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

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Who Do You Think You Are - Review of Tracing Ancestors Through Letters and Personal Writings

Tracing Ancestors Through Letters and Personal Writings

#ancestors #ancestry #familyhistory #familyhistorybooks #genealogy #ancestryhour

A Family History Valentine - It Runs in the Family

Kiss Curls? Heart Tattoos? Sweetheart Brooches? 

How did your ancestors woo their loved ones? 

It Runs in the Family: Understanding More About Your Ancestors  (The History Press, 2013)

A Family History Gift for Valentine's Day

Beautifully illustrated family history books with a difference by a frequent contributor to the UK family history press. I write for Family Tree Magazine UK; Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical and Bookazine (; Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine ( The publishers of my family history books are Pen and Sword Books ( and The History Press ( 

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She Plied a Needle - Was Your Ancestor a Seamstress?

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Our female ancestors of all classes probably left their mark more readily with a needle than with a pen. As paintings tell us, many middle and upper-class women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sewed for decorative purposes and amusement; some lower down the social scale, made and darned clothes for their own families. But a huge number of those who plied needles in the past did so to earn a living -  and a hard one at that. Women first came into the needle trades in large numbers during the Napoleonic Wars (1805-1815) when they were employed to stitch sails and military uniforms. They were considered cheaper, more dextrous and less prone to ‘combination’ (i.e. early attempts at unionisation) than men. Soon their input was in demand in other sectors. 

This woodcut shows a seamstress making alterations to the waist of an elaborate dress, probably 1870s. Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library via Wikimedia Commons

As the nineteenth century progressed, there was a huge increase in the market for cheap, fashionable clothing. The reasons for this were numerous: new machinery was producing more abundant and cheaper materials (especially cotton), more people were being paid their wages in cash which meant that they could exercise more choice over what they spent them on and many chose clothing; and improved communications (particularly railways) meant that fashions could be disseminated more quickly and more cheaply.

Look carefully at how the occupations of your female ancestors are described in the censuses. Many different terms were used for needlewoman including: needle-workers, sewers, tailors, clothiers, milliners, dressmakers, garment makers, and seamstresses (as well as its other spelling sempstresses). Many women were also categorised under more specialised occupation titles according to what they actually made. These included hosiery manufacturers, staymakers, garter-makers, mantua makers, shirt-makers, hat sewers, glovers, and boot and shoe stitchers, and bookbinders (who stitched and folded the pages of books). There were also a number of related ‘needle trades’ such as button and hook and eye carding, umbrella covering, and sackwork. Some of the terms used on the census are delightfully evocative of the rich and varied tastes of the age. In 1881, for example, 19-year old Helen Bates, from Marylebone, was described as a ‘satin stitch embroideress,’ and there are plenty of ‘gold embroideresses’ and ‘straw bonnet sewers.’ In the same census nearly 5,000 women are accorded the occupation ‘sewing machinist.’

When viewing the censuses, you may find your needle-working ancestors far from home and participating in some unlikely living arrangements. This is because it was common for girls from the provinces to spend some time in big cities, especially London, learning the dressmaking trade. In the 1860s and 1870s, Frederick Isaacson ran a dressmaking emporium (known as Madame Elise’s) in Westminster. The 1861 census shows 49 girls (mostly between 16 and 25 years of age), as well as the Isaacson family and a number of other servants, living together. The girls – all described in the census as ‘dressmakers’ and ‘milliners’ – came from as far afield as Ireland, Frankfurt, France, Preston and Wales.

There were two types of women needle-workers: those who worked in ‘honourable’ private dressmaking establishments (of varying degrees of refinement), and those who worked as sweated outworkers (usually at home). In the first category were the daughters of professional, clerical or trading families as well as the daughters of farmers, tradesmen and artisans. Needlework offered these women skilled work and business opportunities.  At the bottom end of the scale were women of a much lower order who had fallen on hard times and were desperate simply to put bread in the mouths of their children. Some worked for roguish employers in large sweatshops where pay and conditions were poor and the subject of much humanitarian concern. In the second category were the impoverished seamstresses who worked from home. Warehouses might distribute material to ‘mistresses’ or agents who would then apportion smaller amounts to individual home-workers. For women, needlework was an activity – like childminding, charring, washing, accommodating lodgers or selling food from their back kitchens – that could be fitted in and around other domestic duties. Any poor quality clothing made by workers at home was referred to rather uncharitably as ‘slopwork.’

From the mid nineteenth-century onwards, better printing techniques, cheaper paper and improved literacy meant that there were more women’s magazines catering for the desire for fashionable clothing. Here a popular paper shows ‘the new long cloaks’ evidently in vogue in October 1888.
The Girl’s Own Paper, October 27th 1888

Home-based needlework actually increased rather than decreased during the Industrial Revolution. Indeed some firms used more and more out-workers as factory and workshop regulations became more stringent. Different parts of the country specialised in different sorts of needlework. Ayrshire home-workers favoured ‘whitework’ – embroidery in white thread onto white cloth for christening robes, table cloths and underwear; Coventry was known for silk ribbon production; in Northampton, domestic stitching serviced the boot and shoe industry; London had the largest women’s garment-making sector; and the South-West made gloves.

Conditions of Work

Many Victorian do-gooders were appalled at the conditions in which seamstresses lived and worked. A Report by Dugard Grainger for the Childrens’ Commission in 1843 painted a bleak picture of seamstressing. He found found that needlewomen who lived on the business premises worked very long hours (18 hours a day was not unheard of) and slept in crowded and badly ventilated rooms.  Many needlewomen suffered from respiratory, digestive and rheumatic disorders. Eye complaints were caused by the fact that much of the work was carried out before daybreak and after nightfall, and particularly affected those who worked with black mourning material. There were tales of girls throwing whisky into their eyes to keep themselves awake. Women earned far less than men doing comparable jobs in the tailoring trade. Whilst residential needle-workers were paid on a par with domestic servants (anything from £12 - £30 per annum depending on skill), the fact that they needed to be dressed smartly for presentation to customers often meant that employers kept back part of their wages to cover clothing.

Work in the needlework trades was exceptionally arduous in the two fashion ‘Seasons’ (April until July or August, and October to December). During the in-between times (known as ‘the slacks’), girls could find themselves without work, or at least forced to take holidays even if they had nowhere to go. The Girl’s Own Paper, Vol IX, No 415, December 10th, 1887

Homeworkers were at the mercy of the mistresses or agents who dealt out the work and took a cut – often a generous one  -  for themselves. Middle-class philanthropists recounted horrendous stories of needlewomen sleeping under the clothes they were making because they couldn’t afford proper blankets. As the social investigator Henry Mayhew noted, many needlewomen in London particularly were so desperate that they turned to prostitution. Few women are actually recorded as ‘prostitutes’ on the nineteenth-century censuses but it is worth remembering that where ‘needlework’ is entered as an occupation, it may hide other, less savoury, sources of income.

 On the 1881 census Jane Bird (aged 20) and her older sister Mary (aged 29) both from Hesketh in Cumberland were employed by a Mrs Agnes Wharton, in Westminster. Jane was an ‘apprentice,’ whilst Mary had obviously been promoted to the position of ‘assistant.’ Dressmaker’s apprentices at around this time paid an annual premium to their employers of between £10-£50 to cover their living costs. Girls were usually bound at the age of fourteen or fifteen and the apprenticeship lasted for two or three years.

If the needlewoman in your family disappears from the records at around the time of the 1851 census, it’s just possible that this is because she has left the country. Perceived as a problem in a society that had far more unmarried females than males in its population, the needlewoman was – briefly - high on the list for assisted emigration in the 1850s. Sidney Herbert, M.P. for South Wiltshire, suggested the removal of designated groups of needlewomen to Australia. Between 1850 and 1852 about 700 needlewomen benefited from assisted emigrations on ships named Stately, Beulah, The City of Manchester, and The Fortitude. The exercise was not, however, considered to be a success. There were reports of quarrels, bad language, insubordination and immorality on board ship. But the mission really failed because the thinking about what the colonies really needed changed. From 1853 onwards, emigration societies focussed on sending educated and robust middle-class women rather than delicate seamstresses of dubious social background to the outposts of Empire.
A number of associations and societies were eventually set up to improve the lot of the needlewoman. They include, The Association for the Aid and Benefit of Dressmakers and Milliners founded in 1843. This aimed to persuade the principal dressmaking establishments to limit working hours to twelve a day and to abolish Sunday work. It also set up and maintained a registry for freelance day-workers, by which it hoped to ensure that residential needlewomen were not overburdened at the busiest times of the year. The Society for the Relief of Distressed Needlewomen (set up in 1847) aimed to introduce fairer wages into the slop trade. Workhouse institutions and government contractors who produced their own garments were requested to adopt standard prices so that they did not undercut the prices charged by other needlewoman. The Milliner’s and Dressmaker’s Provident and Benevolent Institution (founded in 1849) offered needlewomen free medical advice and set up a fund to help needlewomen in their old age and at times of misfortune. There were also a number of regional associations set up to help needle-workers in times of particular distress. The records of the Liverpool Society for the Relief of Sick or Distressed Needlewomen 1858-1941 (including weekly visitors committee minutes, distribution and account books), are available at the Merseyside Record Office. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, these philanthropic initiatives were joined by needle-working co-operatives in which women began, at last, to fight for their own rights. One of these was The Society of Dressmakers, Milliners and Mantlemakers (1875). In time statutory protection for workers of both sexes in the sweated industries was brought in, but for many of our lowly seamstress ancestors, it was too little, too late.

 A Singer Sewing Machine, 1853: in the 1881 census nearly 5,000 women are accorded the occupation ‘sewing machinist’ (sewing machines were first patented in 1846 but were not in general use until the 1860s). Frederick L. Lewton, The Servant in the House: A Brief History of the Sewing Machine, Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institute, 1929, Washington Government Printing Office, 1930.
Extra Reading
Beth Harris, Famine and Fashion: Needlewomen in the Nineteenth Century, Ashgate, 2005 ISBN: 0745608719
Lynn M. Alexander, Women, Work and Representation: Needlewomen in Victorian Art and Literature. Ohio UP, 2003. ISBN: 0821414933

Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, London: The Women’s Press, 1984.

Christine Walkley, The Ghost in the looking Glass: The Victorian Sempstress, London: Peter Owen, 1981.

Duncan Bythell, The Sweated Trades: Outwork in Nineteenth-Century Britain, London: Batsford Academic, 1978.

Margaret Stewart and Leslie Hunter, The Needle is Threaded: The History of an Industry, Heinemann/Newman Neame, 1964

Dugald Grainger, ‘Report on the Manufactures and Trades of Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Birmingham and London.’ Children’s Employment Commission, Vol X, 1843.

H. E. Lord and J. E. White, ‘Report on the Manufacture and Wearing of Apparel, Part 1. On Dressmakers, Mantle-Makers and Milliners.’ Children’s Employment Commission, Vol XIV, 1864.

Mayhew. Henry, ‘Prostitution Among Needlewomen’  (1849) in The Unknown Mayhew: Selections from The Morning Chronicle, ed. Thompson. E.P. and  Yeo, E. Pantheon, 1971. ISBN: 0394468619 p.121

This article first appeared in Discover Your Ancestors Bookazine, 2016

Click here for Discover Your Ancestors Periodical and Bookazine

Beautifully illustrated family history books with a difference by a frequent contributor to the UK family history press. I write for Family Tree Magazine UK; Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical and Bookazine (; Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine ( The publishers of my family history books are Pen and Sword Books ( and The History Press ( 

Click to browse and buy Replica Suffragette Memorabilia Including Jewellery

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Monday, 23 January 2017

Search My Ancestry: How to Trace Ancestors Through Letters and Persona...

Search My Ancestry: How to Trace Ancestors Through Letters and Persona...: See my 'how-to' article on how to trace ancestors through letters and other personal writings on the blog of : Family Tree Magazi...

Bookazine Discover Your Ancestors - Volume 6 - 2017 OUT NOW


Includes two articles by Ruth A. Symes:

'Weathering the Past' - the effect of weather events on the lives of our ancestors

'Maternal Ties' - how our female ancestors dealt with conception, contraception, abortion, miscarriage and childbirth

#ancestryhour #discoveryourancestors #ancestors #ancestry #familytree #familyhistory #genealogy

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Read it Online! Free Books to Enhance Your Family History Research

Old Books Go Digital 

In February 2017's edition of Family Tree Magazine UK, I explain where you can find the texts of thousands of books useful to your family history research online.


Beautifully illustrated family history books with a difference by a frequent contributor to the UK family history press. I write for Family Tree Magazine UK; Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical and Bookazine (; Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine ( The publishers of my family history books are Pen and Sword Books ( and The History Press ( 

#oldbooksonline #digitalversions #genealogy #familyhistory #familytree #ancestors #ancestry #freebooks

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

All Girls Together - The Relationships Between Sisters in Your Family History

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All Girls Together

- taking a look at the relationships between sisters in your family history

For many young women in the past, relationships with sisters were probably the longest-lasting connections of their lives – vastly outspanning their relationships with their parents and their own children. If you discover branches heavy with sisters on your family tree, consider carefully the age gaps between them, when and whom they married, where they ended up living, whether or not they had children and the ways in which their lives may have consequently merged and diverged. The chances are that the relationships between them – whether they were nurturing or hostile (and they were probably at different times both) - were one of the central features of their experience.

Adult sisters abroad c 1910. Author's own collection
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Most of what we know about relationships between sisters in the past focuses on middle- and upper-class girls. It has been suggested that close emotional bonds between sisters really developed only in the late eighteenth century. Before this sibling relationships in general were less affectionate. This was partly due to the high instance of childhood mortality (something which meant that families invested less emotionally in each child), and partly due to the rivalry and conflict that could occur between siblings over inheritance practices and marriage customs. In the late eighteenth century, it has been argued, sisters became closer and less competitive than they had been in earlier ages. Whilst brothers were away from home at private schools or in military regiments, girls stayed at home until marriage and were, therefore, thrown upon each other’s company for more lengthy periods.

In the nineteenth-century, bonds of affection between sisters grew ever deeper. There was a new emphasis on the role of love in family life and parents emphasised the need for harmony and co-operation between their children. The existence of large families often meant that younger girls were partly parented by older sisters. Where girls were educated at home, the role of the elder girls could be that of teacher to her younger female siblings. Evidence of sisterly relationships in the Victorian period comes through personal paperwork such as letters and diaries. From these it is apparent that, on many occasions, the close bonds of sisterhood helped women to overcome emotional and financial difficulties and stimulated creativity - anything from shared needlework projects to clutches of novels all produced within the same family home.

Girl's Own Paper, (Victorian)  Out of copyright

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In the twentieth century, families tended to be smaller with the result (according to some psychologists), that children competed more for maternal affection. There was an increase in sibling rivalry and jealousy particularly amongst young children. As the century progressed, there was a focus on the individuality rather than the similarity of siblings (separate beds and bedrooms for each child, for example) and, with the advent of sexual equality with brothers, sisterhood was no longer quite the intense domestic experience it had once been.

Sisters and Marriage

You should pay particular attention to the dates of marriage amongst groups of sisters on your family tree. Whatever their relationship as children, the testing time for sisters came when they were old enough to be betrothed. Victorian letters and diaries reveal that sisters often experienced deep pain when they were separated from each other, even by pleasant events such as courtship and marriage. From the wedding day onwards, the lives of sisters (which had previously been almost interchangeable) could become widely divergent depending on the wealth, background and character of the prospective husbands.

It was important in families of good social standing for girls to get married in order of age and to marry men with similar social aspirations. The five daughters of Mrs Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (pub. 1813)  are a constant worry to their mother since all of them are ‘out’ (i.e. old enough to appear in public at balls and dances) and not one of them is married, but it is Jane, the eldest, whom she seeks to marry off first. The situation of a younger sister marrying before an older one was considered embarrassing and something to be avoided; a married woman automatically attained seniority over her older unmarried sisters.

For many other nineteenth-century sets of sisters, marriage at any point was not in the picture. The Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, were in fact three of five daughters (the eldest two Maria and Elizabeth having died as children). Such were the close bonds between the sisters that none married during the lifetime of the others. When Charlotte finally tied the knot in 1854, it was after the death of her two sisters. She herself passed away soon afterwards from pneumonia whilst pregnant.

By 1850, there was a popularly perceived ‘surplus of women’ in the population – partly due to the fact that the mortality rate for boys was higher than that for girls, partly because more men worked abroad in the armed forced or had emigrated. By 1861 there were 10,380,285 women living in England and Wales but only 9,825,246 men. This meant that marriage for some women was unlikely. Unmarried middle-class sisters often lived together to minimise expenses and were often supported by small annuities bequeathed from their parents’ estates or by working brothers.

In other cases, sisters who married well could become the centre of important cultural networks. Sisters Alice, Georgiana, Agnes and Louisa Macdonald, (four of the seven) daughters of a lower middle-class Methodist Minister leapt from obscurity when they got hitched. Georgiana and Agnes married the famous painters Edward Burne-Jones and Edward Poynter (President of Royal Academy) respectively, whilst Alice became the mother of the future Poet Laureate, Rudyard Kipling and Louisa, the mother of future Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. 

In these close-knit family circles of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, it seems reasonable to suppose that had one of your female ancestors died, her husband might have considered marrying one of her unmarried sisters – another blossom from the same tree, as it were. But the practice of marrying a deceased wife’s sister was actually forbidden by law until 1907.  This is because those who were already connected by marriage were considered to be related to each other (by so-called ‘affinity’) in a way that made it improper for them to marry. Between the Marriage Act of 1835 and The Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act of 1907, a man wishing to marry his deceased wife’s sister was treated as if he were considering incest! During that period, the only men able to marry their deceased wives sisters were wealthy ones who could afford to do so abroad such as the painters William Holman Hunt and John Collier.

Symes sisters, Phyllis, Emmie, and Jenny, c. 1908, Hull. After the death of their father and two younger sisters and before their own marriages, my great aunts (sisters Emmie, Phyllis and Jenny Symes) took on financial responsibility for their mother and younger brother, Jack. An example of ordinary sisters working together for a common goal, all the girls worked for Marks and Spencer (then a newly emergent company) first as shop assistants and then as manageresses. Their work took them across the North of England from Manchester to Hull, York and Birmingham.

Sisters and the Camera

Sisters can often be identified in Victorian and Edwardian photographs by their matching outfits. There was a particular craze for dressing daughters alike in the mid Victorian period (c 1855-1885), particularly among the upper and middle classes who aped the daughters of Queen Victoria in this respect. Even sisters who were far apart in age would be portrayed in matching garb and young adults as well as small children also   followed this trend. The matching could extend to hats, boots, jewellery and even to the mirror-like poses of the sitters. Sometimes sisters would differentiate themselves from each other by a minor detail of dress such as a corsage worn on one side of the bodice or the other, or extra trimming.

The relative ages of sisters in photographs can be deduced by the length of the dresses they wore – with the hemlines of older girls being longer. Another clue to the age of a girl is the styling of her hair, with younger sisters wearing their locks down (loose or in ringlets) whilst their elder sisters wore it up.  Whilst the fashion for matching dress predominated amongst the rich, working-class sisters were also sometimes portrayed in identical ‘Sunday Best’ outfits.

When interviewing family members about their memories of groups of sisters in the past, be careful. Girls are characteristically remembered by reference to their looks, (for example,  ‘the beauty’, or ‘the Plain Jane’); or their marital status and propensity for producing children, (‘the spinster’, ‘the mother of ten’). Other descriptions may be equally distorting; Queen Victoria’s five daughters have recently been described as ‘vivacious, intelligent Vicky; sensitive, altruistic Alice; dutiful, dull Lenchen; artistic, rebellious Louise; and shy baby sister Beatrice.’ This over-simplistic labelling and differentiating of sisters won’t necessarily help you to understand what your female ancestors were really like.


In the twentieth century, the public continued to be enthralled by many other sets of sisters. The Pankhurst sorority, Sylvia, Christabel and Adela, derived energy from their sisterly bonds in their struggle to secure the vote for women, whilst sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf (said to have been sexually abused by their two older half-brothers) produced unusual and startling works of art and literature. Meanwhile, the complex political situation of the mid-twentieth century is often described through the antics of one of the oddest of all groups of upper-class sisters – the six Mitford girls – who ranged in sympathy from Fascist Diana to Communist Jessica.

How exactly our own great-grandmothers interacted with their sisters depends, of course, on many factors - on the size of their families, for instance, on the age spacing and birth order of the children, on the class, ethnic and cultural traditions of their family as well as on their individual personalities. But whether characterised by harmony or tension, there is no doubt that sisterhood was an important relationship between the women in our family trees and one that deserves our special attention.

This article first appeared in Family Tree Magazine UK 2010

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Useful Websites Website showing many photographs of sisters in matching outfits. Bronte Parsonage Museum home page.'s_Sister's_Marriage_Act_1907 For more on the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Marriage Act of 1907.

Useful Books

Flanders, Judith. A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin. Penguin 2002

Fletcher, Sheila, Victorian Girls:  Lord Lyttelton’s Daughters, Phoenix, 2004

Mintz, Steven. 1983. A Prison of Expectations: The Family in Victorian Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Pols, Robert. Dating Nineteenth-Century Photographs, Federation of Family History Societies, 2005

Symes, Ruth, Family First: Tracing Relationships in the Past, Pen and Sword, 2013 Click here to see more details about this book

Beautifully illustrated family history books with a difference by a frequent contributor to the UK family history press. I write for Family Tree Magazine UK; Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical and Bookazine (; Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine ( The publishers of my family history books are Pen and Sword Books ( and The History Press ( 

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

#ancestors #ancestry #genealogy #familyhistory #familytree #ruthasymes #searchmyancestry #sisters #familyrelationships #Victorian

Friday, 6 January 2017

'She Scrubbed Up Well' - How Your Domestic Servant Ancestor Actually Cleaned

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.  

Servant Scrubbing Steps: From the Wigan World Website (with permission)

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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 I take a look at the introduction of 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

Woman washing using a dolly peg. From the Wigan World Website with permission

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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.

Lancashire women ready to hang out the washing to dry. From the Wigan World Website, with permission.
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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.

To learn more about the history of domestic appliances, and see and touch many of the inventions, visit York's Castle Museum (address below). Many stately homes, such as Erdigg near Wrexham, also have kitchens illustrating how different applicances were used.

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

Museums/Stately Homes

York Castle Museum
Eye of York

LL13 0YT

This article first appeared in Family Tree Magazine UK 2011

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