SLIDESHOW - Retro: Council’s plans didn’t wash with protesters

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Nowadays it’s hard to find a laundrette anywhere but 50 years ago many Sheffielders still did their laundry at council-run public wash-houses.

The wash-houses had huge manually-operated machines, scrubbing stalls for hand washing and dryers.

Oakes Green Self Service Laundry, Attercliffe, Sheffield - 18th February 1980

Oakes Green Self Service Laundry, Attercliffe, Sheffield - 18th February 1980

They were popular with women who had to cope with their husbands’ filthy work overalls in the days when washing was still seen as solely women’s work.

They liked the dryers because they didn’t have to hang out their washing to get dirty again in the smut-filled air.

So it was hardly surprising that customers were furious when the city council proposed closing the Oakes Green wash-house in Staniforth Road, Attercliffe in 1962 and replacing it with a modern laundrette.

More than 400 angry protesters packed into a meeting at the St Charles School hall.

Some even stood at the 12-foot-high windows to listen to the speakers.

Coun George Sharpe, chairman of the cleansing and baths committee, often struggled to be heard above the clamour of angry voices.

The meeting chairman, Coun Ron Ironmonger, resorted to ringing a bell to restore order.

The audience were singularly unimpressed by the council’s plan to close the wash-house, which was opened in 1937, and convert some shops into a modern laundrette.

They blamed rising maintenance and staff costs for the plan that also threatened 14 workers’ jobs.

The protesters, who had gathered 1,000 signatures on a petition, planned to go and dump some dirty washing on the town hall steps.

They said that they wanted to keep their wash-house and were even happy for charges to rise.

Beatrice Highly, who organised the protest with her brother Joe Dixon, made that suggestion to the councillors to thunderous applause.

Eventually the huge pressure of the protests won the day and councillors met protest leaders.

Instead of the new laundrette the council spent £25,000 on upgrading the wash-house, agreeing to keep the scrubbing stalls.

By June 1963 The Star had pictures of the improved building.

The paper gushed about its “rows of gleaming stainless steel washing machines, backed up by spin dryers and tumble dryers, set in attractive surroundings”, a far cry from “steam pipes and plain brick-faced walls”.

There was also a children’s play area with toys and a blackboard to keep then occupied.

It was meant to be a template for the other public wash-houses at Upperthorpe, Brightside, Heeley and Wincobank.

In 1980 the remaining wash-houses at Oakes Green, Upperthorpe, Heeley and Hyde Park were threatened with closure because of council budget cuts.

Protesters drew up a plan to save them, suggesting that they could close to the public for longer periods so that they could do more contract laundry.

They pointed out that new housing in Attercliffe would guarantee continued demand for Oakes Green.

One of the protest leaders, Barbara Knowles, said: “We are fighting for something we need. The council is taking away the only facility we have round here.”

Coun Roger Barton, a member of the recreation committee, admitted: “If we had known at the time that we would be faced with closure we wouldn’t have made the decision.”

A few years later the old Oakes Green wash-house building had been turned into enterprise workshops for new businesses.

Get in touch with Julia Armstrong at Retro if you have memories of the old Sheffield wash-houses.