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[Ash from the English West Country]
They burnt fern or bracken and then took the ashes "which they make fine and Rowle them up in Balls and so sell them or use them all the year for washing and scouring, and send much up to London.
Marjorie and CHB Quennell, quoting Celia Fiennes' late 17th century journal in A History of Everyday Things in England, 1918

Washing & cleaning for a duke

Scrubbing floors and laundry at Bedford House

Woman washing in tub indoors, and woman hanging linen outsideMrs. Bruce was housekeeper at the Duke of Bedford's London home in the late 17th century. It was a responsible job overseeing domestic arrangements in a large mansion*, but she didn't know how to write. She dictated her part of the household accounts, and these lists of expenses give us some idea of the flurry of scrubbing and laundering that happened before and after the family's annual visit to London. (There were sometimes lesser visits too, when the duke travelled without his wife.)

Casual domestic labour in London cost the household one shilling (1s) or eighteenpence (1s 6d) a day. These wages went to un-named women who worked for a few days cleaning floors and windows, scouring pewter, and laundering linen. Their counterparts at the family's country home, Woburn Abbey, lived in estate cottages and were known by name: Goodwife Goffe, Widow Whitbread.

In 1675 Mrs. Bruce's housekeeping expenses included: 

   For washing sheets and napkins before the great wash when the two masters was in town  2s
   For four pounds of soap  1s
   For six pounds of candles  2s 6d   
   For three women one day to wash  4s 6d
   A woman two days to help dry up the linen  3s
   For oil, ashes, and sand to scour  1s 8d
   A woman to scour two days  3s
   For washing of twelve pair of sheets at 4d per pair  4s
   For two pounds of soap to scour the great room  6d
   For nine pounds of soap  2s 3d
   For four mops  4s
   For Fuller's earth and sand to scour the rooms  1s 8d
   A woman six days to help to wash all the rooms after the workmen left the house  6s
   A woman six days for scouring and washing the rooms and cleaning the irons against the family's coming to town  6s
   A woman to help air the bedding when the family came to town  2s

Plate - dinner size - no dateWhen the family returned to Buckinghamshire there were more bills, including:

   For soap for the great wash when the family left London  4s 6d   
   For two women to wash after his lordship's being in town  3s   
   A woman four days to help make clean the house when the family went out of town  4s   

Were any of the well-scoured pewter plates and mugs used by the duke and his family, or were they just for the retinue of footmen, stable boys, pages, maids etc.? Silver for the dining table along with other fine household goods - luxurious bedding, for instance - travelled to London just ahead of the family.

Some maids travelled with this convoy of carriers' carts and wagons, while menservants rode, so there were extra housemaids to work for Mrs. Bruce during last-minute preparations for the great arrival. In 1685 two housemaids were sent by coach at a cost of 14s 6d. A more senior helper was Mrs. Dawson, wife of the accounts assistant at Woburn.

*Bedford House was in the Strand. A late-Tudor building, it was demolished in 1700 as the Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market, its new neighbour, started to expand.

The Country House Servant from Amazon.com
or Amazon.UK

24 October 2007

For more on old washing methods see:
History of Laundry: washing and drying before 1800
Lye and chamber lye
Wash days and bucking
Laundry blue
See also:
History of ironing

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