Working Lives

The Hand Laundry (1940s-1950s)

Location: Cley, Norfolk

Jean tells about working at the hand laundry in Cley-Next-the-Sea, as well as looking after children later on.

My first job was picking carrots, at Cley, when I left school, because I used to go before I left school – I used to go strawberry picking. But my first job really was carrot picking, then I went to Nelly West’s, the hand laundry.

How much did they pay you, when you were picking carrots?

Not a lot, we used to get so much a bag, you see, but I can’t remember how much we used to get, I can’t remember that. Then I went to the hand laundry, which was at Nelly West’s, at Cley-Next-The-Sea and, I can’t remember how old I was when I went her’s, 17 I suppose. And then, I used to do a paper-round as well, in the mornings, then I’d go to Nelly’s afterwards, cos I only used to get, what, a pound a week whilst I was at Nelly’s. Then she used to pay me fifty – well that was ten shillings then, savings, you know in savings, and I was there till I got married.

What sort of work were you doing at the laundry?

I used to have to go out and collect the dirty washing, on my bicycle, and then sort that out. We filled the copper with water, the fire and stoked it. We used to have a dolly tub – that’s a round tub, and you have this thing what you, bang the washing in, and also one what goes like this – what we used to call a swiggler, then we put them in the copper for a hot rinse, and then course we put them through the mangle, and hang them out. We used to do the surplices from Walsingham, for the Roman Catholics, all the white surplices, and they all had to be – the collars had to be gophered. – Gophered, well, they’re like pleats, you know the curling tongs what you used to curl your hair with, them, they all had to be done. We had no electric you see. We just an oil lamp, and Nelly used to put the – when she’d done the ironing, she used to put the, – well she had an ironing box and you put the piece in the fire, out of the box, then they get hot, then you put it in this ironing box and then she used to do the ironing.

But she was, a star turn – she used to go on the stage and do comics, comic bits, she used to dress up like Old Mother Reilly – I don’t know if you remember.

Did you used to go and see her?

Oh yes, she used to give concerts, anybody in Cley would tell you. I was there until I got married, in ‘60 – ’62. So that’s what I used to do.

How many of you worked in the laundry?

There was only us two, just me and her. Course I was there in the floods,’63 [’53]floods, and I was working, and that got up to her stairs. Well, I was working there that Saturday night and the wind was terrific and she said to me, “I think you’d better be going home,” and there was a knock at the door and that was me Dad and me brother – they’d come to get me ‘cos the water was up, and they’d got a little wall that we used to go down. When we went down there and we couldn’t get over it ‘cos the water was up, so we had to climb over the wall and go – ‘cos we used to live right up the hill top.

And Dad and my brother came and picked me up good job they did – ‘cos if I’d went down the bottom I’d been right in the water, and course they came round and took everybody to Weybourne camp and Nelly, course she went upstairs and all the things were banging down stairs see, floating about, and they tapped on the window and there was this boat, come past her window and he said, “I’ve come to take you to Weybourne camp. She said, “No, I’m not going”. She wouldn’t go, she said, “No, I’m staying.” So she stayed. Well, the water went down, you see, she wouldn’t go out. Course I went down the next day, well, when the water went down, so we had to cope with all that as well.

Why did you go to work there in the first place?

Well, there weren’t much else to do. I could have got a job in Holt but I would have to bike, you see, and it was about 5 miles from ours, so I saw this, well I knew the girl what used to work for Nelly so I went round to see her and got the job and I stopped with her all those years.

Did you have any other jobs?

No, until I got married and we lived at Sculthorpe you see, so that was all that I done.

What sort of skills did you have to have to be able to work there? Or was it just elbow grease?

Well, more or less, because we didn’t have no electric you see, we had to put all the things through the mangle and the copper were up the corner which you had to boil everything in and you know, had the fire going all the time for which I used to chop sticks, you know, get the coal in and all that.

Was all this happening in Nelly’s house?

Oh yes, she just had the shed, and two rooms downstairs, two bedrooms you know, I used to walk right up to the church to pick the washing up, on my bike, I used to have to carry my basket on a bar across the bike and then the next week I came back with it all done and that was how I kept carrying on.

It sounds like hard work actually, was it quite difficult? Did you have some good times?

Well, we used to have some laughs, we had some good times with her. She died in Cranmer House.

How many hours did you work during the day?

I used to go down, I used to do the paper round first, so I started at 8, and then I used to go down to hers about 10. And then I used to leave off about 5 I suppose. Sometimes I stopped and had my tea, all depend on what we had to do you see, if we had quite a lot to do and there weren’t a lot of dry outside, she had to dry them indoors and I had to take them back.

When you were working there what sort of things did you do in your time off?

Pictures, Holt, pictures,

Did you used to have a regular crowd of friends that you used to do things with?

Not really, I didn’t have that many. Well, I had one or two friends and they said to me one night, “Why don’t you come to Runton to the dance?” I said, “Oh, I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to and, any rate I went, and that’s where I met my husband. The second time I went.

And we used to go to Holt, to the pictures, you know, on a Saturday, me and my brother. It was sixpence. What we’d do, we used to walk to Holt and save our bus fare so we could spend it when we got to Holt, you know, so we used to have extra to spend you see. And then we used to go to Blakeney, they used to have the Regatta, once a year, which we used to go to the fair, you see, which we always went every year to that. But apart from that, I didn’t have any holidays or anything, you know. We never had any holiday, not until I got married you know so, so that was my life

What was the worst thing about having to work there?

I don’t really know, I enjoyed it, I never thought about anything else. I was quite happy, you know. I mean, I used to go out in all weathers but I never thought anything about that.

How much would you say working there affected the rest of your life? Would you say it was important to you?

I never regretted it, you know. I’m sure I could have done something else but I never, you know, I was quite happy there. Dad used to say, “Don’t you think you could get a better job?” I could have had a nanny’s job, but I did look after some children, but I could have went to London with them but Dad wouldn’t let me go. “No, you’re not going to London,” so that was the end of that. “But I used to look after a lot of babies – Americans, you know, baby-sitting and that, I used to do that to get a little extra money, and so, they used to live in the houses you see, near us, you know they used to rent the places, so we used to go baby-sitting for them which was quite good., so we used to get quite a lot of money. They used to pay once a month because they got paid monthly, I suppose I used to get 10 pounds a month which was a lot then. Just baby-sitting, you know, looking after children. Sometimes at night, sometimes I’d go, you know, all night if they went out. Because our house was only just over the way so I used to, you know, just nip over and when they came home just nip across, so that was all right. I was about 18, something like that.

Jean (b. 1931) talking to WISEArchive in Fakenham in 2007.

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