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Vaux-en Couhe

In the days before washing machines,  the days before twin tubs, even before the days of a copper boiler with a dolly followed by a mangle, there were Lavoirs. These were one up from just taking the clothes down to the nearest bit of river, but only just. I can remember both the twin tub and the copper boiler with the dolly. A dolly was a wooden pole with a circle of wood attached to the bottom and from the circle four or five short pegs of wood protruded downwards. This was used to rotate the clothes, you put the dolly in the boiler and moved it round and the clothes got caught on the pegs and were rotated and got clean ….or not.

I digress, back to lavoirs, they are communal public washing places, for washing clothes not oneself. They were a sort of a rural launderette and they are found all over France. Many of them  have been restored, some are a bit run down and a few are a shadow of their former glory. It seems this method was not used so much in Britain but more in France and southern Europe. As is indicated by this quote ;

…when we got into the country [near Bordeaux], I was amused by seeing the French mode of washing their clothes; eight or ten washerwomen were collected by the side of a stream of water, each furnished with a large tub and a small bench or stool; instead of putting her clothes into the tub, each woman, after fixing it in the stream, got into it herself, and with her stool attached to the side of it by two legs, she was first sousing her clothes into the stream, and then beating and rubbing them upon the stool with an instrument in her hand something like a small bat. Jane E Roscoe, Memoir of the Reverend Benjamin Goodier, 1825 from an English vicar travelling in France in 1825.

On some large rivers there were barges tied up at the rivers edge and women could go on these to carry out the washing. These were known as bateaux lavoirs.

There are lots of Lavoirs in the Poitou-Charentes region, every small village with a stream, spring or river would have had one. Some were open and just had a reinforced slope down to the water’s edge made of smooth stones and the women would wrap up warm and take a board and washing bat to beat the clothes against the board to get them clean. Others are more elaborate, most have a roof, some have walls, though not usually on all sides, some even had a fire and a chimney.

Washing clothes in a river would have been a bit of a chore, especially if the water was cold and icy, as it would have been sometimes. The compensation though, was that this was an entirely female preserve and the Lavoir was a place where views could be exchanged between the ladies, or to put it another way where the women could have a good old gossip. One can only guess at what was discussed and where the conversations went?

Quick update, had a message from a lady called Vanessa living I presume in the region of Charente, commune Suaux which is between Angouleme and Confolens with some pictures of lavoirs in that area, these are the open ones, presumably the residents of Suaux were a hardy bunch in days gone by.

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