Working Lives

Head of the Laundry (1956-2000)

Location: Beech House, Gressenhall, Norfolk

Ruby describes her working life in the laundry at Gressenhall. It was very hard work washing all the uniforms and clothes from Beech House and from a children’s home, despite the hydro-electric machinery. In the summer sheets were dried outside. There was a separate machine for Matron’s clothes.

I was hired to be head of the laundry. Annie Wigger was the head but I think that she got wrong with the Matron, to be honest. She threw the keys down and the Matron thought that if she was going to be like that then she wasn’t going to have her. So I took over which was lovely!

I was interviewed by Mr Edwards from the Norfolk County Council from Norwich. I can’t really remember what he asked me but all he really wanted to know was if I could work the machine. I said that yes, I could do the lot. Nora Mickleburgh’s husband was the engineer and he shew me how to use the machines. My first job was working at Dereham Laundry so I knew the hydro, and how that go.

Day to day working life.

I was living in Beetley at this point and I used to bike to work. I started work at 7.30am and finished at 4pm. We had a tea break in the morning and we had a lunch break. We made our tea down there because I said to Matron, ‘That’s better than we keep walking up to the kitchen. If we just have a little drop of milk we can bring our own tea bags’ or coffee whatever we wanted. We had an electric kettle. We ate lunch at a little table in the laundry

We wore overalls, white overalls at first I think then we had pink ones. We bought our own ‘cos it was too hot in the summer, we bought pink ones, a very light one, Matron said that it was okay so we had them. Lovely pink that was. It was a beautiful pink. It was so hot in there in summer though that really was and we had to wear them all the time.

I think that we were paid £4 something, it wasn’t very much and we were paid at the end of the week . We had to queue up to the Master’s office. We had a fortnight’s holiday, ‘cos it was only two weeks then weren’t it. We could choose when to take it, long as somebody took over.

I put all the work in the book and every Friday I used to have to take the book up to Matron, she liked to see what we’d done and then she signed it.

I used to sort the line, 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. Then every Friday we had to wash the floors in there. I washed the wooden floor everywhere we walked. The floors in the washroom were always wet

The men had white coats you know, male nurses they had white coats, We washed them and I had to make hot starch and starch ‘em , dry ‘em, damp ‘em all down again and then iron them by hand. Yeah. It was hard, hard work. We had a stove at the back of the laundry. We put the irons on to the iron, all round. We used to have to clean it out, light it, put coal on and wood and that, so that kept our irons hot, we did that every morning.

We had to keep putting coal in throughout the day to keep the irons hot and we did that until they got us electric irons.  I can’t remember when that was but it made our job easier, it really did! But the trouble is you see, you had to damp everything down, roll it all up.

We did sheets and pillows, but 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 cap ‘cos that was all goffering all the way round and we had to do that. We had to that by hand, oh yes! Oh that was frightening ‘cos if you scorch it. I did scorch it and I had to re-wash and do it all again!

The laundry came from different parts of the building but we had one job from outside and that was a Children’s Home . I think that was Grove House, and we had all their sheets, pillow cases and things like that. Somebody used to bring it in by taxi I think and then they used to collect it Fridays. We had to do all the men’s suits, trousers and everything by hand, yeah and press ‘em.

At the end men did work in the laundry, they took over the machines in the washhouse because it really did get a strain on a woman really, on the body. We had a platform to stand on otherwise we couldn’t reach inside the machines. It was very hard work, hard, hard work.

First of all is the cold wash in case there’s anything sort of messy. I’d do a cold wash, then you empty that out, then you put a boil on and you put your powder in, and you’d boil that up for – well if they’re really, really bad for about half an hour. Then there’s two rinses, then there’s the blue, because we had the old blues what you mix up in the water, to make it a bit whiter. They were little round capsules, blue something that was called, I can’t remember what it was. Blue bags, yes, yes, that’s right, blue bags, that’s right, yeah.

I think that the hardest job in the laundry was the machines, yeah the machines definitely. 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.

I don’t know the name of the soap powder, that came in sacks so I can’t tell you. Equipment did break down but you knew where to go. To Tom Mickleburgh, ‘cos he’d come and see to it.

I was just in charge of people in the laundry and we were all on good terms, very much so. My mum did the laundry as well. She was there at the same time as I was and worked in the washhouse over the other side. I was in charge of her!  Yes, I was in charge of her!

She was there for probably a year and then she wanted to go over and help with the old people, so Matron let her go over there. I think that’s when we got a man, I’m sure it was. That seem a long while ago, it was afore I got married, which was 1956.

I loved working there, you sort of knew everybody. I was there a long time, I loved it, loved, loved the old people. They had some stories to tell, oh not half.

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 MIckleburgh’s room in the linen room. She had to sort them out you see, I used to count them and put them in baskets and she had to sort them. These old boys used to carry them, one hander and one hander, up the stairs to the linen room, and they did this just to do something. They were ever so pleased you’d give ‘em a job, they didn’t get paid they just had pocket money. Of course we took Matron’s, Mickleburgh’s, who else? Walker’s, Sister Crawley’s, sour woman, sour woman, Stacy’s. We did all those. We had to take all theirs round to them ‘cos they didn’t come and pick ‘em up!

I would deliver 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.

We always addressed Matron as ‘Matron’ , Sisters as ‘Sister Crawley’, nurses as, ‘Nurse Tuck, otherwise, other people we called by their first names. I called the residents by their first names, they liked that. The matrons always called you by your first name, which was nice, you know.

Mr and Mrs Crawley took over too and they didn’t change the way that the laundry routines were done. No that’s one thing they didn’t do, no, they left it as it was, yeah. It must have meant that things were running smoothly. I mean you do the things what you should, in order and that’s what I done.

A separate machine for Matron’s clothes and washing socks by hand

In the summertime we dried the clothes outside, we had all the linen lines at the back there. When it was bad you had to put them on the pulleys. We used to use the hydro-electric to dry them. They sort of spin all the water out you see. Then you put them in the laundry and we used to shake all the sheets and pillow cases out on a big barrow, put all the sheets across like that. You had to pull them out to dry them. They were always in use.

All the old people’s stuff used to get washed in one of the big machines. I done Matron’s clothes, and I thought that you know, bit smelly and she liked hers posh so I done hers in a smaller machine!

You couldn’t put socks in the machine, they used to shrink so we had to wash them by hand. We had to scrub all the collars and cuffs. We had wooden tubs here then, we used to go Saturday mornings, two of us, for four hours to do the socks and cuffs and collars.

Socks we used to rinse them and put them in the hydro, in the electric dryers so they got dry. We then had to pair them up, they weren’t named. Some of them had their own clothes, some of them did. But otherwise we’d pair ‘em up, they’d more or less be the same colour, it’s quite easy. Mind you, might get one small one and one big one! Can’t be helped!

When we done the cuffs and collars we could put the shirts in the machine, but you gotta do them first. It was very hard work.

One of my favourite jobs was the white coats, you wouldn’t believe it would you? It was ‘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. I used to make hot starch in a big thing and dip ‘em in there and wring ‘em out in my hands. I didn’t wear gloves. I’d wring ‘em out and put them in the hydro, let them spin out, hang ‘em out or put them on the pulleys, let them dry, damp ‘em all out again and iron ‘em by hand. They used to look lovely they did really. So did the white aprons, all that looked lovely.

It was very noisy in the washhouse, you had all the machines on, you had the hydro and if you don’t get the level you know it go ‘boom, boom, boom’. You used to look down to see if the water was all finished in the drain, I should think it took quarter of an hour, you know quarter of an hour every load.

We had some fun times at work, I can think of, I’ve never laughed so much, tears rolling down my face. Now who was it? I think that was Phyllis, I’m sure it was. She worked there and she put these blue knickers on, old people’s. That was winter time and 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.

We did have some lovely times down there we really did, yeah. I was happy there I really was and I tried to make all the others happy.

Do you know I was very healthy, I’m going to be honest, I very rare had time off. Well, I worked for six 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 helping old people. I kept losing children, my husband dearly dearly wanted one and then I had my daughter, thought that 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. It was very, very hard. Very very hard.

I weren’t working , 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!

At Christmas we used to have a little party ourselves. You know bring little cakes and a drink, yeah we did that, just us laundry lot.

I enjoyed the laundry the work, I loved it and I loved the old people, I had four of ‘em there was Mabel, Kathy, Edie Rosie and course the old gentleman who used to carry the baskets for us.

The Matron was very nice. All the Matrons were very nice, what I worked under, very nice, I can’t think of anything that I didn’t enjoy.

It closed two years after I lost my baby boy. I don’t know why it closed down, they sent the residents to different places. Some went to Fakenham, some went to Norwich, so the laundry finished too. All the place finished.

It was sad, you know there was a little dwarf there, little Freddie we used to call him. He was a resident bless him and I think that he went to Fakenham, but of course a lot of them have died now haven’t they? I don’t have any photographs, that’s funny i’nt it.

I did have some of the girls and me, in my wallet, I’m sure they’re in there. That’s my dad’s wallet he took it with him when he went in the Army. That’s ever so old but I won’t get rid of it. Bless his heart. And I had that when he died. I thought, ‘I’m going to have that’ so I had it.

I don’t know who’s alive now to be honest, I mean Heather is dead, Sheila is dead as well and Topsy. I mean Heather died young because she died of childbirth, the baby lived but she died. Joyce, she’s gone, see they’re all gone.  I mean all I can think of now is Dolly but how old is she? She worked over the nurses’ side, well she must be 92.

When I went, as I say I were pregnant they did do me a cake and a drink and all things like that. Matron come down, they collected and brought me a brush and comb and all that set and tea pot and a kettle.

Ruby (b.1932)  talking to WISEArchive in Dereham on 12th October 2008.

Gressenhall - GHall laundry 1.jpg (543px x 479px)


Gressenhall - GHall laundry 2.jpg (640px x 480px)










Machinery in the old laundry on display in Gressenhall.

© 2020 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved.