Rethinking the Laundress in Victorian England

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

In my last post, I talked about some of my motivations for setting up The Herstorian. In my quest to rewrite ordinary men and women into the historical narrative, I'm writing a book about working life in the Victorian era. This isn't the book you've already read about accidents in textile factories or the introduction of legislation to limit working hours - though you can't ignore those two aspects of working life. Really, this book - Hidden Dangers of the Victorian Workplace - plays around with the concept of 'danger.' Although physical dangers were present (and are discussed in the book), I'm more interested in social and moral dangers, like poverty, vice and intemperance. When we apply this concept of danger to the Victorian workplace, there's a whole new world of professions and trades to explore.

Anyway, I'm now well into the first draft of the book and have just finished a chapter on the laundry industry.

When we think about the Victorian laundry, there's a couple of things that probably spring to mind:

  1. Laundry was woman's work. We're all familiar with the washerwoman or laundress. (And, perhaps, we have a rather rosy image of the laundress. Sleeves rolled up, hands-in-the-tub, children running around, kind of thing).

  2. Before the introduction of technology, washing clothes was physically demanding.

  3. Because it was such hard and tedious work, most people dedicated one day a week to doing it and those who could afford to get help did exactly that. In Victorian England, Monday was wash day (likely because it could take all week to actually get the washing dried and ironed. We can thank the British weather for that).

The laundry wasn't quite as rosy as this image suggests ...

In terms of danger, there was the obvious physical toll, but I thought more about poverty. I knew that laundresses didn't earn much, and so I started my research from that point. Once I started digging around the archives, my perceptions of this profession changed so much. For a start, by the 1880s, the washer-woman had all but vanished, and laundry had become a fully-fledged industry. Now, huge laundries, all kitted out with the latest technology, were springing up all over the country. With the introduction of machinery, women's dominance went into decline. Men and their muscles were needed to load and unload these machines. Male engineers were also on hand to install and repair them.

What also surprised me about this industry was its seasonality. Depending on where you lived would depend on the amount of work available. In London, for example, a laundress couldn't move for work during the height of the season, but, by September, work dried up. A similar pattern occurred in seaside towns. So, for women who relied on full-time laundry work, there were so many factors outside of their control - and this is where things got interesting for me. I reframed my questions and started thinking about how working-class women coped with mechanisation and seasonality.

Once I started looking for stories in the British Newspaper Archive, it was like I'd opened the floodgates. SO MANY STORIES. And what bound these stories together? Poverty … the workhouse … even suicide. And who were these women? They were working-class, as I expected, but they were widows - young and old - and women abandoned by lovers, often with a child to care for. These were society's forgotten women.

Of all the stories I found, it is Daisy Lord's that sticks with me. Daisy was a 22-year-old laundress from Guildford with a very dark secret. In the summer of 1907, she discovered that she was pregnant. As for her lover, I found rumours that he was a married man who threatened to shoot her with his revolver if she caused him any "trouble."(1) Whatever the case, Daisy didn't tell a soul that she was expecting a child. We have to remember that as an unmarried woman, her child would be tainted with the stigma of illegitimacy and that she would likely be dismissed from the laundry.

What happened next can only be described as heart-breaking. On February 10 1908 - and completely alone - she gave birth to a daughter. A few hours later, she strangled her daughter and got ready for work. It was her landlady who later discovered the crime and alerted the police. After being arrested, Daisy told the police:

"No one is to blame but me. I did it all. I thought I would put an end to it so that it should not have the trouble I have."

It turns out that Daisy was herself illegitimate.

In July, she appeared at the Guildford Assizes on the charge of murder. Having confessed, the proceedings didn't last long. The judge wept as he passed the sentence of death.

But this wasn't the end of Daisy's story. When the details went public, there were tremendous outpourings of public sympathy. Up and down the country, people protested and demanded her immediate release. Suffragists and suffragettes united behind her. In the end, the Home Secretary intervened and she was released from prison, never to appear again in criminal records. Right now, I don't know where Daisy ended up or how she supported herself, but I'll share it with you as soon I find out.

It goes without saying that I make no excuses for Daisy's horrible crime. The point is, telling those small stories - no matter how tragic - has absolutely changed how I look at this industry. And, hopefully, it's changed your view too.

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(1) Clarion, 4 September 1908.

(2) Quote from Daisy: Shields Daily News, 21 July 1908.

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