of 15 were expected to work for 70 to 80 hours a weeks for 5s in many instances.
Clementina Black, however, suggested that the wages were getting lower by the early years of the twentieth century and following interviews with over 60 women she found that many were on a lower wage than Booth suggested. She illustrates the home life of these women, and paints a picture of abject poverty, in many instances the women working to support a sick husband, the children sick themselves and the mothers struggling to find childcare to support her while she went to work.
“Case No. 60 was that of a woman with a consumptive husband and five children ranging from 16 years to 9 months old. The occupied at a rent of 6/6 a top flat of two rooms in the neighbourhood of one of the great markets. The buildings were, in the investigator’s words, “tucked away down a long passage, each block with a separate staircase leading off – dirty and, I should think, dangerous in case of fire. The postman I asked for directions, who said he had been in the district for 18 years, declared there were no such buildings”. The wife, who went out to her work, earned, at the highest, 14/- a week, but some weeks only 7/- or 8/-… Two of the younger children were very delicate, and these remained at home in the care of the consumptive father, who could only go out ot work in warm weather. It was his custom to go hopping – always to the same farm – every year, and he was paid £1 a week. The whole family accompanied him, and the wife reported of the previous autumn’s migration that it “quite set her up” for the winter. It seems difficult to believe, however, that four or five weeks in the fresh and healthy air of a hop garden could do away with the effects upon the babies’ health of weeks and weeks shut up in the society of a father possessing but half a lung. The poor fellow was a devoted parent, who among other services cooked midday meals for all his children. But what must have been his reflections during the long hours of tendance upon a pair of tiny, weakly children whose chances of life his very presence was diminishing.”
This family were not alone in their struggles – ironing, while better paid that general laundry, simply could not pay enough to provide even a basic standard of living for a family where the father was either sick, had died or had deserted. The hours worked and the wages paid caused frequent calls for laundries to come under the Factory Act, thus reducing hours and improving safety. This campaign, however, although called for in many circles, was argued in 1893 to be overlooking: “the danger and injustice of legislation which puts grown-up women on the level of “young persons and children”, and so lowers the market value of their labour. Too many of the well intended, but unjust restrictions of women’s hours of work have put them out of trades where wages were good and the work not unsuitable.” The article goes on to quote an extract from the Laundry Journal:
“ Perhaps the most ticklish question of all is that of overtime. Now overtime, under the Act is a difficult matter to deal with, as it will mainly affect the ironers, practically all of the young persons and women. How hardly the matter of overtime may bear on a trade is vividly illustrated by the labour dispute at the Lower Croft Bleach Works, Bury. It seems that the work at the Lower Croft is mainly of the fancy goods description, necessitating a rush of work at certain seasons. Overtime is absolutely necessary. But the Bleach Works are under the provisions of the Factory Act, and the overtime clauses must not be evaded. Consequently at the Lower Croft boys and women were dispensed with, and the light labour given to old men and cripples, men who were not able to do hard work and earn full wages, but who were glad to do the light labour of the boys and women for the same wages these would have received.”
Ironing then was a job carried out by tens of thousands of women across Britain, hot, exhausting work in dangerous conditions which paid very little for the skill required. They were arguably at the top of the laundry pile so to speak – but their lives were hard, and their work harder.
 Little Laundresses at Work, The Pall Mall Gazette, (London, England, February 17th 1890)
 Country Housekeeping, Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion, (London, England, Saturday, July 01, 1882)
 Country Housekeeping, 1882
 Miss March Phillips, ‘Women’s Industrial Life’, The Monthly Packet, (London, England, Friday May 1st, 1896) P 530
 Miss Phillips
 Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London: The Trades of East London, (London, Macmillan and Co, 1893) P 295.
 Clementina Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), pp. 23-24.
 Article 2 – Laundries and Legislation, The Englishwoman’s Review, (London, England, Monday October 16th 1893)