Francesca Bingham – Laundry in the Past

This short item followed on from the AGM and discussions. Members were seated in a circle and able to participate

Francesca introduced the taster to introduce members to a different way of researching social history. Normally we think that history is written following hours of research that have focused on ideas coming from contemporary documents such as letters or diaries.

Francesca worked at the laundry ‘department’ at Berrington Hall and found that visitors would tell her stories about how family members did their laundry. For example, a visitor would see the mangle exhibited and recount a personal story about their memories of how a mangle would be used in their family. Gathering together these random memories and thoughts that were prompted by one artefact or room could lead to a rich tapestry.

Francesca had a ‘lucky dip’ of quotes from some of these stories recounted by visitors and a few members took it in turns to ‘dip’

  • Two young girls were condemned to lives as laundry maids as their father was a criminal and nobody would marry them.
  • The hands of an elderly man were so cracked from washing that a threepenny bit could lodge in a crack
  • The story of Pop goes the weasel
  • A deaf woman nearly drowned her three year old child in a tub as she could not hear the child crying.

The archaeologist Leon Bracelin reminisced about laundrettes, and how he and others would go to the pub while waiting for their washing.

Francesca said one thread to these stories that she has pulled together centres on the memories of older men about when they were children and would help their mothers or other women with the mangling work. Laundry was women’s work but they were often asked to help with mangling and they spoke of a closeness and intimacy that they could have with their mothers through this.

Francesca read from a poem by Seamus Heaney that summarised this feeling – the fleeting closeness between a boy and his mother over the laundry work, despite their lives of unremitting work.

Francesca had a number of evocative pictures that she hung on a washing line; they showed icons and mementoes through the last 200 years. It is startling how little information there is about the actual mechanics of cleaning elegant and expensive clothing. Apart from Mrs Beeton who devoted a whole chapter to the matter, Francesca could not find any other manuals or accounts of how to do the laundry. It is thought that only underclothes were washed.

Members enjoyed this light-hearted but informative approach and look forward to another similar session.

Jane B

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