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Facilities on Victorian Estates


How ordinary people washed themselves, early 20th Century

washing to keep clean

Soap, flannel and cold water was the only way to keep ourselves clean when I was a child growing up on the working class Victorian housing estate. Yet it was a matter of principle that we were kept clean. This page describes and explains the everyday washing routine for ordinary Victorians and Edwardians with no bathroom and only a single cold water tap. It is brought to live through personal recollections.


Extracted from the memoirs of the webmaster's mother(1906-2002) and edited by the webmaster with further research

Where we washed

With no bathroom and no running hot water, we washed every morning in the scullery in the little alcove with a curtain across that provided some privacy.

The 'wash basin' - the scullery sink

The 'wash basin' was the sink that was also used for washing up. It was large and box-like and made of stoneware, with a single brass cold-water tap in the wall above it. Sometimes we used an enamel bowl in the sink.

Old stoneware sink with a single brass cold water tap above it

Stoneware sink with a single brass cold water tap above it. Photographed in Fagans Museum of Welsh Life.

Old white enamel washing-up bowl

Enamel washing-up bowl. Photographed in Milton Keynes Museum.

The soap

A wooden soap box was also on the wall. No exotic soap ever found its way there. It was always general household soap, usually Sunlight, which invariably had little pieces of grit embedded in where my mother had used it to wash the floor. I don't think our complexions suffered as a result. I was reputed to have had a very good complexion as a child.

wrapped bar of Sunlight household soap with unwrapped bar

Household soap used for washing the floor as well as washing oneself, Sunlight brand.

So the Sunlight soap did little harm, although I well recall having little patches of dry skin in on my chin in the winter. This was quite common with most children and was treated with Vaseline.

The temperature of the water

We usually washed in cold water, but sometimes as a luxury we had warm water if the copper was lit, or if someone bothered to boil a kettle on the kitchen fire or the range.

The primus stove

In summer when it was too hot to light a larger appliances, water was heated in the kettle on a primus stove - a cooking device designed for camping. The image shows the principle, but there were many designs.

primus stove, vintage

Old primus stove, one of many designs

Essentially, a receptical at the bottom was filled with paraffin oil which was lit with a match. There was some sort of support for a kettle or saucepan as shown in the image. The size of the flames and hence their heat was governed by a pump which was normally integrated into the stove and/or an arrangement to limit the flow of the paraffin. The fumes were very unpleasant.

The flannel and towel

Flannels were squares of plain white towelling. I don't think anyone in the family was particularly fussy about which flannel or towel they used. There wasn't space in the little sink alcove to store much.

Being washed as a young child

I always remember my great grandmother washing me at the scullery sink. It wasn't a case of just wiping sticky hands. It was a good old wash, and my ears burnt for hours afterwards. Her generation seemed to have a thing about ears. It was always, "Have you washed behind your ears?". It could have been why earache seemed so prevalent in those days. We children always had a twisted corner of the flannel rammed down our ears.

Unlike adults, we children did have a bath once a week.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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