Nostalgia: Edinburgh’s ‘steamies’ remembered

A pair hard at work in a wash house in 1977. Picture: Denis Straughan
A pair hard at work in a wash house in 1977. Picture: Denis Straughan
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BICEP curls and thigh burning lunges, twists, lifts and muscle-aching stretches – it must have been the ultimate workout in the most unlikely of places.

These days we spend a small fortune on fitness classes and gym memberships. But in granny’s day, all you needed to shape up, was a few regular trips to the ‘steamie’.

A trio take their washing home after a session at a steamie

A trio take their washing home after a session at a steamie

Shoving a pram full of clothes and sheets to the wash house would have been one way to get the heart pumping – even before the back-breaking task of trying to lift sodden sheets and towels from the hot tub of soapy water into the cold one for a rinse.

Then feeding endless pairs of your man’s newly scrubbed dungarees through a hand mangle would probably have done more for keeping the bingo wings at bay than any number of Zumba classes.

The women who passed endless hours scrubbing and wringing, folding and hanging up also had the added benefit of the camaraderie of the wash house – a place where the banter could be as spicy as that of any male-dominated factory, the laughs just as raucous and the support network in times of need, vital.

Incredible as it sounds, Edinburgh’s wash houses were still operating in the early 1980s, nearly a century after concerns over the city’s terrible infant death toll, cholera and disease led to public health pioneers pushing for their construction.

Enjoying at joke at Bonnington Road in 1973

Enjoying at joke at Bonnington Road in 1973

Now the fascinating story behind the city’s 13 public wash houses, how they came to be built, the people who used them and their impact on the communities they served, will be told by researcher Steven Robb as part of a lecture series linked to the city’s annual Doors Open Day event.

Steven, a team leader of heritage management at Historic Scotland, was inspired to dig deep into the city’s wash houses after stumbling across his designs for one of the last steamies still standing, at Union Street, which had been worked on by his great uncle.

“I found the drawings in the basement of my grandmother’s house and thought it would be interesting to find out more about them,” he explains. “You tend to think of them as being old-fashioned, from a long time ago – yet the last wash house closed down in 1982.”

The first wash house appeared 90 years earlier after it became clear that Edinburgh’s authorities had to step in to tackle a public health crisis.

“Urban areas like the Old Town were so poor, they had no facilities for washing in the houses and a lot of places didn’t have running water,” explains Steven. “That led to diseases, in particular cholera, which spread through dirty clothing and bedding.

“The hope was that by providing public wash houses, they could start to sort out the terrible infant mortality.”

For many Old Town residents, wash day had involved a trip to the Nor Loch, to rinse out garments among the sewage and stench of slaughterhouse waste which flowed into the water. Others made do with public water fountains, dirty burns or whatever source of water they could find.

While Edinburgh’s authorities had the power from 1880 to begin construction of wash houses, there was a 12-year delay while efforts were made to find the right locations for the new facilities. Meanwhile in Glasgow, wash houses were already up and running.

Edinburgh’s first opened at St Gray’s Close in the Old Town in 1892 – and immediately locals were queuing out of the door in the hope of finally having clean clothing and bedding. Stockbridge wash house in Allan Street followed in 1903 and Simon Square at St Leonards in 1908.

Eventually there would be ten more built at locations across town: Greenside Lane, Lochrin at Tollcross, ­MacLeod Street serving Gorgie, Causewayside, Abbeymount at ­Abbeyhill, Adelphi Grove in Portobello, Bonnington Road/Great Junction Street in Leith, Henderson Row in Canonmills, Union Street and Murdoch Terrace, Dalry.

The wash houses were constructed along similar lines – a large central hall where the tubs were positioned, a heated chamber with drawers for clothes to be dried, office space and a coal-fired boiler room.

Remarkably given the era, most had a crèche.

“The first one at St Gray’s Close didn’t and children were being scalded,” says Steven. “So it was decided to create a crèche so women could get on with doing the washing while the children were looked after.”

The work was sweat-
inducing, with heavy loads of bedding and clothes being plunged into hot tubs, rubbed with hard soap and then cleaned with a ‘wash dolly’ before being fed through a hand mangle. Soaking items were then hung in the drying area – often emerging within an hour, bone dry.

As washing machines became more compact and efficient, the wash houses fell into disuse and despite a lively political battle between Labour and Tory politicians over their future – and angry demonstrations by loyal users desperate to keep them alive – the last wash house closed in 1982.

Some became warehouses or car showrooms before being demolished. Today only three remain: at Adelphi Place in Portobello, now a community centre, MacLeod Street at Tynecastle which is expected to be earmarked for demolition and at Union Street, the base for Edinburgh Printmakers and where there are markings on the walls referring to the building’s previous use.

“There was a real effort to encourage people to use them,” explains Steven, ­“including a film which showed students using them and people driving up in cars with their laundry.

“It is a bit odd to see colour pictures of people using a wash house. On one hand, there was this feeling that they were part of the bad old days.

“Others thought of them as being like a community centre and very much a women’s environment, run by women and for women. There seems to have been a great deal of sadness when they closed.”

n Steven Robb will present his lecture on Edinburgh’s public wash houses on Friday, 26 September from 1-2pm at ­RCAHMS, 16 Bernard Terrace. Advanced booking advised via cockburnassociation.eventbrite.co.uk