Birmingham – Communal Laundries

The following is taken directly from The City of Birmingham Baths Department 1851 – 1951. The work was written and compiled by J. Moth M.N.A.B.S Birmingham 1951 and is presented here.

The provision of laundering facilities in Birmingham’s bathing establishments has so far met with little success.

There was a Public Laundry in the first Baths to be erected in Kent Street one hundred years ago and in 1928, a separate establishment was opened in St. George Street, Hockley, which offered housewives up-to-date facilities for dealing with the family laundry.

The Kent Street Public Laundry was well-patronised for a time, but gradually the custom declined until in 1877, it was closed and a Turkish Baths was installed in that part of the premises occupied by the Laundry.

In the case of the closing of the Kent Street Laundry, the reason given was that it was no longer being used by the housewives of the district for whom it was intended, but that its few remaining patrons were merely using the facilities to suit their own convenience in undertaking other people’s laundry.

It has not been possible to go further than into the reports periodically issued during the life of the Kent Street Laundry, but a close examination of these reveals that almost from the date of its opening, quick drying of the washed articles could not be obtained by means of the apparatus installed. The reports show that attempts were continually being made to speed up the process of drying, but satisfactory results appear never to have been achieved. This meant that housewives using the laundry had to remain on the premises for the better part of the day and they no doubt considered that the advantages of the laundry so far as the washing processes were concerned, were outweighed by the disadvantages of the drying process to such an extent that they preferred to carry out the whole of the operations, whatever the inconvenience may have been, in their homes, without so much waste of time. However, the Kent Street Public Laundry did survive for a period of twenty-six years and this with only hand washing stalls and the drying apparatus referred to.

The St. George Street Laundry met with swifter fate. Within three years of its opening in 1928, the Baths Committee reported to the Council that the project was a failure and that it proposed to close the laundry, dispose of the equipment and make the premises available as a Cottage Baths.

So far as the closing of the St. George Street Laundry was concerned, it was presumed that the falling off in patronage was attributable to the fact that Birmingham housewives apparently preferred to do their washing at home, however large the task and however limited were their facilities for washing, drying and ironing; in other words that it was the communal aspect of the laundry that decided them against using the facilities provided.

The St. George’s Street Laundry was equipped with washing machines, hydro-extractors, drying closets and ironing facilities, but from all accounts, history repeated itself in that difficulty was again experienced in ensuring the quick drying of the washed clothes, probably the most important operation of laundering. A further complication was that the washing machines and hydro-extractors because of their size were used for more than one housewife’s washing at the same time and there was understandable objection to this. As a result the washing machines were eventually removed and replaced by hand washing stalls. Although this overcame the objection to the machines, the drudgery of washing by hand remained and this coupled with the lack of adequate drying facilities, which difficulty was apparently not overcome, hastened the end of the Baths Committee’s second experiment.

With the full knowledge of the facts regarding the previous Public Laundries, the Baths Committee are once more contemplating the provision of Communal Laundries, as they are now called, in those areas of the City where housewives, who normally do their own washing and who it is known are severely handicapped through lack of facilities in their homes, may carry out the family washing efficiently and at reasonable charges. That there is need for Communal Laundries, although apparent in the areas of the City concerned, has been confirmed by enquiries among the residents and the Baths Committee feels that the time is ripe for the re-introduction of this service.

To avoid a repetition of the previous circumstances, the new Communal Laundries will be equipped with washing machines of a size suitable for one family’s laundry, with use of a hydro-extractor to each machine, drying closets which will ensure the drying of a large wash in from 15-30 minutes, ironing machinery and handwashing facilities for small articles. Using this equipment, it is estimated that a large family wash can be completed in under 21/2 hours, a boon which need not be stressed to any housewife.

A booking system will ensure the use of the necessary facilities between set times each week and eventually powers will be sought to transport the weekly wash to and from the Communal Laundry.


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