Headington history: Miscellaneous

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The laundresses of Headington

All street names and house numbers given below are those used today

Taking in other people’s washing was a major industry of Headington at the end of the nineteenth century. The 1891 census lists no fewer than 126 people working in home laundries in the Headington area, which means that about one household in five was connected in some way with the work, despite the fact that Headington had no electricity until 1929 and no piped water until 1914. Although the 1898 map of Headington shows that a large proportion of houses by then had their own pump or well, laundresses tended to be poor, and therefore lived in houses with no independent water supply.

Quarrels could break out at communal pumps, as the following report of the Bullingdon Division Petty Sessions held at County Hall, Oxford on 10 December 1859 shows

Sarah Ward and Elizabeth Shepherd, of Headington, were charged with an assault upon Samuel Levi Adams, by throwing him down and pulling the hair off his head. The parties are neighbours, near the Britannia public house, and make use of the same pump, at which the squabble arose.

(Samuel Levi Adams (40) was the butcher whose shop was on the eastern side of the present Mount Pleasant guest house, and Sarah Ward (57), whose daughter Emma (17) worked as a washerwoman, lived in the right-hand side of the building. Their nearest public pump was in New High Street, opposite the shark.)

There could be other problems: on 17 July 1869 Jackson's Oxford Journal reported that a pair of trousers worth ten shillings, belonging to Mr Alfred Davis of the High Street, Oxford, were stolen by Herbert Astridge, a servant of London, from the garden of the laundress Mrs Ann Rolph, a widow who lived in St Andrew's Road.

Pump in Windmill Road
The top of Windmill Road in c.1905, when there was no piped water in Headington: hence a pump
can be seen on the right. The next nearest public pump was on the corner of Bateman Street

The home laundries of Headington Quarry have been well documented, and indeed that village in 1891 could boast 55 laundresses out of a total of about two hundred households. There were far fewer in Old Headington, which had 20 laundresses out of about 150 households; and the outlying hamlet of Barton trailed still further behind, with just three laundresses among 33 households.

The statistics from New Headington, however, are more surprising: this village only came into existence in the 1850s and remained very small until the 1880s, yet in 1891 it was not far behind Quarry when it came to taking in washing, with 48 laundry workers among 214 households. This implies that the sheer volume of washing produced by an expanding university must have been more than even the doughty laundresses of Quarry could handle. And New Headington had two advantages over Quarry: first, it was easy to reach from the new London Road, whereas Quarry could only be reached from that direction via a long and muddy footpath; and secondly, it was nearer Oxford. And it was not just destitute widows in old hovels who took in the washing: the new road of Lime Walk had 13 laundresses in 1891, which had doubled to 26 by 1901.

But why were there so many laundresses in the Headington area at a time when many working-class homes were springing up in the suburbs of Oxford? The answer lies in the fact that Headington had the best of both worlds: it was in the country, yet very near a city — a city, moreover, dominated by colleges. Although there were laundresses much nearer the centre of Oxford, large-scale laundry-work was best undertaken in the country, because in the suburbs the gardens were small and the air often foggy and polluted by smoke. In Headington the air was bracing and the gardens bigger (particularly in Quarry, where as late as the 1940s Mrs Sarah Louise Bushnell, a laundress at 38 Quarry High Street, was able to boast that her garden was “48 sheets long”). The fact that the gardens of some of the smaller New Headington cottages were nowhere near this big meant that many small-scale laundresses must have collaborated, sharing backyards or allotments.

As well as the lack of piped water, there was another big disadvantage common to all Headington laundries: the severe gradient of Headington Hill. But these disadvantages were problems for the laundresses, not the customers, so did not affect business; and as Headington was also known for its market gardens, the laundry could be carted to and from Oxford along with the fruit and vegetables.

The reason that so many Headington women were willing to take in washing despite these difficulties was that poverty forced them to work, and (domestic service apart), there was no employment available for a woman living in the country in the 1890s. Outdoor work was by then regarded as unsuitable for girls, and indeed in the whole Headington area in 1891 only a married woman of 56 and a widow of 61 (both living in Old High Street) were described as agricultural labourers. Men, of course, had many other options, so it is not surprising that only two of the 126 laundry workers in Headington in 1891 were male: Charles George, a married laundry-man aged 49 of Piper Street, and Alfred Price, a laundry assistant aged 18 working for his mother at 55 Lime Walk.

The Headington laundresses ranged in age from 14 to 71. The younger girls were kept home by their laundress mothers rather than being sent out to service; and at the other end of the age-range, widows often had no alternative but to take in laundry if they wanted to avoid the workhouse. (That widows did not necessarily run laundries from choice is suggested by their ages: in 1891 Emma Baker of 65 New High Street, Elizabeth Jacob of Piper Street, and Susan Trinder of Wilberforce Street were all active laundresses at the age of 71.)

But it is married women who in 1891 formed the greatest single category of laundresses in the three Headington villages: there were 61 of them, nearly equal to all the rest of the laundresses put together. New Headington had much the same social mix as Quarry: the laundresses’ husbands were almost all labourers, either in the brickyard or on the farms, and simply did not earn enough to keep their large families. And when the weather was bad, the men were laid off; whereas the laundresses could simply hang the washing indoors. The work suited women who were obliged to stay at home and look after children, and it gave them some independence.

But it must have been very difficult for laundresses to look after their very young children, with the mangle and iron being particular hazards. It is therefore not surprising to find that Headington mothers sent their children to school at the earliest possible opportunity. From the 1880s until 1931 Miss Steff’s school in St Andrew’s Road looked after children until they were old enough to attend Old Headington Infant School or New Headington Infant School. Even so, some were insinuated into the infant schools at a very early age, and the log-book for Old Headington Infant School records the School Inspector of 1874 complaining that: “The presence of children under three years of age in the same room as the rest of the infants interferes with the efficiency of the school.” This is a problem that continued well into the twentieth century.

Not all laundresses enjoyed the same status in 1891, though they all originated from a similar socio-economic background. At one extreme were the two laundresses who had ended up as inmates in Headington Union Workhouse: Mary A. Bellgrove, an unmarried mother of 31 with a one-month-old baby, and Sarah Carter, a widow of 53. (It is significant, however, that neither of them was a native of Headington, where a laundress could always get work.) At the top end of the scale were the four mature women (aged between 34 and 48) who described themselves as “employers”. In between came the vast majority: 76 who considered themselves employed, and 41 who were “neither employer nor employed”.

Of the laundresses who considered themselves employed, some would have worked for their female relatives or their more entrepreneurial neighbours (or those who simply had the space), while others must have been treated as outworkers in their own homes, under contract to do certain regular work. This work would have been available from middle-class households as well as colleges, churches, and hotels, because many married dons were now setting up homes in North Oxford. Although the upper-classes had numerous live-in servants of every description, they rarely had a resident laundress: there would not have been enough washing for a full week’s work, and in any case the sight of underwear on the washing line might offend sensibilities as well as spoil the view. Only a very large house could justify a resident laundress, and in 1891 Headington Hill Hall, owned by the Morrell family, was the sole Headington house falling into this category: it employed three laundresses who lived and worked in a separate building known simply as “The Laundry”, situated on the west side of Gipsy Lane, well away from the house. This was laundry on a massive scale: the 1876 OS map of Headington even labels the field adjacent to the laundry “Drying Gd”. Mrs Morrell ran her Training School for Servants nearby (on the present site of Oxford Brookes University), and in 1891 eleven trainee servant-girls aged 13 and 14 resided there and must have learnt how to do the washing properly in the Morrells’ laundry.

Just because laundry work was the only option for most women, however, it does not mean that it was always considered unpleasant, and many self-employed laundresses would have enjoyed the freedom of having no one over them telling them what to do. Indeed for some women it was a long-term career: of the 26 laundresses in New Headington village in 1891 who were aged over 40, ten were doing the same job there in 1881, and five go back as far as 1871. And taking in laundry was no cause for shame: for instance, two ladies (aged respectively 60 and 77) each describe themselves in the 1891 census as a “Retired Laundress” when there was no need to put down any occupation. And back in February 1871, one Old Headington laundress took out the following display advertisement in the Headington Parish Magazine:

CAROLINE TAYLOR, living near the Church, will be glad to take in a Family’s Washing on moderate terms.

Others advertised in Jackson's Oxford Journal: the following appeared on 16 December 1871:

WANTED,—One or Two Families' WASHING.—Apply at Mrs. Morris's, Old Headington
(near the Rookery), Oxford.

The bigger home laundries even had a listing in directories, giving their owners equal status to tradesmen. Webster’s Oxford Directory for 1869 lists just one Headington laundress (Mrs Hutchinson on the London Road); but by 1890 Valters’ Oxford & District Directory lists eight, namely Mrs Adams of South Hill Cottages [42–48 New High Street]; Mrs R. Coppock of Old Road; J. Jones, T. Jones, Mrs Kerry, W. Narroway and C. Ward of Headington Quarry; and Mrs Langston of the Croft in Old Headington. But of course there were many more laundresses who were not listed.

While some laundresses lived in humble cottages, others had large detached houses. In New Headington, the houses in Lime Walk (a wide elegant street laid out in 1881) must have been considerably more expensive to rent than the poor cottages dating from the 1850s, yet by 1891 the street had twelve houses occupied by laundresses. All except one of these twelve houses survive today and are considered desirable residences (the one that disappeared was replaced by the flats of Lime Court, which gives some idea of the amount of drying space available). Another indication of the superiority of the twelve Lime Walk laundresses is that only four of them (or one-third) describe themselves as “Employed”. One announces that she is an “Employer”, while the remaining seven consider themselves “Neither Employer nor Employed”. This should be compared with the more humble laundresses of Quarry in 1891: two-thirds considered themselves mere employees.

Certainly not all laundresses were the misshapen bundle of rags epitomized by the washerwoman in The Wind in the Willows. Once their children were older, many married women started running their own laundry businesses, sometimes taking on employees. Mrs Lucy Grain (49) is one of the four Headington laundresses in the 1891 census who proudly describe themselves as an “Employer”. As well as managing the laundry, she had twelve children (of whom five had died by 1911). None of her children followed her into the business, so presumably some of the other eleven laundresses in New High Street worked for her.

Lucy Grain and daughters

Above: laundress Lucy Grain and her five daughters in the garden of
34 New High Street in the 1890s, when it was a thriving home laundry

By 1911 Mrs Grain was running her laundry in Windsor Street, and George Arthur Hewlett and his wife Ada Maude (neé Beesley), who had moved into New High Street after the Grains, continued the laundry tradition there until the 1940s. This shows that the Hygienic Laundry (Abingdon) Ltd, which appeared at the top of New High Street in the 1930s, did not make obsolte the “hand laundries” of the Headington laundresses. Indeed, Kelly’s Directory for 1945 lists the following hand laundries in Headington:

  • Mrs Heard at 25 Old High Street
  • Charles Kerry at 33 Quarry High Street
  • Miss E. Bushnell at 13 Elms Road
  • Mrs Sarah E. Horwood at 3 Elms Road.

Laundries were still operating from the last three homes after the Second World War. Even as late as the 1960s, Jacobs the carrier of Windmill Road was delivering hampers of dirty washing from the colleges to a laundress in Gladstone Road, carrying on a tradition well over a hundred years old.

© Stephanie Jenkins

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