Washday Memories

Press play to listen to washday memories from elders at Cartref Cynnes Extra Care Scheme, speaking with artist penny d jones.

 See English transcript below:

One of the most important things is that they go to a library, so that we don’t forget them. We’ve aged now, but my memories go back to the forties so I remember my grandmother washing clothes in a wooden tub that had a washboard in the back. We lived in an industrial village although the streets were narrow, but all the washing was done outside the house, of course, as we didn’t have the machines that are available today. And in that time, much happened on the coal fire as well – we’d boil the clothes so that they’d shine white on the clothes line and a part of that was also the starch. You had to make your own starch. I remember helping my grandmother with it when I was a child. You used a packet of Robin starch to make it. You’d put a spoonful of starch in a bowl with some boiling water and then you’d leave it to cool and you’d make it to the consistency you wanted. You’d need heavy starch for white collars with lace. You’d put children’s bonnets that were full of frills in heavy starch. For something lighter, you’d put sugar starch on it, but that was more in the 1960s, when I used to dance in frilly clothes.

I remember the blue bag. It went into the water, and it would add a touch of blue to the water to make the clothes shine whiter. It was a long process to be honest. It was a full day of washing and if it rained, well it was terrible!

You had to wash on Mondays. Each day had a specific quality in those days. Mondays were wash days. We’d iron on Tuesdays, and Fridays were airing days. And baking bread, you’d come home from school and you’d smell the bread all over the house. They’d start at the back door, the bread would rise, and someone would shout “don’t open [sic] that door, don’t let the air come in or the bread will collapse.”

I was brought up in Tumble. And before that, I lived in a place called Capel Seion. I had three grandmothers; one great-grandmother and two grandmothers, and I used to run in and out of their houses so I learnt a lot from them, because we learn from older people.

There were miners in my family. My father worked in the coal mines. My father was a blacksmith. He used to shoe horses that went underground, and his clothes got very dirty. If you think of my father’s family, there were eleven children and eight of them were men working in the coal mines. You can imagine how much washing there was!

My family were farmers. Hard-working men, lots of washing, in the north. Remember ‘Feet in the Stocks’ (Traed Mewn Cyffion) by Kate Roberts – people worked in the quarries. While there were coal mines in the south! Lot of work getting them clean, I’m sure.

And of course, mining villages had narrow streets. With luck, Tumble had a wide street, and so it was like a motorway, but my grandfather said that we were lucky in Tumble because the high street wasn’t close to it. When it was built, there was a river running down it so they had to expand the streets. The farms were still there, but their way of life changed a bit. They were smallholdings and they didn’t have any space. It was lovely looking down that street on washday because you’d be able to see all the clothes.

And how did they get the clothes clean? Well, they used a washboard and a dolly. It was made of copper and had a handle, and until recently we used it for many things, but it’s an ornament now. And when the children come over they say, “oh, it’s like a museum here, Margaret!”

The dolly would go into the wooden tub with the clothes at the bottom, and instead of putting your hands into the water, you’d use the dolly to pound the clothes up and down, up and down, up and down.

Were the clothes made of corduroy?

There was a different way of washing woollen clothing, and trousers for the coal mines were even thicker. The shirts were made of flannel, of course. My grandfather had a flannel shirt, and all the collars came separate, and those had to be hung to dry. They trapped the heat, not like modern-day materials. I don’t like synthetic materials personally, because they trap heat to the body and it creates a bad odour. But we had wool and home-spun cloth, and the clothes were handmade – my mother was a seamstress, so they would make all the shirts but they’d buy the collars. White, studded collars.

There weren’t any men at all in our house, because my father died when I was three years old. My mother would go around farms then. I remember one farm we used to clean. We’d clean the whole house and do the ironing, all for one crown.

How much is a crown worth now? 50p?

How did she dry clothes on wet days? She wouldn’t be able to iron in the afternoon.

I remember our first spin dryer in the house. This was our first machine, made by Hoover, and it shook all over. It made things easier, I was about ten years old then, so that was about 60 years ago now.

But did you know that I remember the washing machine before it was electrical? You had to turn it, and the mangle was above it. I remember my mother always saying “be careful of the mangle with your small hands”. My small hands could fit into the mangle. But it wasn’t electric. It was very tiring!

Sometimes, there’d be a separate mangle, maybe outside, out the back, at the back of the house, and that was on a stand, and you’d put anything big and heavy in it, like bed sheets. And when I was a child, one of the first things I remember was “you stay there now, and you can turn the wringer”, and you could feed in the clothes and the tub beneath it would take the water. The only thing harder was churning butter, turning those big handles. It was worse than washing!

There is a poem about the days before washing with soap – ‘The Lover’s Shirt’ (Crys y Mab) from the 15th century, about a girl washing her lover’s shirt beneath the bridge in Cardigan, “as I was washing under a span of the bridge of Cardigan, and in my hand my lover’s shirt with a golden beetle to drub the dirt”. I wonder what a beetle would be now? Maybe something similar to the washboard? And what did they do without soap?

Salt was used to get stains out.

There have been several types of soap over the years. There was Carbolic soap, Lifebuoy soap, Puritan, and they didn’t have washing powder. So you had a block of hard soap.


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