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Aberdeen Steam Laundries

Ironing room, Aberdeen Steam Laundry, Claremont Street, c.1890.

In this busy location, many women were employed in ironing what appears to be mainly large sheets. Long trestle tables have been erected to allow for a greater flow of productivity. All the irons in operation would have been gas irons. Several wicker carrying baskets can also be noted in the picture.

The Laundry itself had begun in 1879. In the early 1890s, their wash-house was fitted with steam washers, boilers, rinsing vessels, tubs for handwork and hydro-extractors.


Fabrics tended to be heavy… very heavy when wet. Wool, flannel, cotton, muslin, lace, prints, cretonne, silk… all sorts of fabrics requiring special treatment: handkerchiefs, shawls, stockings, sashes, ribbons.  Women worked with scalding hot water and freezing temperatures in outside tenement washhouses, wringing wet clothes and bedding through a mangle in the back green then hanging it all out to dry. 

Washday might begin the previous evening with the steeping of soiled articles. Then it was a case of up well before dawn to fill the washhouse boiler with pails of cold water and light the fire beneath it; soap, very likely from Soapie Ogston's in Loch Street, already shredded into a jar of water and melted into jelly - soft soap. This along with washing soda and starch – hot, cold or gum – were in every working woman’s armoury. Heated water was scooped into wooden sinks for soaking or washing coloureds and woollens, while whites would be boiled directly in the boiler. 

Before detergents, dirty and stained linen was scrubbed clean on a washboard, extremely tiring, as was agitating the wooden dolly to plunge the washing. Every clean rinse took several bucketfuls of water. Whites were treated with washing blue, a cube of bleach wrapped in muslin, thanks to Scottish chemist and friend of Burns, Charles Tennant, who created the first bleaching powder commercialised a century later in 1897.

Bed Linen
As the population of Aberdeen expanded so did its Hotels and boarding houses for travellers and weekly boarders. How could an entrepreneurial mind fail to recognise a business opportunity in the mountains of bed linen produced as a result?  The lack of domestic running water in the past created difficulties with cleaning. While today we link dirt with disease, until Pasteur and Koch presented their research into germs in the 1860s and ‘70s, no such relationship had been made. For people living cheek by jowl, without sewers and safe drinking water, life meant running the gauntlet of numerous fatal illnesses. Aberdeen’s own Prof. Alexander Ogston continued important work into the identification of staphylococci.

The notion of cleanliness might not have been associated with hygiene, but it did take on social significance as a further distinguishing feature between rich and poor. The aspiring and the wealthy desired clean clothing and bedding and it was someone else’s job to provide it. Domestic staff included a laundress… live-in or hired once or twice weekly. For working class women there was a living to be made from taking in other peoples’ washing. Some advertised in the local Post Office directories, others would spread the word by mouth. But even in this apparent innocuous occupation dangers were lurking.

A special commission published in The Lancet in 1877 pinpointed laundry handled by washerwomen as a significant source of smallpox. Washerwomen were susceptible to contamination from badly soiled linen and in turn they were likely to be carriers of disease. And not only smallpox. Scarlet fever and tuberculosis were widespread among laundresses. 

Smallpox claimed the lives of several Aberdonians during the 1870s and at the end of this decade Aberdeen Steam Laundry was launched, the city’s 1st commercial laundry, in May 1879. A ‘select company of ladies and gentlemen’ including Lord Provost Jamieson made their way to Claremont Street, off Great Western Road to hear reassurances from its directors that ‘all the bad features of public steam laundries have been got rid of’ – a reference to careless handling of linen rather than any hygiene worries and promising to make washing day a thing of the past in Aberdeen. For a few perhaps. The 40 people employed at the Claremont serviced city businesses, but the majority of people could not afford the luxury of a laundry.

There was great anticipation, however, at its opening. William Clark was an old hand in the workings of steam laundries in England. His staff of ‘neat and tidy maids and dames’ including the manageress, Miss Porter, led the official tour of the washhouse with its steam washers and range of hand tubs, boilers, rinsing vessels, hydro-extractors and so on. Outside there was ample space for open air drying and traditional grass/sun bleaching, but the laundry also had indoor drying and airing facilities with fans circulating currents of hot air.

Aberdeen Steam Laundry, believed to be the earliest in Scotland, need have had no concerns over its durability for it was still operating a century later – its 120 foot chimney (erected in 1917) was demolished in 1977. Aside from washing, the laundry provided carpet beating and later French cleaning, dry cleaning and linen hire. It serviced the city’s hinterland by rail and road; north to Elgin, south to Stonehaven and west up Deeside, but its principle business came from hotels, institutions, shipping and public companies, manufacturers, clubs, etc., which were charged 8/4d per hundred articles in those early years. (1 old pence per article.)

The first BBC studio, set up in Aberdeen in 1923, transmitted via masts attached to Aberdeen Steam Laundry’s chimney at 40 Claremont Street. 

Laundry Brae (Abbotswell Road)
Competition to the Claremont arrived in the form of the Bon-Accord Steam Laundry in 1886 near Craiginches, Torry. It was also financed by a syndicate of local business and professional men. An astounding 400 guests were taken to Abbotswell Road (referred to by Aberdonians affectionately as the Laundry Brae) from Market Street in a trip to the then outskirts of the City for tea, coffee, aerated waters and fruit to the accompaniment of the Aberdeen City Artillery Band. 

Of course there were the inevitable speeches with proud chairman, Baillie Kinghorn, waxing lyrical on the advantages of the 3-acre site, removed as it was from the smoke and dust of the city, with its abundant water supplies gathered from neighbouring hills and collected in a 6,000-gallon holding tank – water pure and soft and filtered before touching a single garment. 

In the 34-foot long sorting room items were given bright red identification numbers then stored on corresponding racks. The washing room, nearly twice as long, was where the initial rinsing took place and if necessary an overnight soaking in big slate tanks before being placed in one of the state-of-the-art perforated hexagonal concentric dash-wheel washing machines. 

These early washers were slightly corrugated inside, replicating the action of a washboard – again unique in Scotland – and the frequent changes of water during the washing process prevented dirt residues from building up. Wet linen was fed through a wringer before a further soaking, if necessary, in boiling water this time, then wrung and rinsed in a tank of filtered water. Whites were treated with washing blue then put through the mangle, or partly dried in a hydro extractor, an early form of spin dryer.

 - optical brighteners, there was a mysterious little blue bag which was stirred around in the final rinse water on washday. This was laundry bluing or blue. A factory-produced block (Reckitts) was the "modern" (mid-19th century onwards), commercial version of older recipes for whitening clothes, with names like stone blue, fig blue, or thumb blue. It disguised any hint of yellow and helped the household linen look whiter than white. The original Blue Rinse

The 41-foot long drying room was fitted with 22 closets, heated to 100 and 150 degrees, the cooler for blankets and flannels. In each closet a 12-foot iron clothes horse ran along double tracks so linen could be loaded and removed easily. Above, a further heated area was available for drying and stretching long curtains.

All the work was done without any form of protection – no rubber gloves, for example – and inevitably the washroom floor was slippery with soapy water. In the ironing room the problem was sweltering heat and hot steam. Here in the 108-foot-long hall large rollers pressed sheets, curtains and tablecloths, while smaller items were finished with a range of hand irons for calendaring and polishing collars and cuffs to give a high gloss finish, and goffering pleated garments. 

This impressive set-up cost just short of £7,000 including the building, machinery, horses and lorries and its costs were met by its 121 shareholders’ purchases of £1 shares. 

The directors were at pains to deny they were encroaching on any other business, (meaning the Aberdeen Steam Laundry) maintaining there was plenty of work for both. This was possibly true for within a decade a 3rd steam laundry, the Belmont Steam Laundry Co., Ltd., in Chestnut Row, was up and running, but such were its concerns that it sued (unsuccessfully) its former manager Robert Innes when he left them for their rival in Claremont Street. 

Inset - Tram Advertising

Miss Green’s Snowdrift Laundry
Other city laundries were to follow: the Empress and Stevenson’s, both in Seaforth Road; Borthwick’s of Gilcomston Steps and Holburn Street; City, Seagull, Hygienic, Whitehall – one of whose employees later recalled pushing baskets of linen on a trolley to Culter and her pay day being a Monday, to ensure she and her colleagues returned for work each week.

There were other smaller laundries. Who could resist Miss Green’s Snowdrift Laundry? Or Miss Hogg’s Victoria Hand laundry? It was clear than these home-workers satisfied a niche demand. Torry had one on Sinclair Road, King Street had Mrs Smith in Jasmine Terrace, Mrs Strachan was at Whitehall Place; there was the Finery laundry on Rosemount Place, Sunlight Hand laundry on Thistle Street, and the Central Hand laundry and dye works on Crown Street. All followed in the footsteps of M. Petrie of Long-acre in 1828 and Mrs Rhind of Burn Court Upperkirkgate in 1850.

Working from home offered flexibility to women and they competed with company laundries in a sense, but they would have drawn their customers from a different clientele. Irrespective of where it was being done, laundry work was physically demanding and dirty. Even the mechanised systems in the company laundries offered little respite in that regard and the hours were long and gruelling. 

This 1910 photograph shows the delivery cart of Alexander C. Walker, who started in business in the 1880's as a dairyman, then became a carrier from his base in Exchange Street. He was better known in the Cults/Culter area as 'Parcel Sandy', since he collected and delivered laundry baskets from the laundry agents. They would send parcels of linen, sheets and clothes into Aberdeen where the large laundry firms were located. On this trip, he also has a barrel, some sacks and a few planks of wood in his load.

There were concerns about the extremes of temperature women had to work in – the hot, steamy washing and ironing rooms, the stifling heat of the drying halls, the frequent cold outdoor drying and bleaching greens and, of course, perpetually wet floors. This was especially true in bigger laundries where the hot steam in badly ventilated halls was suspected of causing phthisis (wasting associated with tuberculosis of the lungs) among women and girls and there could be no argument over the high incidences of TB among laundresses. Such girls would be recruited from poor slums and may have had remote sources of this infection.

Throughout history, tuberculosis has also been referred to as consumption, scrofula, wasting disease, white plague, and king’s evil. In the latter case, the name was applied due to an 11th century belief that a person with the disease could be cured if they were touched by Edward the Confessor, the Anglo-Saxon English king of that period.

The main danger, however, lay in the sorting room where soiled items were carriers of disease. A bill went through parliament in 1873 to restrict women’s employment in commercial laundries within a month of having a baby, such was the fear for mothers and their children, but worry over profits superseded any such concerns and the legislation was delayed for 30 more years.

In an 1890s issue of the Aberdeen Journal weak young women enduring extreme temperature fluctuations at work were advised to dose themselves with Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People as they were credited with having saved an English laundress ‘from the jaws of death’. 

In addition to the ailments mentioned laundry workers were susceptible to dhobie or washerman’s itch, a form of ringworm caused by damp conditions. Its male association doubtless comes from its prevalence in non-Western countries where laundering was the province of men – think of Indian or Chinese laundries. Dhobie itch was contracted from dry laundry containing moulds and bacteria. Dohbie Waller was an Indian Washerman.

Infestations of vermin were a phenomenon of poverty and overcrowding, so when cotton cloth became more widely available it assumed importance for being able to be boiled and so destroy, however briefly, disease-carrying beasties in clothing and bedding. 

A century after the first commercial laundry opened in Aberdeen, 5 operated out of the city. The Claremont was still around, its catchment stretching from Shetland to Fife. 

Then there was the Gordon Cleaning Company, Modern Method Dry Cleaners, Silver City Cleaners and Stevenson’s – all with branches and agents operating widely. Notice the term ‘cleaners’. 

Increasingly affordable domestic washing machines, the 1960s vogue for nylon shirts and sheets, and commercial linen hire spelled the end for the old laundries, but dry cleaning was carried out with toxic substances such as benzene, petrol or chemical solvents so unsuitable for the home. There was a new contender on the block, launderettes. Cheap and quick, they were popular with those who didn’t care about extra finishes.

We still do the washing, but it has become a matter of popping clothes into a high-tech machine, adding detergent and closing the door. That’s it. Our fabrics are lighter and more manageable than ever. Gone is the hard, health-sapping labour. Gone are the lice and fleas which spread so much disease. Even the hot steam has gone.

The cold winds whipping around the washing lines remain for those who refuse tumble dryers.                 Lorna Dey

Abdn. Stm. Laundry Co., Ltd.; works, 40 Claremont street
Belmont Laundry Co., Limited, Chestnut Row
Bon-Accord Steam Laundry Co., Ltd; works, Craigshaw, Nigg
Great Western Laundry, 1a Claremont Street
Whitehall Laundry, Whitehall Place
City Laundry, 38 George Sst; Jas F. McLuskey, proprietor
The Empress Laundry (Stevensons), Seaforth Rd, Carpet Dyers, Cleaners, and Beaters.
Westburn Hand Laundry, 191 Westburn Rd.
Whitehall Laundry Co., Whitehall St.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013