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Laundry workers

Laundry workers

In the early 20th century doing your laundry at home was a time-consuming and physically demanding job. As most homes had no hot running water, water had to be first heated on the stove. The weekly wash was then put into a tub with the hot water and soap. To help remove dirt, the laundry was either scrubbed using a washboard or agitated in the hot soapy water with a 'dolly' or stick. After the initial wash, the clothing and bedding would be repeatedly rinsed and rolled through a mangle to get rid of the dirty water. Once rinsed and mangled, the damp laundry was hung up to dry. Ironing was done using a heavy flat-iron heated on the stove or over the fire.

Mechanised steam laundries gave those with sufficient income an alternative to the wash day toil. The factories of laundering were largely staffed by women workers and served a predominantly female clientele. Working conditions could be unpleasant and potentially dangerous, with some employees having to work a full day in wet clothes or handling scalding hot metal in the ironing rooms. The Laundry Trade Board was established in 1919 to provide a guaranteed minimum wage for laundry workers and to try to stamp out sweatshop conditions in the industry.

The series of trade board papers in the Trades Union Congress archive includes five files of documents relating to the Laundry Trade Board. As part of the Modern Records Centre's 'Sweated trades' digitisation project, we have made a selection of these documents available online, including the items highlighted below. Some additional items can be found through our digital collection.

Illustration: Laundry workers, early 20th century - photograph from private collection reproduced with permission.


Laundry work:

Washing books, 1917-1919

Washing books were issued to customers and contain itemised lists of clothing washed in each load. The two books included in the Trade Board collection belonged to Miss Robertson and are for Wilson's Family Laundry, Willesden Green, and the Malden Rose Sanitary Laundry, Hampstead and Kentish Town. The books also contain general information about the laundries' services.

Laundry work, 1922

Draft pamphlet produced by the Ministry of Labour, summarising the "principal processes of the trade as carried on in modern steam laundries" and the prospects for training and promotion of women workers.

Diagram to illustrate the different operations in the laundry trade, 1925

The diagram was included in a Ministry of Labour circular relating to a question of scope - whether the trade board minimum wage applied to laundry workers who were involved in "purely transmission work" (receiving and delivering parcels, and collecting money).

The scope of the Laundry Trade Board, 1926

Descriptions of some of the different jobs undertaken by laundry workers, divided into Section A (employees eligible to receive the trade board wage) and Section B (employees outside the scope of the trade board).


Pay and conditions:

Seventh annual report and balance sheet of the National Federation of Women Workers, 1914

The report includes references to strikes by women at Stourbridge Model Laundry, Wellingborough Steam Laundry, Barrow in Furness and York, and copies of wage agreements at York and Sheffield.

Wages paid by the Somerset Sanitary Steam Laundry Co., Taunton, up to January 11th, 1917, the day of the strike

Details of pay (plus war bonus) given to 51 laundry workers immediately before they went on strike. No names are given, but the list does include employees' ages and their class of work.

Leeds laundries’ agreement, 1918

Agreement for an increase in wages made between the Leeds Branch of the Yorkshire Launderers’ Association and the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative and Commercial Employees and Allied Workers (represented by Ellen Wilkinson).

Welfare of workers employed in laundries, 1919

Proposed Home Office order to regulate working conditions in laundries. The order revises legislation introduced in 1916, and includes requirements for employers to provide protective clothing, space to store and dry employees' clothing, a staff messroom, first aid kits, access to drinking water, and facilities for women workers to sit down and rest.

The question of district rates, 1920

Memorandum produced on behalf of 19 trade unions by J.J. Mallon, employees' representative on the trade board. It argues against the employers' proposals for minimum rates of pay to vary in different geographical districts, and includes a point-by-point dismissal of the assertion that rural laundries are "small and backward" and unable to pay the current levels of wages.

Responses to Laundry Trade Board circular regarding wages, 1920

Documents forwarded to J.J. Mallon by Madeleine J. Symons of the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW). They include reports of strikes (in progress or proposed) by laundry workers, an NFWW circular and a copy of statement issued by Bristol employers in response to proposed strike action.

Summary of objections lodged against the proposed reduction in minimum wages for female workers, 1921

153 objections were received, including complaints from employers that the reduction wasn't large enough and from employees that the reduction was unjustified.

Schedule of rates to be proposed at the meeting of the Laundry Trade Board to be held on 11 January 1922

The proposed rates apply to female workers.

Memorandum of evidence presented to the Committee of Enquiry into the Working and Effects of the Trade Board Acts, 1922

Report written by Ellen Wilkinson, Chair of the Workers' Side of the Laundry Trade Board, to provide "evidence as to the work done by the Laundry Trade Board, the desirability of maintaining a Trade Board for this industry, together with certain suggestions for improvements in the machinery". It includes data about wages.

Objections lodged against the proposed reduction of minimum wages for male workers, 1922

15 objections from trade union branches, individual workers and employers. Most include include reference to the high cost of living and several are from ex-servicemen. The objection from Mrs C.D. Jameson, owner of Randell House Laundry Co. Ltd., Hammersmith, attacks the entire idea of trade boards and the role of trade unions in particularly forceful language.

Cornwall launderers' appeal for reduced rates for the county, 1922

Petition signed by nine proprietors of Cornish laundries, circulated by the Ministry of Labour. They call for wages to be reduced due to the depressed local economy caused by the closure of mines.

Objections against proposed reduction of minimum rates for female workers, 1922

33 objections from employers and employees, including complaints from employers that the reduction wasn't large enough and from employees that the reduced rates wouldn't provide a living wage.

Report and recommendations from the Piece-rates Committee, 1923

The report includes a list of the recommended rates to be paid to employees for hand-ironing different garments (e.g. 1 shilling per dozen gentlemen's silk pants, and 8½ pence per dozen workmen's cotton coloured shirts).

Summary of objections received to proposed changes to rates, 1926

All 13 objections were received from employers.

Objections received to proposed changes to rates, 1928

The two objections were both from employers - a West Kensington laundry and a Hampshire government contractor.


Exempted workers:

Trade Boards could issue permits of exemption which allowed employers to pay less than the minimum wage. Permits were given to workers who were regarded as having a physical or psychological disability which affected their work. Applications (usually submitted without the employees' names) include short medical profiles of the individuals.

Male worker, aged 26, Brighton, 1921

Application by the Tivoli Laundry, Brighton, for an ex-soldier employed to help in the wash-house. The individual left the firm in August 1914 to join the army and was re-employed after demobilisation in 1920. "He suffers from malaria and has attacks fairly often". The application includes a copy of a letter from the employee asking for the exemption to be given, to prevent him from losing the position.

Female worker, aged 25, Gainsborough, 1922

Application by Mr. F. Clapham of Floss Laundry, Gainsborough, for a woman employed to starch collars. She had previously received permits of exemption due to "mental deficiency". The employer is requesting a further reduction in her wages.

Male worker, aged 27, South Woodford, 1922

Application by Woodford Laundries, Ltd., South Woodford, for a man employed in the wash-house. It includes a short letter from the employee, who is described as "very deaf".

Edward John Cooper, Gosport, 1923

Enquiry regarding overtime rates to be paid by his employer, Alverstoke and Fareham Laundries Ltd.

Summary of formal applications for permits of exemption, 1924

Summary information, including names and addresses of employers, ages and genders of workers, types of work, "nature of infirmity" and suggested wages.


Inspection and enforcement:

Report on inspection and enforcement for the year ended 25 November 1921

Brief information about the number and results of trade board inspectors' visits to laundries.

Report of visit of investigating officer to Borough Laundry, Accrington, 1922

Report relating to an investigation into underpayment of workers.

Extracts from trade board inspectors' reports, 1922

Reports on visits to laundries in different areas of the country, together with quotes from laundry trade papers. An appendix to the report includes a detailed report on a Yorkshire steam laundry.

Report on inspection and enforcement for the year ended 31 December 1922

Brief information about the number and results of trade board inspectors' visits to laundries.

Summary report of inspection of certain hotel laundries, 1923

Only laundries which provided a service to the general public came within the trade board regulations. The inspectors visited hotel laundries to assess whether they were covered by the legislation.

Summary reports of legal procedings against employers accused of underpaying:

Abbey Park Laundry, Grimsby, 1925

L.W. Evans Ltd., the Empire Laundry, Manchester, 1925

Glaitness Laundry Company Ltd., Kirkwall, Orkney, 1925

Violet Hill Laundry, Stowmarket, 1926

Maxwell Laundry, Peckham Grove, 1926

Whitehaven Laundry Company Ltd., Whitehaven, 1926

Clark’s Laundry, Helensburgh, 1927

Bridge Laundry, Bootle, 1927