The rise and fall of the launderette
- 13 August 2010
- From the section Magazine
In 25 years, the number of launderettes in the UK has fallen by three-quarters. So who still uses them and how have they changed, asks Yasmeen Khan.
The combination of smells is unmistakable: warm damp washing, soap powder and perchloroethylene, the solvent used for dry cleaning. It hits me as soon as I step into Central Wash on Queensway in West London. This is Britain's first self-service coin-operated launderette, which opened in 1949.
Those smells were prevalent throughout my childhood. My parents' chain of five launderettes in the West Yorkshire town of Huddersfield provided them with an income and me with a rich environment in which to people-watch. Aged 11, I clung to the banks of washing machines as I taught myself to roller skate, pulling myself along on each machine's coin slot while eavesdropping on the customers.
Mention launderettes to anyone and the reaction is often one of surprise that they still exist. According to NALI, the National Association of the Launderette Industry, numbers in the UK peaked at 12,500 in the early 80s but have since have dwindled to just 3,000.
The rise of the domestic machine coincided with the washers in launderettes becoming too expensive to repair, marking the start of their decline in British towns.
The chairman of NALI, Bruce Herring, receives two or three enquiries a week from people interested in setting up a launderette.
"They appeal to a lot of people as a business, partly because you need relatively little knowledge to get going. But most of the enquirers have no idea that it costs between £60,000-£100,000 to set up a launderette. Once they hear the figures, the drop-out rate is enormous.
"If you pick the right site, launderettes remain a viable business; every town in Britain can support one good launderette, despite most of us having machines at home."
John Trapp, owner of Associated Liver Launderettes in Liverpool, the UK's largest chain, claims that launderettes have a polarised customer base.
"We have people at both ends of the scale, from newly arrived immigrants with no access to hot water in their properties, to busy working couples who might have a machine at home, but just don't have time and prefer to have a service wash. Then there is the one thing that everyone owns that none of us can wash at home - a duvet. That brings most people to a launderette at least twice a year."
Sheila is in her 60s and is a regular visitor to one of John Trapp's Liverpool launderettes. "I've been coming here for years," she says. "I leave my husband at home and bring my washing and my magazines."
Launderettes retain a nostalgic air for some; a place which brings back memories of student days, or where they may have passed the time of day with someone whose path they might not otherwise have crossed.
In the mid-1980s, a Levi's jeans television advert generated hopes of an altogether different kind of liaison. In the ad, a handsome young man enters a 1950s-style American launderette and, in front of the other customers, calmly strips to his boxer shorts and puts his jeans in the machine. The ad helped sales of jeans to rocket and made a star of its leading man, Nick Kamen.
Sir John Hegarty, worldwide creative director of ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty and creative brain behind the ad, remembers it with fondness.
"We wanted an egalitarian environment, somewhere you would find almost anyone, and the launderette had that. In our minds we were clear - it was New York in the 1950s, it's 4pm on a Saturday afternoon when he walks in. In reality we sourced the washing machines on London's Harrow Road."
Sofas and coffee
Sir John feels the community hub aspect could be developed. "If institutions don't evolve with society then they fall. You have to look at what launderettes are offering, whether or not they are they social centres and how you could encourage that."
Despite having barely changed in 25 years, the launderette on Albert Square in EastEnders firmly remains a community hub. However the square's residents rarely air their dirty washing there - those explosive scenes are played out in the Queen Vic pub, while the launderette is home to more reflective conversations.
The Hilton Street Launderette in Manchester's northern quarter is more dot com than Dot Cotton. This establishment houses high-speed computers alongside washing machines to attract those who want to play games or watch films online while waiting for their load.
Inside, the launderette is far from desolate and functional. There are a couple of sofas, piles of arts and theatre flyers and a coffee machine. Above the noise of the machines, several languages can be heard; the launderette is full of backpackers from its sister business, a hostel.
Despite primarily serving foreign travellers, owner and manager James Clancy is keen to include the local community.
"Our sign outside says come in for a wash or a surf, but it also says come in for a chat, and we mean it. Some of the older local folk still come in for a bit of company and we take the time to say hello, we don't want to alienate anyone."
Esther Dunleavy, the launderette's attendant, nods towards a football mascot's outfit on the counter and says she has yet to turn away any customer's washing.
Journeying around the country visiting launderettes dispels the notion that hardly anyone uses them any more.
Back in London's Queensway, one woman I approach doesn't want to talk, she just wants to watch her washing go round.
She sits quietly, seemingly mesmerised by the gently revolving drum and it strikes me that a launderette might just be one of the few remaining places in which to enjoy a moment's solace.