Head of the Laundry

Location : Beech House, Gressenhall, Norfolk

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You were telling me a minute ago that you were hired to be the Head of the laundry. And who was the woman that had left?

A W. Yes, she left. I think she got wrong with the Matron, to be honest. She threw the keys down and the Matron said well, if she’s like that she’s not going to have her, so I took over. Which was lovely!

And you were interviewed by a man .. . .

Mr E from the Norfolk County Council from Norwich.

What did he ask you? Can you remember?

No I can’t really, but all he wanted to know really was could I do it, can I work the machines, you know. I said yes I could do the lot.

Did you have an engineer to show you how to use the machines?

Yes, N M’s husband was engineer. He shew me, but working at Dereham laundry you see, they had all them machines. So I knew .. . the hydro, I knew how that go.

So just a minute ago you were telling me that you knew how the machines worked because you had worked in the laundry in Dereham.

That’s right, that’s right. My first job, and then I went to Gressenhall and I done all this. I used to sort the linen, do the washing, put them in the machines and do all that, pulled ‘em out of the machines. Ooh that was hard work, but we done it. And then every Friday we had to wash the floor in there. I washed the floor everywhere we walked, the wooden floor.

Were the floors always wet in that washroom?

Always, yes. Yes. And then we had to scrub the floor in the other place. We had to leave it clean, oh yes.

Oh yes, I bet, with all that white laundry. And you were saying that five women worked under you.

Yes, and men had white coats you know, male nurses, they had white coats. We washed them. I had to make hot starch and starch ‘em, dry ‘em, damp ‘em all down again and then iron them with our hands. Yeah. It was hard, hard work. Yes. Until we got electric irons there was a stove at the back of the laundry.

I actually have a picture of that stove. Do you want to see it?

Oh, have you? And that’s where we put the irons on to heat.

Is it called a segmented stove? Did you have lots of different irons on there?

Where the pipe go up . .. . yes.

And it’s kind of cylinder shaped isn’t it?

Yes, and we used to have the irons on, we had irons all round.

And did you turn that on in the mornings then? To heat it up, or was it just always . . .?

This was by coke or coal or something. We used to have to clean it out, light it, put coal on and wood and that, so that kep’ hot for our irons.

And you did that every morning?

Oh yes.

And you had presumably to keep putting coal into it throughout the day?

Oh yes. To keep them irons hot. And ‘course they got us electric ones then.

When did the electric ones come in, can you remember?

I can’t remember that. No, I can’t.

I bet it must have made your job easier.

It did! It did really. But the trouble is, you see, you had to damp everything down, roll it all up. Well, I gave that to one of the residents. She damped it down and rolled it up and put it in baskets for us.

How did you damp it down then? Just by water.

Yes, get a bowl of warm water, just use your hands, you know, and damp it down, roll it up like that.

Did you put clothes through the calender or is that only for big .. . .?

Sheets, pillow cases. We didn’t do towels, ‘cos towels were just folded. Nurses’ aprons ‘cos they were lovely and straight, nurses’ aprons. Nurses’ caps, but not the Matron’s ‘cos that was all goffering all the way round and we had to do that. (laughs)

By hand?

By hand, oh yes! Oh that was frightening ‘cos if you scorch it …..! (laughs)

Did you ever do that?


What happened?

I had to re-wash it and do it all again.

And starch it presumably to get the mark out?

Yes, yeah! (laughs)

I’ve just asked you a moment ago where the laundry came from, and it came form all different parts of the building …

Of the building, yes. You know, the men’s and the women. But we had one outside, and that was a Children’s Home, I think that was Grove House, that was called, and we had all their sheets, pillow cases and things like that. Somebody used to bring it in – I think a taxi used to bring it in, and then they used to collect it Fridays.

I mean, we had to do all the men’s suits, trousers and everything by hand. Yeah, and press ‘em.

No men worked in the laundry at all?

At the end they did. They took over the machines. Yeah, they did. In the washhouse. Because it really did get a strain on a woman really, on the body.

I was interested … I’ve got some photographs here of the washhouse which we’re looking at right now . . and here looking towards the calender room, here’s a picture of the main washhouse. These big washing machines, did they have names, or numbers, or did you just use them whenever?

That’s right, because one was bigger than the other, I think. I’m not quite sure now.

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But they’re so high up . . . you’d really have to .. ..

I know. We had a platform (laughs) to stand on. Yes.

Sounds like hard work.

That was. That was hard, hard work.

Here these little, I suppose kind of panels on top of each of the washing machines, the dark green ones. Did you set those too, or were they already .. . .? I’ve got a close-up here of one of them.

Yes, well that tell you the steam and that, don’t it? Yes, you know, because all the steam and the hot water used to come from the boiler because that wasn’t far from us was it?

Oh, it used to come up here, didn’t it? So did you set those dials or was it already done? Because here, looking closely at one of them, it says “Rinse” “2nd Wash” “Boil”

You have to, yes. Because you have to do that, you see. First of all is a cold wash, in case there’s any sort of messy . . .in the sheets and that. I’d do a cold wash first, then you empty that out, then you put a boil on and put your powder in, and then you boiled that up for – well, if they’re really, really bad about half an hour.

Goodness! So how long did one cycle take?

Oh, a good while. I can’t really remember. Then there’s two rinses, then there’s a blue. Because we had the old blues what you mix up in water.

Is that to make it white?

A bit whiter, yes.

Were they little capsules?

Yeah, that’s right. Little round ones.

Did they have a name or were they just called blues?

Blue something that was called. I can’t remember what it was. Blue bags! Yes, yes, yes! Blue bags! That’s right! Yeah. We had them.

What do you think was the hardest job in the laundry while you were working there?

I think the machines. Definitely! Yeah, the machines. Definitely.

Because of the physical labour involved?

Yes, I mean you’d got to pull them old things and if the lid weren’t in front of you they’d got to turn a wheel, get the lid in front of you to pull out.

What kind of soap powder was used?

No, I don’t know that. That came in sackfuls. In sacks, so I can’t tell you. I don’t even know the name. No.

I think I know this already, but were you given any training for the job?

No. You were just expected to go and use the equipment.

Were you in charge of anybody else besides those in the laundry?

Just in the laundry, no. No, just round the laundry, that’s all.

And were you all on good terms?

Very much so! Yes! Yes. My mum did the laundry as well. She went in the washhouse and done that as well, as well as me.

Was she there while you were there, or was it .. .?

Yes, yes. And then she went over the other side.

So was she in charge of you?

No! I was in charge of her! (laughs) I was in charge of her! Yes!

How long did she work there for then?

Well, probably a year, and then she wanted to go over and help with the old people, so Matron let her go over there. And I think that’s when we got a man. I’m sure it was.

When did you start there, then? I’ve got here 1950, from the previous notes.

Yeah, but it was afore then, as I say, I was single then. I keep thinking I was married by then, but I wasn’t, I was single.

So that would have been before 1950?

Yes, yes.

It says here you were married in 1956.

That’s true. It was afore then. I mean I knew the nurse. He interviewed G R, which is G D now. I remember her working there. She was a nurse. She used to live at . .. where did she live? Billingford. She used to bike ride from Billingford to there.

So was it a small enough institution that everyone knew everyone, in the laundry, in the main building?

Well, yes. Yes it was. You sort of knew everybody really. Yes, you did. I mean, I did. I knew everybody.

You were there for a long time.

I was! Yeah. I loved it. I loved it. I liked the old people. I love old people. I really love old people.

Bet they had some stories to tell

Oh, not half! Matched up with a man, the old ladies (laughs). It was lovely, it was! We had two old boys, two of the residents, they used to carry the baskets up for us, you know, ‘cos they had to go from our laundry up to M’s room in the linen room. She had to sort them all out you see.

Oh, so they weren’t sorted out in the laundry?

No, I just had to count them, put them in the baskets and two other residents used to go up the linen room and she had to sort them out then.

So did they carry the baskets up there?

Yeah, both of them, one hander and one hander. And they used to go up the stairs. ‘Cos there were stairs then in the linen room. And they walked right up there and put them up there.

And they did that just because they wanted to help out?

Just to do something. They were ever so pleased you’d give ‘em a job. And then, ‘course, we took Matron’s, M’s . . who else? … W’s, Sister C’s, S’s.

Goodness. You did everybody’s.

Yeah, we did all those. And then we had to take all theirs round to them, ‘cos they didn’t come and pick ’em up (laughs)

You had to deliver. Did you do that yourself?

Yes, I would do some and then I’d say to somebody “Will you do so-and-so’s”, you know. That’s how we used to do it.

How did you address people back then? Obviously you called Matron “Matron”…

Oh yes!

. . . . but were you on first name terms with anybody or was it always “Mrs” or “Mr”??

No, no. R, S, or whatever they are, oh yes. No, we never .. . only Sister C. You had to say Sister C, but the nurses, you had to say Nurse T. You have to address them. But otherwise, other people …

And what about the residents? Did you call them…?

I called them by their first name. Yes, yes. They liked that.

What did you do when the weather was bad? I mean, did you ever hang clothes outside to dry or were they always .. .?

Yes, we did in the summertime, we had all linen lines at the back there. Hung them all out. Everything. But when that was bad you see you had to put them on the pulleys. Gressenhall - GHall laundry 3.jpg (480px x 640px)

Yes, I have a photograph of that, I think. With the blue doors. Is that the one?

(Finds photograph). There’s the hydro . .. is that the hydro?

Yes, that’s the hydro.

What is it called?

A hydro-electric. They sort of spin all the water out, you see. Then you put them in the laundry, and we used to have to shake all the sheets and pillow cases out on a big barrow, put all the sheets across like that.

Is that that one?

Yes, you had to pull them out to dry them. Pull them out.

So what was this called then? Did it have a name?

No, just electric driers.

And were they always in use?

They were always in use, always in use. Yes. ‘Cos you have to air from them as well. Yeah, you had to air from them, as well.

And what’s this machine here then? This is the white metal container and it’s standing next to the washing machine with the round glass door. The closest one to the boiler room. Can you remember what that was for? Because we weren’t sure if it was possibly for a water softener, because the water’s so hard, or if it was for salt, or was that even there?

That’s what I wondered. We had . . . no .. . we had a little machine here, a little washing machine here. I can’t think what that can be.

I think I’ve got a photo here. Was it that washing machine, that one there?

Oh, that might be, yes. We used to do the Matron’s laundry in there.

So now I’m showing you a picture of the washing machine with the round door.

Yes, yes. I done the Matron’s clothes in there. ‘Cos I think, you know, all old people’s stuff was in them big ones. And I thought, you know, bit smelly, and she liked hers posh, so I done . .. .

So she had her own washing machine!

Yes! (laughs)

Looks much smaller.

Yes, that’s what I done in there. You see, socks we couldn’t’ put in.

You couldn’t put them in?

Oh no. We had to wash them by hand.

Why? Because they were woollen?

Yes, they used to shrink. Scrub all the collars and the cuffs.

Where did you do all the hand washing then? In those big metal tubs?

Yes, but we had wooden tubs there then. They weren’t in there. .. I said “These aren’t the tubs what i used to use”. And I said “No. We had wooden tubs. Where’ve they gone?”

You see, there was four. We used to go Saturday mornings, two of us – I was one of them anyhow – for four hours to do the socks and the cuffs and the collars.

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There must have been hundreds of them!

Hundreds! Yes, yeah!

And how did you dry them then? Not on the drying . . .?

No, when we done the cuffs and the collars we could put the shirts in the machine, but you gotta do that first. Socks we used to do, rinse ’em, put them in the hydro, put ‘em in the electric dryers so they got dry.

Very hard work.

Very, very hard work. Very hard work. Yes.

A few day to day questions now, if that’s all right. Where were you living at this point?


And how did you get to work?


What time did you start in the morning and finish?

Half past seven till four. Yes, half past seven till four.

And did you get breaks in the day or for lunch?

We had lunch, we had tea break in the morning, and we had a lunch.

And did you go and get tea?

No, we made our tea down there, because I said to Matron “That’s better than they keep walking up to the kitchen. If we just have a little drop of milk we can bring our own tea bags”. Or coffee or whatever we wanted.

So where did you heat the kettle then?

We had an electric one.

What clothes did you wear at work?

Mmm .. . what did we wear first? I know we had pink overalls. White overalls at first, I think we had. Then we had pink ones.

So white in the sort of 1950s?

Yes, and then we bought our own ‘cos it was too hot in the summer. We bought pink ones, a very light one, so Matron said that was OK, so we had them. Lovely pink that was. It was a beautiful pink. It was so hot in there in the summer though, that really was.

But you had to wear them all the time?

Yes, oh yes. Oh yes.

How much were you paid approximately? Can you remember?

I think it was £4 something a week. It wasn’t very much.

And were you paid directly at the end of the week?


By hand?

Well, in a little .. . .. We had to queue up to the Master’s Office and he used to . . ..

And did you use to get paid if you were poorly?

Yes, yes, yeah.

And did you get a summer holiday, or did you get time off every year?

Yes, we had a fortnight’s holiday – ‘cos it was only two weeks then, weren’t it? Yes, we did, yes.

And could you choose when to take that?

Yes. Long as somebody took over. But there again the Matron always used to walk down there every day. And then she used to see the book every week. Every Friday used to have to take the book up to her to check all the . ..

So you’d give her the book and she’d have the big baskets of clothes, and would she just .. . ?

No. I put it all on the book and she wanted to see what we’d done. And then she signed it.

And over the time you worked there did the amounts pretty much stay the same, did they increase?

Vary, you know. They varied. ‘Cos sometimes that’d be a little bit less and next time that’d probably be more.

Did you pay rent or mortgage back then, and did your wage cover . . ?

No, my husband … we had the house free, so we were OK.

And what was your food bill like back then? Was food expensive?

(Laughs) No, no it couldn’t have been, could it? No. No, definitely not. That were cheaper. Very cheap. Yes, yes. Can’t remember what, but that was very cheap.

And did you take your own packed lunches with you every day?


And you ate in the washroom?

Or the little table in the laundry

Because that would be warmer, drier . . .

(Laughs) It would, yes!

How did your duties or responsibilities change over time if at all? When you first started being in charge there you were obviously in charge of five other . . .

It didn’t. No, it didn’t at all. I was happy. I was happy. I really, really was. And I tried to make all the others happy.

Sounds like a really nice place to work.

It was! I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it.

Can you remember any particular smells or noises that stick out in your mind as being quite typical of the laundry?

No. No, I can’t. None whatsoever.

Was it noisy?

It was noisy in the washhouse. Very noisy. Yes,very noisy.

With all those machines on .. .

Yes. If you have all them machines on, you see . You had the hydro. ‘Cos if you don’t get that level you know it go “boom, boom, boom, boom”!

Did you put everything into the hydro?


But there’s more laundry.. . there’s only one hydro wasn’t there?

Only one hydro, but we had to put all them in. Yes.

And how long did the hydro go on for?

Well, you used to look down to see if the water was all finished in the drain there.

And you could tell? So it didn’t take too long to . . . .?

Took I should think quarter of an hour. Yes, quarter of an hour every, you know, load.

How was your health, and if you needed medical care ever was it easy to . . ?

Never. Never. Do you know, I was very healthy. I’m going to be honest. I very rare had a time off. The only time I had off I should think ….no, I didn’t . . . ‘cos I had to leave. Well, I worked for 6 months before I had my first boy. He died at birth. I could have gone back, but then I thought “No”. I didn’t go back no more. I sort of took on work as helping old people. And I kept sort of losing children. My husband dearly, dearly wanted one, and I had at least four. Then I had my daughter. Thought I was losing her but, thank God, the hospital saved her, so that was excellent. He was so pleased to have a daughter, and then I lost him, so I brought my daughter up more or less on my own.

That must have been hard.

It was very, very hard. Very, very hard.

Were you working then while you were bringing her up?

No, I weren’t, because I thought “Well I’m not doing anything”. ‘Cos she was at school I’d got to bike backwards and forwards to pick her up. Until she went to school I just started then a little job helping somebody in the house. That’s all I done then. And I’m still helping!

And you’re healthy too.

I’m fairly healthy, yes, that’s one thing, yes.

When you think back to your work at the laundry do any events stand out as being particularly funny or can you remember any incidents?

(Laughs) Well I can think of .. . I’ve never laughed so much, tears rolled down my face. Now I don’t know who it was now. Who was it? I think that was P. I’m sure it was.

Was she one of the people you worked with?

She worked there, yes. She put these blue knickers on. Old people’s. That was winter time. She said “Oh I’m lovely and warm today because I’ve put my long johns on, my winter knickers”. And when she lifted these up there’s these old people’s knickers! Well, tears just rolled down our faces. They really, really did.

Was she doing that to make you laugh?

Yes, she did (laughs) and, oh, we did laugh. We did have some lovely laughs down there, we really did. Yeah.

Would you consider them to be good friends, or was it a good working . . .?

It was a good working …. yes, yes.

Was there anything sad that ever happened there? Or did any of the equipment ever break down?

Oh they did. But you knew where to go to. To Mr M. ‘Cos he would come and see to it.

What did you enjoy most about working there?

I loved laundry work. I loved it. I mean, I do love laundry work, and I loved the old people. That is … I love old people. Yes.

And did you get a chance to talk to the residents?

I had … what? . . . there was Mabel, Kathy, Edie, Rosie .. . had four of ‘em. And ‘course the old gentlemen, they used to come in and carry the baskets for us.

Were the residents paid for the work they did?

No, they just had pocket money.

What did you least enjoy about working there? If anything?

If anything. The Matron was very nice. All the Matrons were very nice what I worked under. Very nice, the Masters was. No, no, no, I can’t think of nothing. No, I can’t.

I was sad when it closed, though.

When did it close?

Well, I lost my first boy . . . yes, I was working there still. ‘Cos I worked there till I was six months pregnant and then I left to have my baby. So that was ….when was that … I’ve forgotten when I lost him. Good while ago. And that closed in two years after I had my baby . . or after I lost the boy. That closed in two years.

Why did it close down?

I don’t know, because they sent the residents to different places. Some went to Fakenham, some went to Norwich.

And the laundry just closed down with it as well?

Yes, finished. All the place finished. The residents had to go to other places.

It sounds very sad.

That was sad. You know, there was a little dwarf there, little F we used to call him. He was a resident, bless him.

Do you know where he went to?

I think he went to Fakenham, but of course a lot of them have died now, haven’t they?

Do you have any photographs?

No. No, I haven’t. That’s funny, i’nt it.

I suppose you don’t think about taking photographs of yourself at work.

You don’t. I did have, but I don’t know where they are now. In my wallet in the handbag. I’m sure they’re in there. I had some of the girls and of me for that matter. (looks for photos) That’s the people who I worked for in the other Gressenhall laundry.

Who are these people then?

She was Mrs D, and they’re her children. I used to work for them in the other laundry.

Which was the other laundry?

Down Elmham Road. Elmham Road Beetley.

That was before you went to Gressenhall?


Couple more questions. Did you celebrate any occasions at work, like Christmas or birthdays or any other events? And what did you do together if you did?

Yes. Which was surprising when I had to retire . .. well you had to go. As I say I was pregnant. They did do me a cake and a drink and all little things like that for retire. Matron come down. They collected and brought me a brush and comb and all that set, a teapot, kettle. Yes, yes.

At Christmas was there a party? At Christmases?

We had a little party ourselves. You know, bring little cakes and a drink and like that. Yeah, we did that. Just us laundry lot.

Are you in touch with anyone from back then?

No, no. They’re gone, you see. I mean, H died young, because she died of childbirth. She had a baby and the baby lived and she died. J, she’s gone. See, they’re all gone. They’re all gone. I mean, all I can think of now is D H, but how old is she? She worked over the nurses’ side. Well, she must be 92.

It does sound like you had a really happy time there.

I did. Yes. I really did. I really, really, really did. As I say the Matrons were so . .. . And they always called you by your first name. Which is nice, you know.

It doesn’t sound very formal.

No. And she wants you… she … “R”!. And I went “Yes”. They were nice. They were nice Matrons. I was under several. First of all was Matron and Master W.

Can you remember who followed them?

Who followed Matron and Master W? I know Mr and Mrs C took over as well. I can’t think of that other thin one. She weren’t so nice, she weren’t, to be honest. No. She had her favourites. So she weren’t so nice. But otherwise I got on with them all.

And when they each came did they change the way that the laundry routines were done?

No. No that’s one thing they didn’t do. No. They left it as it was. Yeah.

I suppose they thought it was just running so smoothly under your charge . .

Well it was! That’s right. I mean, you do the things what you should so in order, and that’s what I done.

And did technology change over the time that you worked there? Or were there always the same washing machines?

Always the same. Always the same. As I say, if it got broke down you’d only got to go to M, and he would come and do it.

So the steam boiler was used . . .

For all the hot water and .. . yes, yes.

And when did they become electric? Did they ever become electric while you were there?

Yes, I think they did. I can’t just remember. Yes I’m sure they did.

What was your favourite job in the laundry?

You wouldn’t believe it, would you? The white coats.

The white coats?

Yes. ‘Cos they used to come up so lovely. So lovely! And when you ironed ‘em, lovely and stiff. You could hear the men walk, you know. It was lovely. Yeah.

Did you spray starch onto them?

No, I used to make hot starch in a big thing and dip ‘em all in there and wring ‘em out in my hands.

Did you wear gloves while you were doing this?

No. Wring ‘em out in my hands and put them in the hydro, let them all spin out, hang ‘em out or put them on the pulleys . . . we used to call them pulleys… out on there, let them dry, then damp ‘em all out again and iron ‘em by hand.

What about the socks?

We had to pair them up. (laughs)

Were they named?

No. Some of them had their own, you know, clothes. Some of them did. But otherwise we’d pair ‘em up, you know. They’d just have more or less the same colour. It’s quite easy. Mind you, might get one small one and one big one (laughs). Can’t be helped!

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