Thomas Edmondson and the Dublin Laundry

Sally Richardson reviews Thomas Edmondson and the Dublin Laundry: a Quaker businessman, 1837-1908 by Mona Hearn, Irish Academic Press, £17.50/24 euros pbk, ISBN 0-71652-7707  

THE AUTOMATIC washing machine is taken for granted by most of us nowadays: it provides us with clean clothes with practically no effort at all on our part.  We seldom give a thought to how previous generations obtained clean clothes, although this was a major and often problematic part of everyday life for our ancestors.

This unglamourous subject, with its dramatis personae of businessmen and washerwomen, is tackled with thoroughness and style by Mona Hearn and proves to be quite fascinating.

Hearn outlines the background to the huge expansion in commercial laundries in the second half of the nineteenth century.  An increasing large urban and suburban middle class lacked the domestic space and labour needed for home laundering. When Thomas Edmondson opened his Dublin Laundry in 1888 he already had considerable business experience and the new laundry thrived and expanded.

Work on the shop floor was laborious and dirty. It was also dangerous; employees' limbs were often caught in machinery and injuries were commonplace.  Standing for long hours in hot steam-filled rooms was unhealthy as well as unpleasant and handling strangers' soiled linen was unhygienic and often disgusting.  

The logisitics of the business were complicated. Laundry had to be collected, sorted, washed, ironed and returned without items going missing or getting one lot mixed up with another. The work could be fiddly. Women's clothes at this time were cumbersome and elaborate and covered with frills that had to be starched and pressed. Men did not get off lightly either, with uncomfortable high stiff collars considered a necessity.

However, Quakers were generally fair employers and Edmondson was no exception. His workforce were well-paid by the standards of his time and well looked after. He paid for his employees' medical treatment and - typical of Quaker business practice - provided housing for many of them.

However, even the best employers generally resented interference by the state and Edmondson was one of many who opposed the Factory Acts which regulated safety and conditions in the workplace. A particular bone of contention was the exclusion of institutional or Magdalen laundries from such legislation, enabling them to undercut commercial concerns such as Edmondson's.

Hearn devotes some space to the institutional laundries, putting them in the context of the industry as a whole. Contrary to popular perception, not all were Catholic. Hearn informs us that there were nine Catholic and seven Anglican institutional laundries in the Dublin area in 1901. However while the Protestant institutions were short-stay ones, concentrating on rehabilitation and training followed by release back into the community, the Catholic laundries became by-words for abuse, where women were treated harshly and kept, often for years, in a state of slavery - all in the name of charity. However, it was not this that the commercial laundries objected to, but the unfair competition.

The Quaker milieu to which Edmondson belonged was close-knit, sometimes to the point of insularity. Edmondson himself emerges as a kindly, generous man, something of a fusspot; sometimes ruthless, always exacting, he had a natural flair for business. Like most Quakers, he took his public and community duties seriously.  As an employer he tended to prefer Protestants for supervisory or managerial positions; even for Quakers, some people were evidently more equal than others.

Mona Hearn covers every aspect of her subject in this meticulously detailed and unusual book. It provides a fascinating glimpse into some unexpectedly interesting corners of our past that have received scant attention hitherto.

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