Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Thursday, 11 August 2016

How Our Ancestors Washed Their Dirty Linen

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Servants, Machines and the Weekly Wash, 1750-1950

In the Dolly Tub (courtesy of Wigan World)

Servants are the very backbone of British family history. With access to the 1911 census, the vast majority of us will probably have discovered that our early twentieth-century ancestors either kept servants or worked as servants themselves. Indeed, by the 1880s, around a third of all young women in Britain between the ages of 15 and 21 were likely to be in service and this corresponded with a sharp rise at the time in the numbers of families able to afford resident domestic staff. 

Large country houses and substantial urban villas might have employed a whole retinue of minions ranging from 'cook' and 'housekeeper,' to 'parlour maid', 'scullery maid', 'nursery maid', 'lady's maid,' 'housemaid,' 'chambermaid,' 'butler', 'steward', 'laundry maid,' each with his or her own special duties. But in the late nineteenth century, a majority of three-fifths of all servants were employed singly as ‘maids-of-all work’ or 'general servants' in the homes of small tradesmen such as drapers, plumbers, and coal merchants. In the two hundred years from 1750-1950, whilst the tasks of  servants remained in essence the same, inventions and advances in technology meant that new labour-saving devices were constantly changing the nature of their domestic work.  

Washday early 1890s (Courtesy of Wigan World)

Surprisingly, perhaps, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the British middle classes often preferred to pay a servant to work for them rather than buy new domestic appliances to help with washing, cleaning and cooking. Whilst domestic technology took off in America, the new -fangled machines were generally considered expensive and unreliable on this side of the Atlantic. But, with the ever-improving accessibility of electricity (a new power source that could be fed directly into the home), the development of better soaps and detergents attuned to the new machines, and the continual reduction in prices, it became progressively harder for employers to resist the charms of items such as washing machines, dryers and vacuum cleaners. In addition to other (political and social) changes in the way our working-class ancestors lived, the development of labour-saving appliances was one very obvious reason why far fewer of them were employed as servants from the end of the First World War onwards.

Here is a brief introduction to some historic labour-saving devices in the areas of washing and cleaning.

Washing and Cleaning

Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries

There is little wonder that the hands of our  laundry maid ancestor were characteristically puckered and bleached. Traditionally, her work was heavy and arduous. First the clothes of the household would be 'bucked with lye' - that is soaked overnight in a solution made from wood ash (and sometimes from pigeon, hen dung, bran or urine). The next morning, she would rub the clothes   through on a corrugated washboard made of wood or some sort of metal, wring them out by hand and then wash them in very hot water. Large quantities of washing were done by hand in a dolly tub using a dolly peg, posser or punch.

After rubbing, pounding and rinsing, the maid would boil white clothes in a furnace with shredded soap (often made by the maid herself on the premises from kitchen grease combined with lye or burnt seaweed and common salt). She would lift the clothes out of the dolly tub with a dolly stick and then rinse them in first warm, then cool and then 'blued' water. 

Traditionally, the laundry maid would mangle the clothes by wrapping damp items around a roller which she then placed on a flat surface and then rolled backwards and forwards with a heavy board. 'Box mangles' were introduced during the late eighteenth century. These comprised a thick wooden roller around which the maid would wind the clothes before using a rope or leather strap to crank over them a wooden box weighted with stones.

Drying was achieved by laying the clothes outside on grass or hedges to dry or fix them to a  line with cleft wooden pegs. In large country houses, sliding drying racks were often built near to the boiler. Socks and stockings were dried on wooden, china or wire moulds to help them retain their shape.

Eighteenth-century 'box irons' were usually made of iron or steel and included an iron slug (designed to fit inside) which was heated in the fire. Some irons were heated by charcoal (taken from the embers of the burning fire) which was placed in the body of the iron. The weight of the iron, its terrific heat and the fumes emanating from it all made ironing an unpleasant and even dangerous task.

The cleaning of carpets, upholstery and drapes was perhaps one of the most arduous tasks of the domestic servant. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution (from 1750 onwards) with all its soot and grime, the old practice of covering carpets with canvas cloths when the house was empty and with rugs or druggets during times of occupation, became less and less satisfactory.

Early Victorian Period

It was  not until Victorian times that hand-driven washing machines became at all popular. Early models were of the cradle type and worked on a 'rocking box' principle. In the 1850s and 1860s, J. Picken of Birmingham and others marketed a washing machine that worked on the same principle as a butter churn.  But even if the household had such a machine, laundrywork continued to be time- and energy- intensive for the strong-armed washerwomen of the day.  Servants cleaned carpets by hand with stiff brushes, removing ink, oil and grease stains individually with a variety of home-made potions including lemon juice and white bread.

Late Victorian Period

The hand-operated 'Victress Vowel' washing machine by Thomas Bradford of Salford, was the most popular washing machine of the day. Other 'new-fangled' machines involved a variety of 'agitating' apparatus such as cogged wheels, lever-operated drums, paddles, and wooden rollers. Cheap bars of Lifebuoy Soap (invented by Lever Brothers in 1895) contributed to an easing of the laundry maid's tasks. Mangling could now be done on small upright machines (incorportaing two or three rollers made of white wood). More sophisticated charcoal-fuelled flat irons and even paraffin irons were being used by the end of the century.   The first manual vacuum cleaners, using bellows and handcranks, were devised in the 1860s and 1870s in America but did not catch on in Britain. Servants continued to brush and wash carpets on their knees using a variety of unpleasant chemical-based solutions including naptha and chloroform.

Around 1900

The turn-of-the-century laundry-maid probably benefited little from the first electrified washing machines (developed by the American companies Thor (1906) and A. J. Fisher (1908)). The machines – little known in Britain - were ungainly and hazardous, consisting of a dolly tub and dolly peg fitted to a belt driven by an external electric motor. More easily-operable mangling machines now had rollers made wholly or partly of rubber and some of these were table-mounted. By 1907, electric irons were appearing in some London stores but they were far too expensive for the ordinary consumer. The first electric vacuum cleaner, which used suction power, was invented in 1901 by H. Cecil Booth and was used to clean the carpets in Westminster Abbey before the coronation of Edward VII, but early machines like this were large industrial devices, taken by horse and cart from building to building. It was only after Hoover brought out the rotating brush model vacuum cleaner in 1908, and once devices became more portable, that servants in private homes started to feel the benefit of vacuuming technology.


After the First World War, there were many more job opportunities - offering more money, better conditions and a degree of emancipation - for working-class women. Little wonder that far fewer went into domestic service. In the twenties, those who did work in the homes of the middle-classes still undertook most of the household washing by hand despite the introduction of some new slicker cabinet-type washing machines powered by internal electric motors. The first electric tumbler dryers were also available. But  few of these machines could be found in Britain and they were extremely expensive, selling at between £30 and £50. The widespread usage of electric machines – in metal rather than wooden cabinets - was held back by the fact that there was no co-ordinated national electricity grid in Britain until the late 1930s.

1940s and 1950s

After the Second World War, the age of the servant was almost over but, for a while in the Post-War age of austerity, little seemed to have changed on the domestic front. The first electric drying machine with a glass window was invented by Brooks Stevens in 1940 but it was hardly a common sight in British homes. Vacuum cleaners too continued to be considered a luxury item until well after the Second World War. Women of the middle classes (or their hired helps) continued to use hand-driven washing machines. The mid-1940s saw the welcome development of heavy-duty detergents in America. But it was only ten years later, in the economically more prosperous and settled Britain of the 1950s, that electric washing machines (together with drying and vacuuming machines) finally started to become as popular here as they were across the Atlantic.

Useful Books

Jacqueline Fearn, Domestic Bygones, Shire, 2005.

Pamela Horn, The Rise and Fall of the Domestic Servant, Alan Sutton, 1986.

Trevor May, The Victorian Domestic Servant, Shire, 1999.

Pamela Sambrook, Laundry Bygones, Shire, 1983.

Christina Hardyment, From Mangle to Microwave, Polity Press, 1988.

Rebecca Weaver and Rodney Dale, Machines in the Home, The British Library, 1992.

Useful Websites The history of domestic appliances produced by Morphy Richards Short video on the history of domestic appliances – heat and power, washing, cooking and food preservation and cleaning. Complete history of the vacuum cleaner

Click to browse and buy Replica Suffragette Memorabilia Including Jewellery

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Strange weather for the time of year

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'Strange Weather For the Time of Year'

Think the weather is turning a bit strange? Not feeling like August at all? Don't worry, it's not half so bad as it was 200 years ago. Spare a thought for our ancestors who really did spend a year without any summer at all. And suffered much more besides.  

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, our ancestors were probably looking forward to a few years of peace and prosperity. But on April 10 of that year, the Tambora (or Tamboro) volcano in Indonesia erupted to the tune of 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index – the largest volcanic eruption for nearly two millennia. Tambora was the last in a series of similar (though lesser) volcanic eruptions in the 1810s which occurred in the Caribbean, Japan and the Phillipines. Since they also happened within a period of unusually low solar activity, these explosions caused a ‘volcanic winter’ that had enormous consequences across the world. Over the next few years, rather than the hoped-for years of stability and prosperity, our ancestors were to face dramatic cold wet weather, food shortages, famine and disease.

The Year Without a Summer (1816)

The most immediate effect of the eruption of Tambora for our ancestors would have been the deterioration in the weather. A veil of sulphur gases emanating from the volcano wrapped themselves around the planet and limited the amount of sunlight that reached the ground. Temperatures across the Northern hemisphere began to drop dramatically. The 1810s were already the coldest decade in memory, but in 1816 the weather in Britain took a dramatic turn for the worse.

Early 1816 ranks as one of the coldest periods in Britain since records were first kept in 1659. Average global temperatures decreased about 0.4 - 0.7 °C (0.7 - 1.3 °F) and the average temperature in London that year was just over 13 degrees centigrade. Far more than the usual amount of rain fell in the summer with Ireland experiencing persistent cold precipitation for 142 of the 153 summer days between May and September. Snow fell in London on April 14th and again on May 12th, and, as late as September, the lakes in the capital were frozen over. Crews on ships arriving in Britain in June spoke of sea-ice near the Faroe Islands and there were snowdrifts in the Lake District in July. The dismal summer was followed by a bitter winter.

Grain Shortages and Bread Riots

But, in 1816, poor weather may have been the least of our ancestors’ worries.  Crops could not grow in the low temperatures and the prolific rainfall caused what did sprout to rot before it could be harvested. There had been a number of poor harvests in the immediately preceding years, but this time, the consequences were worse: to put it plainly, Britain was in the throes of an unprecedented agricultural calamity.

Exacerbating the situation were the much-hated Corn Laws which had been enacted in 1815. These laws – which were essentially import tariffs on foreign grain -  limited what might have been an onslaught of cheap produce from abroad after the end of the embargo during the Napoleonic Wars. The prices of British grain were kept artificially high to protect the interests of British farmers. In fact, British grain prices doubled between 1815 and 1817 with the unfortunate result that the poor simply could not afford to buy bread.  Anger turned on those responsible for implementing the Corn Laws and on the rich members of local communities where the poor were suffering.

If your ancestor was a farm labourer left without employment due to the unseasonable weather or a soldier returning from the Napoleonic Wars without a job, he may have been one of the thousands across the country tempted to demonstrate outside grain markets and bakeries. Records from court Quarter sessions of the period (available to view in local record offices and searchable at may show individuals on trial for rioting, arson, looting or worse.  

On the night of May 22nd and subsequent evenings, in Littleport and Ely (Cambridgeshire), for example, a large group of men rioted over low pay, breaking into the homes of wealthy people and demanding money. Over eighty men were arrested and, after a trial in the Ely courthouse in June 1816, several were executed, some imprisoned and some transported to Botany Bay. Robert Crabb aged 40, for example was convicted of stealing from Robert Speechley of Littleport. He went to Ely Gaol for one year. The more aggressive 21- year-old, Richard Jessop, was convicted of the burglary of Joshiah Dewey of Littleport and the robbery of William Cooper of Ely. He was deported to Botany Bay for life.

There were many other riots across the country in places such as London, Bridport, Bideford, Bury, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Glasgow, Preston, Nottingham, Merthyr Tydvil, Birmingham, Walsall and Dundee. The causes were, of course, complex and diverse. But the poor weather, failed harvests and food shortages certainly played their part.

Famine and Emigration

Bread riots in England, Scotland and Wales were nothing to the problems faced in Ireland. In 1816 and 1817, a state of near famine prevailed in the north and southwest following the failure of the wheat, oat and, significantly, the potato harvests. Potatoes were the staple food of the rural population of Ireland because this crop produced more food per acre than wheat and it could, therefore, be sold as a source of income. 

As a result of the poor harvest and famine, many of our ancestors chose the years immediately following the eruption of Tambora to emigrate. In Ireland, 6000 unemployed agricultural workers, demobilised soldiers and sailors set sail for America in 1816 and within two years this number had doubled. Some were tempted to go to New Brunswick and Quebec (in Canada) – because the cost of the passage was lower. Most, however – took advantage of the very cheap rate of passage to Liverpool and ended up as labourers or servants in England and Wales. To trace the emigration of your Irish ancestors to the United States at this time see emigration books for Irish Emigrants in North America at


If your ancestor died in 1816, or soon afterwards, consider the fact that his or her death might have been due to a disease that spread as a consequence of the food shortages and consequent vulnerability of the population.

In Ireland, a typhus epidemic between 1816-1819 killed – even by conservative estimates - at least 50,000 Irish people. Typhus, also known as ‘camp fever’, ‘famine fever’, ‘gaol fever’, ‘ship fever’, ‘war fever’, and ‘spotted fever’ is spread by a human body louse which flourishes in situations of squalor, and under-nourishment, especially where people are wearing the same clothing for lengthy periods. 

And typhus was not the only disease that can be indirectly attributed to the volcano at Tambora. Smallpox thrived in the conditions of close social contact and poor sanitation that existed in the depressed economic situation. In India, the delayed summer monsoon of 1815 had caused late torrential rains that helped the spread of cholera from a region near the River Ganges in Bengal. The disease travelled from India to Russia in 1817, reached Germany in 1830 and England in late 1831. Ireland was affected in 1832.

Finding out exactly how your ancestor died in the years before civil registration (1836) can be tricky; gravestones and parish burial records rarely record causes of death. But it is still possible to make an educated guess about your ancestor’s last illness. If you are searching burial registers, for example, look to see how many people in a particular village died at around the same time - unusually large numbers, suggest an epidemic. Local history books may also record the existence of an epidemic in an area at the time of your ancestor’s death.

Our early nineteenth century ancestors no doubt remained mystified by the downturn in the weather and their fortunes. In the days before the telegraph, word about what had happened in Indonesia travelled no faster than a sailing ship and in the absence also of sophisticated geological knowledge, few connected the eruption with what was happening in Britain. In 1815, most people knew nothing of the volcano on the other side of the world that was – in so many cases - indirectly responsible changing the direction of their lives.

The Eruption at Tambora

The eruption of Mount Tambora, located on Sumbawa Island, (which in 1815 was part of the Dutch East Indies) was the largest in recorded history (and probably for 1,600 years). An estimated twelve cubic miles of gases, dust and rock were injected into the atmosphere.  The effects on the local landscape and population were utterly devastating.Whole villages were wiped out as rivers of ash poured down the mountainsides and huge tsunamis were created which raced across the Java Sea. All vegetation on the island was destroyed, livestock perished and up to 12,000 people were killed by the intitial blast. The overall death toll has been estimated at (more than) 71,000 people most of whom died in the days and weeks after the eruption from starvation, disease and diarrhoea caused by the ash which had found its way into supplies of drinking water.

Useful Books

Dozier, Lou, The Story of the Year of Cold, Zerr Press, 2009.

Stommel. Henry and Elizabeth,  Volcano Weather: The Story of 1816 , the Year without a Summer, Newport RI. 1983.

De Boer, Jelle Zeilinga and Sanders, Donald Theodore, Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions, Princeton University Press, 2004.

Harrison, Mark, Disease and the Modern World: 1500 to the Present Day, Polity Press, 2004

Useful Websites Geologist’s Account of a trip up Tambora in 2002. On the phenomenon of volcanic winters throughout history. Infectious diseases in history, their causes and effects. For a full account of the Littleport riots and a list of all the rioters

For women's history and social history books - competitive prices and a great service - visit: