On the 1911 Census there were 679 laundresses recorded. 

On the 1921 Census there were 513 recorded. 

Kelly’s Directory 1934 lists 29 laundries.

There are many known terms for laundresses – washerwoman, laundress, ironer. These are different terms used to describe someone doing laundry. Women would take in laundry in their own homes.  This was very heavy work, and dangerous.  Water would be heated in a copper.  Mangles were used with no safety guards.  Harsh chemicals were used without protection.  The laundry was soaked and scrubbed before boiling.  Wooden tubs would have been used, and at the end of 19thc galvanized metal tubs appeared, and there were also more chemicals available.  Pre 1900 soap was used, often shaved from a block, or a solid piece would be rubbed onto stains.   

Vintage illustration of a scene from the story Laura Loft, A tale of woman’s rights. In Mrs Peckchaff’s laundry, 1873, 19th Century

There were books written on household management aimed at middle-class housewives, in which there were lots of adverts for laundry equipment, irons, dollies, washboards etc.  A poor woman laundering in her own home would often have to work without many of these things.  Mangles did help many women who took in laundry – they would some sometimes be shared with neighbors.  Often the laundry done by a woman would sustain a family through hard times as often husbands would have seasonal jobs, and often be out of work for some time.  

Heavy irons would have to be heated on a range.  Ironing would often be done on a tabletop covered with a blanket or cloth.  Wet laundry was hung up indoors a lot due to air pollution, soot, rain etc.  The environment inside homes would be steamy, damp and more often not very cramped, and laundry done by women who were quite probably malnourished themselves and not living in the best of conditions.  Because laundresses were often poorly educated, physically strong, independent women, who effectively ran their own businesses, they were considered unladylike and lacking in social respectability.  Their hard work often helped keep the family afloat and saved them from the workhouse.  Children were often used as unpaid labour, to help with task like carrying water, turning the mangle and hanging clothes.

Old mangle – used for pressing sheets, linen and clothes before the advent of electric irons. Smaller or more delicate items were pressed using irons heated on a stove.

Factory Act 1891 – did not apply to those working in own homes laundering. 

The laundry industry: 

The 1895 Factory Act finally saw the laundry industry included in this.  Incredibly there was a reluctance in some quarters and from some feminists to reform the laundry industry for fear it would drive out the home laundresses if legislation, working hours and conditions and pay rates were stipulated.  Many men also worked in the industry and it was feared women may be pushed out altogether and be replaced by men and machines!  The restrictions that regulations would have made i.e on working hours, was seen by some feminists and Suffragettes as an infringement on personal liberty and a person’s right to control his or her own destiny!     

1895 Factory Act also made it illegal to employ children under age of 11 and women who had given birth less than 4 weeks previously! 

A late Victorian laundry’s ‘ironing room’ where the workers are using irons powered by electricity: an example of an ‘electrical iron’ is also shown. From “The Cottager and Artisan: The People’s Own Paper” published in 1898 by The Religious Tract Society, London.

There were many kinds of laundries:   

Hand and Steam laundries, Convent laundries, Hotel laundries, power laundries, workhouse laundries, orphaned, poor or disabled children’s laundries, and even laundries in institutions such as ‘Homes for fallen women’.  “All laundries employing less than three persons who were not family members” were exempt from legislation to improve conditions.  So, the cottage industry of laundresses working in their own homes were exempt from any legislation to improve their working conditions.  

Institutional laundries – convents, charities, church laundries remained outside this legislation until 1907!  Many of these charitable laundries trained young girls in laundry work so that they could earn a living and move towards independence.  I came across the term ‘feeble minded’ when describing some of these girls!  They were often exploited, usually young, ill-educated, poor, often orphaned, physically weak and/or mentally handicapped.  Their laundry work earned the charities considerable funds and also undercut commercial laundries as the workers were paid next to nothing!   

Wages in the laundry industry remained untouched until after the first world war! 

1906-1914    We start to see insurance against ill health and unemployment, old-age pensions, medical services, and school meals for children being introduced.  This is all social reform, and we now see the state begin to take some responsibility for the welfare of citizens.   

In 1918 – school leaving age is raised to 14. 

Adult women could work 14 hours a day, 60 hours a week, and earn 2 hours overtime on 30 days of the year!  This was progress! 

There were many accidents in laundries – burns, crushing of fingers, hands, arms, many left permanently maimed.  New machines were bought in with no health and safety requirements, often no adequate guards on them.  Girls and women often wore loose clothing, loose hair that caught up in the machinery.  From about 1909 accident rates in laundries started to decline.  The industry was becoming more mechanized, and guards and protection around machinery was better.  The hours were still very long – high incidence of leg ulcers, rheumatic joints, consumption, ill health of workers, hours standing etc. 

Things did improve – working hours reduced, and adult women’s wages did increase.  Many women who had worked in the munitions factories did not wish to return to menial low paid laundry work. Girls under the age of 15 were paid less wages than adult women doing the same job! 

Victorian female prisoners working in the prison laundry. From an edition of “The Windsor Magazine – An Illustrated Monthly for Men and Women”, published by Ward Lock & Co in 1896.

1919 Trade Boards Act – the industry now subject to this act.  

Brighton was a seaside resort catering to many visitors.  There was a very large laundry industry in the town, and certain areas were known for it.  Roundhill was known as Laundry Hill.  Many local girls and women worked in the laundries.  Long hours spent in laundry often meant a worker’s home and family would suffer from lack of care and attention etc. 

By 1924, though much improved, laundry work was still very hard, with long hours spent standing in steam, heat, damp and the smell of other people’s dirty laundry!   20 or 30 years earlier the work would have been much harder.  By the 1920s it was a much more regulated industry.  Many women working from home would have had the use of public wash houses to do laundry.  Working hours had been reduced and the perception of the work also changed when it became regulated and monitored.  It became part of the increasingly important service sector of the economy.  It was not always easy to organize unionization in the industry.  Many women returned on and off to the work in times of need and to support the family.  It was seen as work of a casual nature and therefore problematic to organize in any militant sense.   

Some women who took laundry into their own homes charged much less than a professional laundry, and were paid much less too, though of course their hours were still long and the work was heavy and arduous, though flexible and could fit around children and home.  

Big steam laundries developed, and the big laundry business began.  The mechanization of the industry meant that hand laundry was done less and less – the big laundries had machines to cope with all sorts of things.  It was possible to get a ‘bag wash’ done – this was a bag of small items.  Many of the big laundries had their own cases given to customers, these would be collected and delivered back to customers, either by horse and cart or by hand cart.  Laundry done at home in this was meant that some women were often vulnerable to the advances of the laundryman!  Women working alone with no protection were often at the mercy of these men!  They would want to keep on good terms with them for fear they would not get any more work, but at the same time were vulnerable to unwanted harassment, advances, and more I am sure… 

Aerial photo train tracks by Round Hill a neighbourhood in Brighton UK

By the 1920s an order came in making mess rooms in commercial laundries mandatory.  Alongside social clubs, pension schemes, annual outings and some forms of entertainment, workers in these laundries found their working conditions greatly improved.  Within 30 years or so, things had changed alongside the mechanization of the trade.   Attitudes of employers who were concerned about the welfare of their employees began to change, though not all laundries were quick to improve.  (We can think of big corporations such as Port Sunlight or Bourneville who provided housing and amenities for their employees and improved their lives very much.)-++ 

By the 1930s young girls between the ages of 14 and 18 were the major source of new employees in the industry.  Laundry work offered more personal freedom than domestic service – the other work open to working class girls.  Maids often had to purchase their own uniforms, or if they wished to take up apprenticeship, would have to pay for this.  Also – if they became skilled at ironing delicate items, they could earn better wages and there was the possibility of advancement.   

P111 of Encyclopedia of Brighton states “from 1921-1951 the main occupation for women were…laundresses.” 

“Laundries” in Brighton and Hove, by Geoff Mead (source: mybrightonandhove.org.uk) from Brighton Chief Medical Officer of Health Annual Report for 1919 

   “The staple industry of Brighton is catering for visitors by hotels and boarding house 

     and apartment letting (lodging house keepers, females 1487) In consequence the 

     laundry work done in Brighton is in excess of that done in other towns”.   

Sources:  Encyclopedia of Brighton by Tim Carder  

The English Laundress:  A Social History 1850-1930.  Patricia E Malcolmson, University of Illinois Press 1986 


1911 and 1921 Census returns. 

Rose Hill to Roundhill:  A Brighton Community.  Queenspark Books 2004

Research undertaken by BHWHG member, Maria. July 2023