[This document comes from Helena Wojtczak's English Social History: Women of Nineteenth-Century Hastings and St.Leonards. An Illustrated Historical Miscellany, which the author has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web. Click on the title to obtain the original site, which has additional information.]

STRIKE AMONG THE WASHERWOMEN

Truly "What next?" "Strikes" among the artizans of the masculine gender are unfortunately too common, and too frequently almost as unjustifiable as the one indicated in the appended notice, extracted from a metropolitan contemporary:

"The plasterers of Hastings are at present out on strike, endeavouring to obtain the four o'clock time on Saturdays. It is hoped plasterers will not come here until it is settled."

Well: but what about the washerwomen? Shortly this: that the hands engaged in a well-known laundry establishment (which has a place and a name not much over one hundred yards from the town clock, and the business of which is visibly - so far as folks out-of-doors know anything about - conducted by one of the sterner sex, who, by-the-bye, is the "don" among the laundry fraternity, as well as the beau ideal of cooks, nursemaids, and other fair damsels who own "the soft impeachment," and whose natty "turn out," well-kept "Jerusalem," and polished harness; certainly does credit to this "antient port,") - suddenly "struck work" one day last week. According to "our own correspondent" this "nice young laundry-man," in addition to being rather "gay," has also a penchant for John Barleycorn. From one or other cause the "good lady" of our hero, on the day in question, had a dispute with her liege lord, and the poor "scrubbers and rubbers" fell in for a share of the bad humour of "my lord".

The women could not appreciate these whims, and so with becoming "spirit" down went soap and soap; suds, soda, blue, and "stuff" and away went the matrons who generally "stand at the tub," and matters - that means the dirty clothes, and the semi-clean linen remained in status quo (freely translated "dirty water and wash tub") at the time our informant inspected the "scene of the disaster." Whether there was a truce, an importation of "new hands," or a satisfactory settlement between master and washerwomen, we know not; but as the glazed hat and blue ribbon, and the quadruped with its necessary "fixings" were both seen (not the hat, but the owner) doing their usual six miles an hour on Saturday, it is hoped that the clean linen department was attended to with its accustomed regularity.

Hastings & St Leonards News 20 April 1860
(The town clock was in the High St)




"LESS HOURS OR WE WON'T WORK"

Our township has been the scene of a commotion since the issue of the last impression of the News and it has been a moot point whether clean linen would not be at a premium. The washers and ironers, it appears, have not yet realized any benefit from the laudable movements which have of late years been gaining ground, for early closing, and shortening the hours of labour of the masculine portion of the labouring population. "From six in the morning till nine at night" has been "no fiction" with this hard-worked class. The spirit of disaffection has at length gained the upper hand, and the soap-sudonians, having unsuccessfully demanded "less work or more pay" - to the extent of two hours' daily abridgment of their toil, or 6d. a day more money - struck work on Friday.

Many of the employers were necessitated to yield to the demands of the toilers, wherat great rejoicing took place. On Monday evening (having previously primed themselves by potations at the public-houses which they had made their head quarters), they sallied forth through the streets of the district headed by some drums and fifes, and a flag inscribed "Less hours or we won't work - Britons never shall be slaves." The scene has been summarized, by those who were on the spot, in the one epithet "disgraceful." Under the circumstances perhaps they may be forgiven. It is our sincere desire that these useful personages, having "won the day," may make good and beneficial use of the time placed at their disposal.

Hastings & St Leonards News 12 October 1860



The two newspaper articles above record what is possibly the first instance of industrial action by women of Hastings & St Leonards. They also reveal the journalist's attitude towards labouring women. Their tone is humorous, much the same as that used by the paper for court reports. The writer's inflated style serves to accentuate the lowly calling of the washerwomen. This ultimately trivialises them and their concerns and treats the issue as entertainment for the better off.

Washerwomen, while not high-status persons, peformed an essential job given the lack of laundry facilities in houses. Perhaps the writer chose to ridicule them rather than admit the embarrassing fact that most of the town was dependent on a bunch of uneducated women of the labouring classes.

Reading among the cicumulatory prose we discover that in one laundry there was a brief walkout in April over the bad-tempered attitude of a male supervisor. Six months later, after requesting shorter hours or more pay, washerwomen working for various employers walked out. They were encouraged by the contemporary movement for shorter working hours; plasterers in Hastings had recently struck for that reason. The women walked out on a Friday and the employers conceded on the following Monday, whereupon they went out to celebrate.



Gender History

Last modified 2000