The Laundry Maid’s Lye

I have just revisited the beautiful Georgian house and grounds of Beningbrough Hall, north of the ancient city of York. It was as I walked around the laundry in the grounds of the house, crossing through the archway of the bell-tower, that I created the heroine Miss Chloe Branton and Mr Tobias Poole.

The life of a laundry maid was hard. In the days before running hot and cold water, it had to be either hauled from a well or stream or pumped up from an underground source. Once they had the water they then had to heat it and use substances such as lye soap to soak, wash or scrub the garments, which was hard on the hands. Even the garments were more difficult to maintain as before modern textiles, dyes and methods of controlled cleaning the garments may have to be unpicked to separate delicate lace, from wool or silk and each section cleaned or washed separately. Materials were not colorfast and were often heavy. A careless laundry maid could cause shrinkage, pilling and ruin a garment and easily lose her already lowly position.

It was a hard life, but it was also an excellent place for someone to be hidden away for a short time. Chloe was unused to hard work, in a building with a cold stone-flagged floor, lifting heavy loads. She needed help and a good friend to survive.

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