“A recent addition to the industries of the town is the steam laundry,” trumpets the Wiltshire Times about Chippenham in September 1902, “or to give it its correct title the Chippenham Sanitary and Laundry Company Limited. Work was started last week in the new and capacious building which has been erected just outside of the borough boundary in Barley Close. The laundry is the only one of its kind in the neighbourhood, and may be said to supply a long felt want. Already there are 50 customers on the books, and the number is increasing daily.”
Women and washing clothes have been tied together for centuries, with many women falling into the work to make ends meet in hard times or to sustain themselves and their family when they were widowed. However, until the advent of the technology that enabled steam laundries to be established, most laundresses took in extra washing at home to supplement their income and did others’ washing alongside that of their own family.
With the advent of the steam laundry, this practice continued for married women with families who needed extra income. But the steam laundry offered extra employment opportunities for local women, and these were mostly taken by younger women straight out of school, in the time between leaving education and their own marriage.
Working at the steam laundry was considered a respected professional career for a young woman, and – although officially run by men – the day to day life of the business fell to a manageress.
The first manageress of the Chippenham Steam Laundry was Emilie, who had been brought in from a laundry in the South Wales coalfield to manage the premises, and after she moved on to London she was succeeded by a Miss Martin – who remains elusive – in 1906. The third holder of the manageress position was Mary, who took up her place in 1911.
Emilie was born in the mid-1860s in Staffordshire, the youngest of three sisters. Her father ran a bookshop, and the family were decidedly middle-class – which befitted someone who would go on to be the manageress of a workplace.
Her father died when she was only a few months old, and her mother took in boarders to keep a steady income for the family in Wolverhampton. Clearly bright, Emilie and her two older sisters were educated well into their teens, which meant that they were affluent enough to not need to leave school to contribute to the family finances. Later on they even had a domestic servant.
Her oldest sister Florence became a governess initially, which was a career that Emilie and her other sister Annie followed her into, but the advent of the steam laundries offered managerial roles to bright unmarried women of a “decent” background, and both Emilie and Florence were recruited to run a new laundry in the South Wales coalfield at the tail end of the 19th century. Here they shared the manageress role, but it was only Emilie that was recruited to run the new Chippenham laundry in 1902.
After about four years in the Chippenham position, she went to South London to manage another laundry, which would have been a step up from the provincial nature of the Chippenham establishment.
Later on, she moved to the Hastings area to manage a laundry there – again with her sister, sharing the managerial role – and living with her mother and their other sister who were running a boarding house by the sea. Neither she nor her sisters ever married
Emilie died unmarried in her early 50s, just after the end of the first world war. Her sisters continued to live in the Hastings area until the 1950s.
In contrast, Mary – Chippenham Steam Laundry’s third manageress – came from Norfolk, from a small rural community between the city of Norwich and the coast of East Anglia. She was the eldest of her parents’ ten children, and the family owned a grocers and drapers shop. This shop was clearly successful – their household in 1881, when Mary was four, had a domestic servant and a nursemaid, and her mother had employed the services of a monthly nurse to look after the family while she was lying in in the days following the birth of Mary’s brother Sidney.
Over the next ten years, the family moved south to Worlingworth in Suffolk and took over her paternal grandfather’s wine and spirits, grocers and drapers business in this village, building on the shop’s reputation. Clearly bright, Mary was sent to a girls’ boarding school elsewhere in Suffolk, while the brothers nearest to her in age remained at home.
It’s unclear how Mary’s career began, as her record in 1901 is elusive. As an unmarried woman, she was probably boarding somewhere, and the house owner noted down her details incorrectly. It’s likely that she started on the career towards management of industrial premises – either being employed as a manageress of another laundry or instrumental in some other industry at the time. Her career was a contrast to that of one of her sisters, who only went as far as Ipswich to be employed as a drapers’ assistant.
By 1911 Mary had travelled to Chippenham and taken up position as manageress at the Sanitary Laundry Company. Most of the workforce were women, and the bulk of them were unmarried – either young single women or those who had been widowed. Married women did work as laundresses, but tended to take in extra laundry to do alongside their own to earn money for their family, as going out to work when you were married was frowned upon. Similarly, the manageress position was held by an unmarried woman.
Laundry was collected from around the town by a man with a horse and cart (one of three men employed by the business, one of the others having the job of running the boiler), and received and sorted at the premises. Then the articles went to the wash house, where recent advances in metal rotary machines had resulted in a hydro-extractor, the drying chambers (eight of them), and the ironing room. The washing was then sorted again, ready for dispatch back to its owners by horse and cart. Of this workforce, 29 strong in 1911, Mary was in charge. She would have handled day to day management of her employees, kept an eye on the books, and sorted reordering and maintenance of the services and machines that the laundry offered. She was answerable to the company secretary, in an office elsewhere in the town, but expected to be in charge on the ground.
By the mid-point of the First World War, the laundry offered dyeing, carpet beating, and refitting of shirts – all important parts of a service that would have been done at home before women went into the industrial workforce because of the number of men on army duty.
In 1916, at the age of 40, Mary married Alfred, who had been working in Chippenham as a dental mechanic and false teeth manufacturer. He served as a soldier in the war, and was posted elsewhere. Despite propriety dictating that a married woman shouldn’t really have a job, Mary remained manageress at the laundry.
One of her brothers, Sidney, was killed at the end of the war, dying in France and Flanders just a few weeks before the armistice. Her husband survived, however.
She kept her manageress position until at least 1920, after Alfred returned from fighting, and lived with him on Malmesbury Road. By 1923, however, she’d resigned from the laundry and was not working. Alfred had moved his business up the road to Malmesbury, and Mary was with him as the dentist’s wife.
They don’t appear to have had any children, and by the outbreak of the Second World War they were still living in Malmesbury.
Mary died in 1963, aged 87, in Malmesbury.
The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.