In Knaresborough, near where I live, is Tentergate, part of the high sloping bank above the River Nidd.
Once it was the open area where cloth from the water-mill was stretched tightly across frames to dry, avoiding shrinkage.
The tenters – the fence-like frames – were set in rows across the tenterfield.
The sharp-toothed pegs that held the pieces of cloth so tightly were known, of course, as tenterhooks.
I have been thinking about washing and drying, because a new, long-awaited washing line runs along the length of my lawn, beside my house. One end is fixed to a holly tree and the other to a sturdy young birch and the area is protected from the street by hedges. While the sun smiles on Yorkshire, my washing billows in the wind and the clothes and sheets come back indoors smelling of fresh air.
Before this blissful event, a short double line ran across the small yard just outside the back door. Hidden behind our 1920’s house, the old line was invisible from the street. The washing line was, however, very visible from my workroom. As indicated by the partly working bell panel, this was once the servant’s room so whenever rain dotted the window-pane, she could nip out, rescue the washing and pop back in again to speed on with her other duties.
My renewed interest in washing lines must have alerted me to a BBC news item about the recent washing line rebellion on the Millbank Estate in Pimlico, London. The residents discovered workmen about to remove the washing lines that had been a feature of their yard for seventy years. As the workmen arrived with chainsaws, the women grabbed hold of the washing line posts and halted the official vandalism.
The estate managers claimed the lines were “health and safety hazards” but the women said that they were needed: the kitchens in the flats were too small for tumble-dryers. The posts were left standing and - just in case the workmen returned - the bold residents hung out their protest message. Painted letter by letter, the row of old shirts spelled Save Our Lines.
Are washing lines always seen as an eyesore, except when you are a tourist taking photographs? In 2010, residents on Will Crooks Estate complained when their washing lines were removed.
It seemed the area was being tidied up and those unsightly lines were visible from the prestigious Canary Wharf opposite.
Meawhile, across in America, where local housing committees have traditionally banned washing lines, the national “Right To Dry” movement won its first washing line battle in Colorado, in 2008.
Has laundry always been a source of power and conflict? Originally women gathered to wash clothes on the rocks and stones by streams or riverside - and still do in some parts of the world. Then came the communal wash-houses where women could pass on news and family secrets. Was the power of gossip what tainted clean linen?
Or does the display of washing – including those awkward personal garments, not always in good repair – lower the status of the home-owner and surrounding community? (Might someone be secretly “taking in” washing?)
Or was it the worry that - being so intimate with “unmentionables” and the rhythms of the household - a laundress or servant might know too much?
Certainly the home laundry routine, regardless of the British weather, was evidence of a woman’s character:
They that wash on Monday have all the week to dry;
They that wash on Tuesday are not much awry;
They that wash on Wednesday are not so much to blame.
But they that wash on Thursday wash for shame.
They that wash on Friday wash in need
And they that wash on Saturday are sluts indeed.
The lazy display of washing seems somehow linked to hints of easy virtue, loose morals and loose clothing.
Dylan Thomas’s Polly Garter, in his play Under Milkwood, was no better than she should be:
“Nothing grows in my garden but washing and babies.”
I recall an earlier History Girls post describing how young gentlemen gathered to watch laundresses hoist their skirts above their ankles as they trampled the washing.
And surely there are songs suggesting maidens risked their virtue by going to spread linen on bushes to dry?
Even Tentergate, with all its frames, then lay outside the town, Perhaps that was known as a risky place for a young girl to go to alone too?