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Celebrating the history of women, tracking down extremely useful books and making that ancestral pilgrimage back to the village they one lived…

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Life as a laundress

I was pleased to see the women in our family histories being celebrated in FT July. While writing up my Skuse family history I was sure to include a bit about a group of my female ancestors. They didn’t change any laws or save any lives (as far as I know) but I am extremely proud of them. To follow is a short summary.

In 1878 my 2x great-grandfather was killed in an accident, leaving his 52-year-old widow Mary, three unmarried daughters and an 11-year-old son. The daughters were Hannah aged 32, Mary aged 22 and Elizabeth aged 18. The other daughter Eliza had married a mason’s labourer less than a year before and was expecting her first child. With four adults in the household and George, who was still at school, the women started doing laundry. The 1881 Census for 12 Thicket Lane, Bristol, shows a household consisting of Mary, all her daughters, her son George, son-in-law and threeyear- old grandson. All the women are described as laundresses.

In the 1880s most people did not have the space or the equipment to do their own washing, so there were many women taking in laundry at home. There were very limited opportunities for widows and single women and this combined with poverty, probably drove the women to take in washing. The washing was done in a back yard area if there was one, or in the kitchen. For five women to be laundresses at the same address suggests that they took in a considerable volume of washing which probably means they had a yard area to work in, as all that washing meant they needed some space available to dry it.

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What did your ancestors do for a job? Were they an apprentice? Did they take the King’s Shilling? Or work down the mine? What were the opportunities available to them, and what were the very real hazards of the work they did all day? This issue we’re exploring those employment records that can help you find out more about your ancestors’ work in times gone by. Discovering the history of your ancestors’ employment will give you invaluable insights into the lives they led. What they earned, and how they earned it, will shed light on their income and lifestyle, the communities they lived in, and the roof over their heads. Investigate their work; understand their lives… We have all the info you need to help you do this.