The First Launderette in the UK Opened
- 9th May 1949 -
The launderette has become something of an icon on the British high street. Everyday the comings and goings on the BBC soap opera, Eastender, have been captured in the Bridge Street Launderette, run by one of the most famous faces on television – Dot Cotton, played by June Brown. After 25 years it looks as if the change seen everywhere else on the High Street has finally caught up with the residents of E20 6PQ. It has changed to a dry cleaners. Nick Kamen also made the launderette famous when he stripped off his Levi 501 jeans to the soundtrack of I Heard It Through the Grapevine in a retro launderette in an advert in the 1980s in what became a cult TV moment. Hanif Kureishi had a hit with his 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette which portrayed a young British Asian man who ran a laundrette with his white schoolfriend, and the romantic relationship between the two that followed.
The history of the launderette is less well known. The first coin-operated machine was opened in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1934 by JF Cantrell, who purchased 4 machines and charged people by the hour to use them.
The first opened in Britain was the Central Wash in Bayswater, London on 9th May 1949. It is still there today, proudly advertising itself as the first in the UK. A local newspaper described it as follows:
"Britain’s first self-service, coin-operated launderette opened, for a six-month trial, at 184 Queensway in Bayswater. All that housewives have to do is bring the washing, put it in the machine and come back 30 minutes later (charge 2s 6d for 9lbs)." Rows of steel tubs and soap dispensers were available but there was an absence of staff.
Soon a launderette was to be found on every high street in the UK. Sales of washboards and wringers collapsed as households rushed to use the new shops. At their peak there were 12,500 to be found in Britain in the 1980s. Today numbers have dwindled to fewer than 3000. As technology increased and allowed machines to be put in shops so the same technology allowed them to be priced so that they started to cross the threshold of houses. In 1959 44% of homes had a machine. This increased to 79% in 1980 and today stands at 96%.
Many students can remember their times in launderettes in the 80s as they were the staple for students as well as households. Now universities have their own facilities, many of them with on-line timers so that you know when your washing cycle has ended. Startup costs now run between £60,000 to £90,000 and alongside high rents, decreasing footfall and high utility prices it is easy to see why numbers have dwindled so far.
They do still serve a purpose however. The Hilton Street Launderette, in the northern quarter in Manchester, offers comfortable sofas, a coffee machine, fast internet, films and arts magazines. Also offered is a ‘2-minute wash’. 1 minute to drop clothes off and 1 minute to pick them up again. This service wash, although not cheap, is a popular option especially with business people. The Hilton Street shop has a sister company – a hostel – and the launderette is often full of backpackers. Returning holiday makers are another source of business as is the rise of the duvet. The domestic washing machine drum is not large enough to take a double duvet, or even a single one, and the larger drums on industrial machines need to be used.
Anywhere where people congregate, such as pubs, cafes and launderettes, have their part to play in social history. The latter will probably continue, albeit on a much smaller scale than previously and will remain in the conscience of the population.