The rise and fall of the launderette

Ma

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.

Find out more

  • Sud-U-Like is on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 13 August at 1100 BST
  • Or listen again using iPlayer

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."

Nostalgia

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."

Start Quote

You have to look at what launderettes are offering, whether or not they are they social centres and how you could encourage that”

End Quote Sir John Hegarty Brain behind famous Levi's advert

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.

Dot Cotton Some launderettes are more famous than others...

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.

A selection of your comments appears below

I use the launderette on a regular basis but mainly for drying. The weather in the North West has been quite bad over the last couple of months so rather than take a chance hanging it out, I come in from work, straight to the laundrette with lots of wet washing. Less than an hour later and no more than £5, it's all done and put away. I have noticed whilst I'm there, there is a constant flow of people collecting service washes and there is always at least one duvet being washed.

Richard, Leeds

Launderettes make perfect sense for single people who only have around a load a week - I pay £3.50 to wash and £1.50 to dry a load, which works out to around £20/month. In a year I could afford to buy a washing machine for that money - but not a dryer, and the damn things are guaranteed to break down just outside the warranty anyway. The launderette is just so much more reliable - and their dryers just can't be beat!

James, Brighton

I have always been happy to use a local launderette for washing larger items, duvets, or when my own washing machine has broken down. Most recently I had to pay out £20 a week to do all the washing from home, however I reclaimed the cost from the washing machine insurance company while mine was repaired. While it's uneconomical to wash there all the time, it's good value for money to dry large loads and as I now live in a flat, without a communcal drying area, occasionally I benefit from not having laundry hung around indoors, especially if guests are coming over, it keeps everything clear. They are a valuable resource to communities. It's something I looked for when I decided to live in Exeter and I have two within a mile of here.

Martin Mather, Exeter

Even though it's one of the few places nowadays that you can enjoy complete solitude, going to the launderette is dull. Our launderette is behind the Royal Crescent amongst delis and flower shops; you'd think it would be a little more upmarket than a small room with a window ledge to sit on. I like the style of the Hilton Street launderette, even just a few sofas would be nice. Lucky for me there's a very nice pub across the road from where you can see your machine.

S Lewis, Bath

Upon moving to Liverpool, I was delighted to find a chain of launderettes around the south suburban areas of the city. They are often well frequented by both students and locals, and often the local pub who came to wash their bar towels!

Rob Marsh, Liverpool

Wow, here in the US they are far from dead. I live in a VERY rural area in northern California, and even the smallest of towns here have laundromats (what we call them here). They are used by many, those who live in flats and either have no washers in their complex or they are always busy because there are so few machines, people who can't afford washers and dryers, and just those who don't want to own machines, for whatever reason. Some of them here even have big screen TVs, video games and stereo music for the users, they look really cool with their neon lights.

Michael Cook, Redwood Valley, CA

Launderettes, the most boring places on the planet. I swore I'd never go back and I never have!

Matt,

I was quite annoyed when I moved into my new flat to find out that there wasn't a proper laundrette in my town - I had just been intending to get everything done via service wash rather than having to buy a washing machine.

J Rogers, Snodland, Kent

My washing machine broke down last week and I was forced to use the launderette. The reason most people use one is for large items or they might need a service wash. Doing a weekly wash there is not economical as the machines charge a fortune to wash and more to dry. I paid £17 for three loads and took it all home to dry. In two months I could buy a new machine for that kind of cost.

Steve White, Oxford

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.