A Woman’s Work…

Francesca looks at how a working class woman would have spent her week a hundred odd years ago, after the research she did for her saga, Heartbreak in the Valleys.

Imagine doing without your vacuum cleaner, washing machine, fan oven with controllable temperature, dishwasher, fridge and freezer. I wonder if you could live even a week without at least some of them.

Turn back the clock a hundred or so years, and imagine yourself as a full time housewife, having none of those conveniences to hand.

Let’s start with your lack of washing machine, not to mention the tumble dryer. It’s Monday, a typical wash day. You have your washing board standing in the sink, which is full of water (boiled, as you have no running hot water). You’ve made the water nice and soapy, but not with your super powerful laundry liquid or washing powder, but with a bar of soap, maybe Puritan or Sunlight. To get the clothes clean, you haven’t got the drum action of your washing machine, but have to rub them rigorously against the washing board. You’ll change the water two or three times while you’re washing. Then comes the rinsing. Seven times should do it, if you’re lucky. Next, get them them through the mangle to squeeze out excess water. Now you can put them into your basket and hang them out on the washing line, a nice long, rope one of course, none of your rotary lines. If it’s raining, you might be lucky enough to have an indoor dryer hanging from the ceiling in the kitchen, near the range.

If you happen to be a miner’s wife, you’ll probably wash the pit clothes separately in a wooden tub in the back yard, using a dolly. As for blankets and curtains, you’ll likely wash them in the zinc bath. You’ll need to boil a few buckets of water for that.

Come Tuesday you’ll be thinking about ironing. You won’t have one of those electric ones on which you can adjust the heat. Your flat iron will be sitting on the grate, getting hot. You’ll sprinkle each item with water and roll it up to dampen it. To test the temperature, spitting on the iron is favourite. Once it’s sizzling nicely, you’ll insert it into a metal cover so that the clothes aren’t soiled by the ash it might have picked up.

Now you’ve been nicely tired out by all that activity, it must be time for a rest, yes?

No. During the course of the week you’ll in all likelihood be the first up in the morning and the last to bed at night. You’ll do around double the hours of work your husband does. It’s quite likely you’ll be short of food, especially during the First World War, but you’ll make sure your husband and children have enough –even if you go without.

You might well allocate Wednesday to baking (if there’s anything left in the shop to bake with). You’ll walk to the shops with your basket and carry home all your goods (no car), and you’ll probably do this most days.

And what of cleaning? Among the items on your list each day will be scrubbing floors, beating mats, cleaning walls and windows, polishing brass, blackleading the grate, scrubbing the front step, windowsills and pavement, sweeping and dusting, emptying and filling the grate, polishing the furniture and carrying and boiling water – particularly when your husband comes home covered in coal dust. Preparing the huge zinc bath, normally carried from the scullery to the kitchen, is a whole set of jobs on its own. Talking of coal dust, the constant presence of it in the air makes your job twice as hard.

On top of this, there’ll be preparing and cleaning away meals (don’t expect any help from your husband), nursing and caring for children (of which you may have quite a few), painting and papering walls and repairing shoes. Don’t forget the mending of clothes. At least you can have a sit down for this. If you’re nifty with a needle, perhaps you even make your own clothes.

If you’re thinking, ‘I could have some days off after all that lot, surely,’ don’t forget your neighbours will be eyeing up your efforts and making sure your house is spotless, otherwise they’ll be whispering to others about what a slattern you are.

Of course, you could be widowed, since death rates in mining were higher than in a lot of other occupations. Then you might have to on a job as well, or take in other people’s washing, or offer a mending service.

If all that has worn you out just reading it, spare a thought for the poor working class women of my imaginary village of Dorcalon in Heartbreak in the Valleys. The village might be imaginary, but the work women did back then was real enough.

So, all hail the modern household appliances. I certainly appreciate them even more now.


November 1915. For Anwen Rhys, life is hard in the Welsh mining village of Dorcalon, deep in the Rhymney Valley. She cares for her ill mother and beloved younger sister Sara, all while shielding them from her father’s drunken, violent temper. Anwen comforts herself with her love for childhood sweetheart, Idris Hughes, away fighting in the Great War.

Yet when Idris returns, he is a changed man; no longer the innocent boy she loved, he is harder, more distant, quickly breaking off their engagement.

When tragedy strikes Dorcalon, Anwen and Idris put their feelings aside to unite their mining community.

In the midst of despair, can Anwen find hope again? And will she ever find the happiness she deserves?

Published 10th June 2020 by Hera Books

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Image attributions

Wash tub: Image by Thomas Wolter

Flat Iron: Image by Greg McMahan

Other photos copyright of Francesca Burgess

4 thoughts on “A Woman’s Work…

  1. Thank you, Francesca, for a timely reminder of what life was really like in those mythical ‘good old days’.

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