Betsy Cobley

Well it is another good, fine day for the washing and airing of the laundry!

Let me introduce myself; my name is Elizabeth, known to everyone here as Betsy. I live with my husband Eusebius Cobley in a small cottage on Church Hill just off West Street (Now No 4 West Street) and here we have our home and our business.

Let me tell you a bit about us and how I came to run ‘Geddington Steam Laundry’

The steps leading to the laundry are just to the left of the shop.

Strictly speaking I’m not a Geddington girl. I was born in 1841 in Oakley Parva or, as it is known today, Little Oakley. My parents were Thomas and Alice and my father was a labourer. I had two younger brothers and a sister, Mary, who was just 11 months older than I was.

My father died while we were very young and in 1851 my mother was bringing up her young family alone. She is recorded as being a school mistress at that time and my brother Joseph, even at 8 years of age, was already earning his keep as a farm servant. By 1861 mother was earning her living as a charwoman. Life was hard for her and she died in the Kettering Union Workhouse in 1880. I had learned at an early age to work hard to feed my family.

Eusebius was born in Geddington and grew up there with his brothers. He was an agricultural labourer all his life. We married in Oakley Parva church in April 1862 and moved to Geddington. When our daughter Amelia Rose was born in 1863 we went back to our church in Little Oakley in the July to have her christened there.

By 1881 the Steam Laundry was up and running. When Amelia Rose married Charles Clipstone in 1886 they moved into the cottage behind our yard and the saddler’s shop. We had a busy time of it. Later Sarah Eizabeth, my granddaughter and Sarah Ann Ager, my niece, lived with us and worked with me to do the laundry orders from the local doctor, Boughton House, The Royal Hotel in Kettering and St. Alban’s School amongst others.

The washhouse was in the yard at the back with two tubs, a brick copper and a wooden mangle. There wasn’t a lot of room to work in and all the water had to be fetched in buckets from the well at The Cross. We collected wood to burn under the copper to heat the water and to provide the fire to heat the flat irons. It was piled it into a great heap in the middle of the yard to have handy in case the water cooled but you did have to be careful not to fall over it or catch the clean washing on it!

It was the custom to boil the ‘the whites’ and rinse them in Reckitt’s Blue before putting them through the mangle. On good days we would hang the washing on lines in the yard around the woodpile and if we needed extra space we’d use Hopkins’ orchard behind Church Farm or the washing yard behind The Star. The worst days were the wet, wintry ones when the laundry had to be dried indoors in our tiny cottage by being hung over wooden racks fixed to the ceiling. Poor Eusebius was hard pressed to find a quiet corner where he could smoke his pipe on those days.

After the washing came the starching and the ironing. Amelia Rose was in charge of that. It was very important to get it just right .. too much starch and sheets would be like cardboard, too little and the customers would not feel the laundry was crisp and clean. Ironing was hard and hot work; keeping the irons hot enough meant you often finished the day with a scald mark or a burn on your hands where you’d misjudged the heat of the iron. We always tested the heat of the iron with a bit of spit – if it sizzled you’d got it right!

I charged 1shilling (5p) for a basketful of washing and gave my Monday helpers 6d (2p) for a morning’s work each week. I earned a little extra too by selling sweets to the children at a farthing a bag!

Eusebius worked with me in later years and in 1901 he recorded his profession as Laundryman on the census. He died in 1903, but I carried on the laundry work with the help of Amelia Rose and Sarah. I often had my grandchildren living with me and they were a great comfort as well as a source of help on busy days.

When Betsy died in September 1920 nothing much had changed; water was still drawn from the well, there was no electricity in the village to heat water or irons and laundry was still picked up and returned in newspaper parcels carried in a pram! However she did leave the business and her assets of £126 to her daughter Amelia Rose. From humble beginnings and through physical hard work and entrepreneurship Betsy gained a formidable reputation in a new area of business and gave Geddington another example of a successful woman.

Before we had modern laundry detergents with optical brighteners, there was a mysterious little blue bag which was stirred around in the final rinse water on washday. This was laundry bluing or blue. A factory-produced block was the “modern” (mid-19th century onwards), commercial version of older recipes for whitening clothes, with names like stone blue, fig blue, or thumb blue. It disguised any hint of yellow and helped the household linen look whiter than white.

Until the mid-20th century Reckitt’s blue-bags were well-known in many countries, sold as penny cubes to be wrapped in flannel or muslin, or sold ready bagged. The product had various names over the years: Reckitt’s Blue, Bag Blue, Paris Blue, Crown Blue, Laundry Blue, Dolly Bags. The main ingredients were synthetic ultramarine and baking soda, and the original “squares” weighed an ounce.

Acknowledgements for some of the content in this article must go to Monica Rayne and her book ‘Geddington as it was’

This post is part of a series about the Women of Geddington.

2 comments on “Betsy Cobley

  • Melvyn Hopkins says:

    As a young boy I climbed a tree on the corner of West Street and Stamford Road but I fell out straight into a clump of stinging nettles. I ran home to mum crying my eyes out (we only lived not far away in Newton Road). She promptly ran a bath and dropped a blue bag in it. I can’t remember if it took the stings away but I must have been very clean and blue.

  • I love your story Melvyn. Thank you for sharing it. I can only just remember my Grandmother using the blue bags on washday Mondays. The smell was quite particular!


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