Wash Day

“The centuries have come and gone and so have the many shepherd families that used to call me home.   I am a ruin now but the moorland hills all around me, so deserted and quiet, were once abuzz with the men, women and children living in this isolated spot.  I was the centre of their lives. But my old stone walls still echo with their voices. I am a home with a story to tell.”

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HOC Linedrawing 2 - Reduced

I never knew a Hoar Oak family who had a set wash day.  Some newly-arrived shepherd’s wife might try to put a routine into place but, out here on this remote part of the moor, they soon learnt that wash day was dictated by the weather.  I’ve seen wifely tears after an exhausting wash day and a tired shepherd, coming in off the moor from a hard day’s work, trying to help put right the damage of a wash day ruined by bad weather.   In time, most of my shepherds’ wives adopted pretty much the same approach to wash day.  When the pile of dirty laundry was too large to ignore and the shepherd might say, “some fine weather coming up I reckon” my housewives would stir themselves into ‘wash day action’.  Of course, sometimes the need to do laundry would be forced upon her.  Perhaps triggered by illness in the family.  If a child, or worse,  children were sick then there would be more dirty linen than usual.  But they didn’t get ill very often.  Not my lot.  And if they did they just got on with it.  “I’ve no time to be ill” my housewives would say and they were right.  My shepherds didn’t even bother to think about feeling ill and certainly didn’t mention it if they did.  They were, on the whole, a stalwart bunch and it was only when true illness hit that things might change for them. Out here, it’s not a place to be sick or injured.  But I was telling you about washing clothes. Let me continue.

I’d know a wash day was getting underway when, in amongst the early morning bustle of everyone rising and getting ready for the day,  I’d hear my housewife say to her shepherd husband “Can you fetch the wash tub and dolly down to the river before you go out to the sheep.”  This was the signal for the shepherd to lift the wash day paraphernalia down off their hooks on my outbuilding’s wall and head down to the river in the valley below me. The shepherd (and an older son if he was lucky enough to have one still at home) would also get a fire going and then set the wash tub onto a tripod over the flames.  They’d scoop up a few bucketfuls of river water and throw them in the wash tub, just enough to fill it about a third full, before making their escape. Heading off, with what might look like an unseemly lack of concern about what was to come, up and onto the moor for their day’s work with the sheep. But they knew exactly what was to come and were wise enough to clear off out the way.

Over the next hour or so I’d watch the housewife and her ‘flock’ carry all the other wash day bits and bobs  – buckets and washbats, tin bath, soap and washboard – down the valley side to the river. Most of my families had enough children to be able to help and jobs would be dished out in descending order of size.  The biggest girl was put in charge of the most recent baby as well as any child still too tiny to take part in wash day tasks.  The other children, like a little trail of ants, would go up and down from my outbuildings to the river carrying whatever they were big enough to carry – bars of soap, scrubbing brushes, wash sticks to name just a few.  And they would all, to the best of their abilities, help with scooping water out of the river and carrying it over to fill the wash tub up to the brim.  The shepherd’s wife was busy carrying the heaviest of the equipment as well as overseeing all of this activity, keeping an eye on her children, on the fire, on her children getting too near the fire and when everything was near enough ready I would watch her lead her little crew back up the hill to fetch the dirty laundry and carry it down to the river.

Slowly, the temperature of the icy river water would rise in its wash tub and when it was considered hot enough, the hard bars of soap would come into play.  Flakes would be chipped off and tossed into the water which was then swirled around vigorously to try and create a bit of a froth.  First, the small items were washed, quickly dumped in the hot water and swished out about before being fished out with a long pair of wooden tweezer.  Small, delicate items were followed by shirts and dresses, then trews and jumpers and finally heavy sheets, towels or blankets would have their time in the wash tub.  The water in the wash tub would need to be topped up from the river and the fire kept stoked up with more peat or bits of wood and gorse found down by the river but in this labour intensive way the wash tub was kept full of hot, soapy water throughout the day.   Most of my families used a dolly – a long handled wooden contraption with a round base and three or four stubby legs – which was lowered into the water and clothes and vigorously twisted and turned to agitate the laundry in the wash tub.  Heavily stained items might be fished out and scrubbed on the washboard with a direct application of soap and scrubbing brush.  And some of the biggest items might even be lifted out onto a stone in the river and bashed clean with the heavy wooden wash bat.  An old-fashioned but effective method and I’ve heard some of my housewives say, “using the wash bat costs naught and does a good job but its demmed hard work.”  They weren’t afraid of hard work – just as well because a lot of it was needed – and, on the whole, my Hoar Oak women had the strong arms, strong backs and strong character needed to get through a wash day.

Each heavy load of hot, clean, soapy laundry was hoisted out of the wash tub and flipped straight into the river where it was rinsed and wrung out in cold Hoar Oak water.  Rinsing and wringing big items, like the sheets and blankets and towels, was particularly hard work and one of the older children would be needed to help – perhaps by stripping off their trousers or, for the girls, rolling down their stockings and rolling up their dress – and standing right in the river.  They’d catch hold of one side of the item to be rinsed while their mother stayed on the river bank holding the other side.  Between them they’d dip it in the river, swish it about and dip again, over and over until the water ran clear of soap.  Then the heavy wet article would be lifted up and twisted, rope-like, to wring out as much water as possible.  In the hot summer months, at this stage of the day, I often saw everyone jump into the river.  Paddling and splashing and helping with rinsing and wringing but mainly enjoying the cool joy of the water.  But on the colder days of the year, or if the sky had begun to darken and threaten rain, it was a different matter and everyone focused on getting this task done as quickly as possible.

Many times, I have witnessed my housewife and her team of little workers –tired and wet from their wash day exertions – carrying all the damp washing and all the equipment back up the hill to my outbuildings.  It was a much slower journey than it had been in the morning.  Poor things, especially the tiniest tots, trying their best to help but with legs and arms burning with tiredness and their tummies rumbling for a bite.  But finally, it was done.  The clean, wet laundry would be dropped in baskets and hauled back up the hill to be hung out on a washing line fixed up in my garden or festooned on the hedges around my garden for the sun and wind to start the drying off.   All the wash day kit was back on its hooks and shelves in my outhouse and later in the day, the heavy wash tub was emptied and carried up from the river by the shepherd on his way home from the flocks.  By the end of wash day everyone was tired. Everyone was hungry.  The shepherd came home and needed his dinner.  The baby needed feeding and the younger children were tired and hungry.  The washing outside needed to be brought in and sorted through and any that was still wet was a nightmare which none of the family wished to face.   The hearth would have to have a big fire built up in it – which would need to be kept burning for as long as possible – and the laundry would be draped around it creating a damp, steaming curtain of washing in front of the fireplace. The insides of my walls would become damper and damper and my windows began to run with wash day tears.

Some of my shepherds were sympathetic chaps and when they came home on a wash day would do their best to help.  Perhaps by taking the youngest child on their lap and gathering the rest around him to tell a story or sing a few daft songs while their tired wife fixed the family a scratch meal.  Some even encouraged their wives to sit down by the fire and get on with suckling the baby whilst they got on and fixed the family supper.  More often than not it was a meal of bread and cheese.  Maybe some soup.  And perhaps, if there was one left, a jar of tasty homemade pickle which always made these simple suppers go down well.  Some of the men, however, would avoid the chaos going on inside my walls at all costs and simply go straight round to the allotment to fetch the pony and ride to the pub four miles across the moor.  They’d make a pint of cider last a long time and they’d be sure to sit with other like-minded fellows who were guaranteed to offer sympathy – and maybe the offer of another pint – over the horrors of wash day. When they judged that enough hours had gone by, when it seemed likely the coast would be clear back inside my walls, they’d let the old pony carry them on the long, dark trek across the moor to Hoar Oak.   I’d usually hear them coming home before I saw them – a happy shepherd full of cider was well known in those days for letting the pony carry him safely back across the moor whilst he enjoyed a singular but loud sing song.  However, I’ve also seen all sorts of scenes played out in my kitchen when these singing shepherds finally staggered through my back door, especially if the fellow had not timed his return very well and his wife was still up and about.  Well ……

But, dear Reader, I think I’ll leave that to your imagination. Suffice it to say that the one thing I came to learn about wash days at Hoar Oak was – it wouldn’t seem very long at all before it would all have to happen again.

wash tub and dolly 3

If you’d like to learn more go to www.hoaroakcottage.org

First published June 20th, 2016      Copyright © Bette Baldwin 2016

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