“Monday we sort and soak soiled linens, Tuesday we wash and boil any that needed boiling, Wednesday we dry and fold, Thursday we mangle, Friday we iron, and Saturday we…” Martha paused.
The wee thing standing in front of her appeared overwhelmed.
Martha glanced around the washroom before lowering her voice, “Have you done any laundering work before?”
“No, Cousin Martha, but I’m very willing to learn. Mr. Martindale has my mum send his wash out every week.” The girl’s voice was as timid as a poor curate’s church mouse. “Please, I can work very hard.”
“Don’t fret. It takes a while to learn how things are done at a grand place like Pemberley.” Martha soothed.
The poor lass’s mum, a distant relative and Mr. Martinadale’s maid, had begged Martha to find a suitable position for her young daughter, to be out of the way of that reprobate Martindale’s too-interested-in-young-girls eyes. Fortunately, little Meg’s unexpected arrival a few days ago was on the same day that the newly married master brought the mistress home, and the happy but distracted Mrs. Reynolds had reluctantly agreed to hire the girl as Martha’s helper.
Spending fifteen hours a day in the hot, wet and smelly washroom was not the kind of work Martha would wish for an eleven-year-old, but at least the poor girl’s virtue was safe from an old man’s roving hands.
Behind them, two maids sorted through the dirty clothes and linens. Annie, one of the chambermaids sent down to help with the laundry this week, said, “Now that there’s a mistress at Pemberley, Mrs. Reynolds expects the washings will take up the whole week.”
Sarah, the other laundry maid who worked with Martha, giggled. “From the look of it, the daily soiled bedclothes from the mistress’s apartment alone will keep us busy in the washroom for a while.”
“A married gentry woman must earn her keeps,” Annie said. “If I could learn the mistress’s secret of catching a husband, I’d catch me a squire.”
Unable to contain herself, Martha rounded on them. “You two need to mind your tongues, talking about your new mistress in such a way.”
Sarah had the grace to look embarrassed, but Annie coolly threw Martha a dismissive glance.
Martha flushed, not missing the chambermaid’s message. A lowly laundress like Martha had no right to correct a chambermaid. Martha shook her head at the lack of respect from the young nowadays. Annie had thought it beneath her being assigned to help out in the washroom a few hours a day. Martha snorted, as if carrying the Darcys’ refuse down the backstairs each morning was a more honorable chore than washing their soiled unmentionables.
“Cousin Martha, I saw a princess,” Meg whispered.
“We’re done here for now,” Annie said and pulled Sarah to the drying room. Annie’s voice could be heard whispering, “Fifty pounds a year as a dowry! That’s hardly enough to pay for Mrs. Reynolds’ annual wage. I can talk about the mistress any way I wish to the likes of Martha.”
Martha decided to ignore them and turned to show Meg how to loosely fold the soiled bed linens in the buck to prepare it to soak in lye. Pointing to a small spigot at the base of the wooden tub, she instructed, “Keep drawing and pouring the lye over the linens until the lye come through clean. Looks like this batch won’t need more than a few rinses before it goes on the drying rack in the next room.”
Little Meg was right. Martha thought thirty minutes later. The child showed she was a quick learner and a hard worker, performing her chore efficiently and never needing an instruction repeated twice. Still, Martha worried about laundry work being too tiring for the innocent babe. A child her age should be out in sunshine. “What’s this about a princess?”
“When the cart stopped at the Bakewell inn, a pretty princess stepped from a fancy coach and passed by me,” the child answered. “I asked her why she was smiling, and she told me she’d just married the prince and they were on their way to his castle. Saturday we rest?”
“What?” It took a moment for Martha to realize the child had jumped to a new topic with that last question. “No, Saturday we scrub and clean the washroom, the drying room, and then Sunday—”
Sounds of footsteps approaching the washroom interrupted. Mrs. Reynolds entered, followed by Mrs. Darcy.
“These next three rooms are the for the washing for the whole of Pemberley, Mrs. Darcy,” the housekeeper was speaking. She smiled at Martha, then catching sight of little Meg, the housekeeper eyes widened and the smile slipped from her face.
Oh dear. Mrs. Reynolds had forgotten about the child’s presence in the laundry. The child was staring bug-eyed at the mistress. Martha curtsied to Mrs. Darcy and motioned for Meg to copy her.
Head bent, eyes downcast, little Meg finally dipped.
In a hurried manner, one arm pointing to the door where they’d just entered through, Mrs. Reynolds said to Mrs. Darcy, “Let me show you the stables. I believe Mr. Darcy is there making sure the horses are being readied for your riding lesson.”
An alert look on her face, Mrs. Darcy said, “My apologies for interrupting your working, Martha, is it?”
“Yes, Ma’m.” Martha said, surprised at the new mistress remembering her name. As all the other lower servants such as the scullery maid and the dairy maid and such, she had only met Mrs. Darcy up close once, when the steward had all the servants lined up to greet their new mistress on her arrival.
Mrs. Darcy turned and studied little Meg for a moment then swept her gaze around the washroom. “Where is the mangle machine kept?”
“In the room beyond the drying room,” Mrs. Reynolds answered, glancing in Martha’s direction.
Martha met the housekeeper’s puzzled eyes. How odd for the young mistress to ask about the mangle at such a moment. Martha hesitantly addressed the mistress, “Would you like to see it, Mrs. Darcy?”
“Not at the moment, thank you,” Mrs. Darcy replied in an easy manner. She stepped close to little Meg. “Are you good with chickens?”
Once again Martha’s eyes met Mrs. Reynolds’s puzzled ones. Their new mistress was definitely uncommon, asking such random, odd questions.
Little Meg’s face lit up.”Yes, Ma’am. I helped my mum with the hens at home. That was my job.”
“Wonderful.” Mrs. Darcy turned to her housekeeper. “I worry about the child with the mangle. The hens in the poultry yard could use a little mistress. Do you not think so?”
Mrs. Reynolds smiled a broad smile. “I do believe you’re right, Mrs. Darcy. I shall arrange it.”
Speechless, Martha blinked. Praise heavens! Little Meg would be out in sunshine and fresh air. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
As regal as any heiress with a dowry of fifty-thousand pounds, Mrs. Darcy inclined her head. “I do believe two laundry maids may not be adequate in here though. Perhaps one of the chambermaids? The one who normally attends to Mr. Darcy’s rooms. I noticed earlier today that his bed wasn’t aired.”
Mrs. Reynolds’s eyes narrowed. Martha tipped her head toward the drying room. After a quick glance, the housekeeper turned to the mistress. “I shall take care of it, Mrs. Darcy.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Reynolds. Now, please lead me to the stables and help me think of an excuse to tell Mr. Darcy I am too delicate a creature to be sitting atop some beastly moving animal,” Mrs. Darcy headed toward the door, followed by a smiling Mrs. Reynolds.
Martha signaled Meg. The child was quick to comprehend. She hurried toward the mistress. “Please, M’am, thank you.”
Eyes twinkling, Mrs. Darcy paused. “I cannot have anyone, much less little children, in my castle crushed by the mangle, can I?”
The new mistress barely disappeared from the door when a torrent of excited words rushed from little Meg. “Could you help me find someone to write to my mum and tell her I met a princess on the way here to you, and though I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers or my betters, I told the princess I was being sent to work in Cousin Martha’s washroom and how fearful I was of being crushed by the mangle…and now I’m to be minding the hens in the poultry yard of the castle…”
As you can gathered, doing laundry was an involved process during P & P time. The Monday to Friday wash schedule above is historically accurate for a large estate the size of Pemberley, though perhaps more than two or three laundry maids needed. The laundry suite would consist of a wet laundry room called a ‘washroom’ (with the soaking in lye process exactly as I wrote above), a drying room (often with a hearth or stove and racks suspended from a high ceiling by a pulley system), and then a mangle and ironing room. A mangle is used to wring and smooth linens—a process that gives sheets and table clothes that sheen.
Smaller sized estates like Longbourn may have a washer woman comes two or three days a week, or for one week a month (washing was infrequent because it was so involved, as you can tell from the above scene). Jane Austen’s letters mentioned a washwoman coming in to do laundry for her family. In Town and even in a moderate sized places like Meryton, people would send their wash out to be done weekly.
I don’t know why, but the behind the scenes details of how the Darcy’s laundry was done and so forth fascinates me, and I wanted to write a scene from a laundress’ perspective. There’s definitely a pecking order of servants and a laundress was the lower than the chambermaid.
Anyone wants more information on laundry or obscure housekeeping details, I highly recommend Behind the Scene‘ by Christina Hardyment and The Housekeeping Book of Susana Whatman‘ National Trust Classics. And if you get a chance to get to Wales, there’s an intact 18th century laundry room (see the image at the beginning of the scene) at Erdigg, Clydd.