With the aid of modern appliances it is not difficult to have private or commercial washing done.

In the past however, this was hard and heavy work requiring a strong body and much patience.

When the abolition of slavery finally became a fact in South Africa in 1834 female slaves had to find a way of earning a living for themselves and for their families. Husbands or other male relatives often had only part time work as fishermen or farm labourers.  Quite simply the women had, from an economic point of view, to find means to supplement the family’s survival.  Opportunities were not plentiful so they turned to what they knew and what many had done while working as slaves in their “owners” homes. They offered a private laundry service.  In effect they became early entrepreneurs out of sheer necessity.  It was work they could obtain on a fairly regular basis and from the money earned families could be fed.  Of course this did not always work in their favour.  On occasion payment would be slow in coming or they might have been short changed.  Still, in a way, working for themselves did give the women a certain amount of personal independence. Full legal independence however was still a very long time away in the future.

The women formed themselves into informal groups and in this way they were also able to look after their young children. An important point was that the children, often very young, could help carry the bundles, could find fire wood to heat water if required or carry out other tasks.  After fetching the bundles the women would walk to the nearest free flowing source of water. In the middle 1800s the women used the water from the Liesbeeck.  This was fine until complaints were received from local residents. The result was that they were told to cease their operations and move away. But these were not women to be pushed around – their very living depended upon the work – and they continued their work. A Cape official had to admit that the “nuisance” was not easy to stop.  Eventually though a wash house was built in Klipfontein Road, Rondenbosch. As with washhouses built in other parts of the Cape Peninsula, this one was also not particularly popular with the laundresses.  Instead of being able to go about their business as they pleased or as it suited them, now they had to pay for the usage of the tubs and follow rules. But as always times change, household technology improved with the result that the usage of the washhouse fell into disuse. Today the building has become part of a new business centre along a very busy road from Rondebosch to Athlone.

The Platteklip Stream, Cape Town was another popular spot for the washerwomen to carry on their trade. Not only was there water but useful greenery as well upon which to drape the washing.  But once again more complaints were made, particularly in connection to water pollution.  Many small holdings downstream used the same water for their gardening plots. (The memory of the gardening plots survive in the name of the area known today as “the Gardens”.)  In an attempt to solve matters the Cape Town Municipality built and opened, on 1 May 1888, the first municipal washhouse.  Municipal Regulation 312 stated that no washing could take place in any public stream. But this was not a popular rule and resulted in the women hiring, for a fee, other land from property owners adjoining the stream.  This action made the Mayor of the time rethink the city’s scheme and it was decided to drop the fee for the time being.  The women re-thought their use of the wash house facilities but not long afterwards fees were once more charged. Despite these ups and downs washing continued into the 1940s. Today the wash houses have been renovated and are for hiring to visitors or locals who want a Table Mountain experience.

Hanover Street (a landmark that, with its wash house, disappeared around the time of the forced removals from District Six in 1967/8) too had a washhouse which opened on 20 December 1905.  There were facilities for fifty women to wash using steam tubs, a mangle to wring the laundry of water, a drying horse, irons and ironing boards.  It had a somewhat start /stop history. Fees were charged, then dropped. In March 1908 it closed, then re-opened in November 1911.  But attendance only increased once the fee charged was adapted to the women’s paying ability or what they considered a fair price.

In Kalk Bay a decision was taken to build a wash house. Its opening took place when Mr Harry Scowen, Mayor of the Kalk Bay/Muizenberg Municipality, did the honours on 10 July 1901. It was added to in 1903.  There were, under a roof, 42 wash tubs – six rows of seven tubs with a channel to carry away the used water. At first the water used by the Kalk Bay laundresses came from the van Blerk dam above the wash area and later from the Silvermine Reservoir, the water being piped to the tubs.  Improvements were also made by way of floor boards and later grey water was, by way of drains, led to the sea.   Further land was bought to provide drying areas.  But with a structured system came the need for the collection of fees, organizing of the actual washing process, drying and collecting.  Then it became necessary for security reasons to fence in the area used and for a caretaker to be employed.  Payment for the use of a tub was one penny which by 1920 became three pence a tub. Today the area where the washhouses stood – in Lever Street, Kalk Bay – is a childrens playground

Claremont too had a wash house which opened in 1915.

Memories of those times and the work undertaken are probably no longer fresh in the minds of descendants, but it should not be forgotten. Many of present day women work in similar household jobs – work that is honourable.

This article was first published in ImagineMag