A Victorian Spring Clean

As the days get longer and warmer throughout April, many of us will be doing a spring clean of our homes to freshen them up. We’ll throw open our windows, give the house a clean, sort out things that we’ve been putting off, and prepare ourselves for the summer. The people living in the Ironbridge Gorge during the Victorian era were no different; every year they would freshen up their homes after the long, cold winter months. The chimneys would be swept, clearing them of the soot and dirt that had built up from continuous winter fires, and the whole house and everything in it would be scrubbed and cleaned from top to bottom. Starting at the top of the house, all the furniture would be moved out of a room, thoroughly cleaned and polished and replaced. Any curtains or drapes would be washed and rehung, and painted walls would be washed whilst papered walls were gently brushed. Woodwork would be scrubbed, carpets and rugs would be taken outside and beaten, and any lamps or lighting would be thoroughly cleaned. This would be a formidable chore and anyone who could afford to hire in help would do so.

This photograph of Coalbrookdale at the end of the 19th century shows the smoke and soot produced by industry.

 spring cleaning would be a daunting task to the women of the Gorge (and it would be women who did any and all domestic cleaning), just a normal clean of a Victorian home would seem challenging to us today. The area was a much dirtier place with factories, furnaces and industry endlessly pumping out soot, smoke, and filth. In the home there was a continuous battle against this dirt which would be brought in by children playing in the muddy unpaved roads and family members who worked at local mines, factories and furnaces. Coal fires in the home produced soot and dirt, gas lighting gave off fumes that tarnished metals, and candles produced smells and smoke.

People fetching water from Bath Spring in Doseley at the end of the 19th century

As well as having to battle more dirt, the women of the Gorge also had to make do without all the labour saving gadgets we have today. Vacuum cleaners had been developed in the 1860s, but none of them were small enough or cheap enough for use in the home until after the Victorian era. All cleaning had to be done manually using an array of brushes, cloths, cleaning products and chemicals. Housekeeping manuals of the time suggested the basic ‘ingredients’ needed for cleaning the home were carbolic soap, metal polish, bicarbonate of soda, black lead, beeswax, turpentine, benzene, emery paper, and disinfectant. Many women were also starting to use mass-produced branded detergents at the end of the Victorian era, such as Sunlight and Lifebuoy soap. They were advertised as being more effective than anything else at cleaning and so would save the user time and labour. They became incredibly popular and could be found in almost every home. 

One thing that is remarkably absent is water. Most Victorian homes didn’t have indoor plumbing and any water used in cleaning had to be fetched from the local pump or spring. In the Gorge, some people had to travel a third of a mile for a bucket of water, which meant that they used it sparingly and only when really needed. So, how did Victorian women clean their homes with a few basic products and utensils and very little water?


As the Victorian era progressed and the working class in the Gorge had a greater standard of living, more and more were able to afford ornaments, decorative furniture, books, and soft furnishings. All of these collected dust and dirt meaning there was more to clean than ever before. All of these would be dusted with a soft cloth or, if it could be afforded, an ostrich feather duster. Ostrich feather dusters were very expensive but as the feathers had little barbs they picked up dust very effectively. If a feather duster couldn’t be afforded, then white bread might be used to collect up dust which had gotten into any hard to reach nooks and crannies. The bread would be pressed into a squidgy ball and pressed into the crevices of picture frames, skirting boards, along the covers and spines of books and anywhere else that couldn’t be got at with fingers or dusters.  

By the end of the Victorian era most of the working class could afford far more ornaments, furniture and soft furnishings than their parents or grandparents could at the start of the era. Whilst this may have meant their homes were nicer places to live it gave Victorian women far more to clean.

Cleaning the Floor 

Most of the dust that was removed from ornaments and surfaces would end up on the floor, which in a lot of working class homes would be tiled, wooden boards or paved stones. Damp tea leaves would be sprinkled on the floor to settle the dust before it was swept. Once the floors had been swept they would be scrubbed by hand using a scrubbing brush and a concoction of water and soda, which was very harsh on the hands, or some much more gentle soapy water. Floors could be scrubbed as much as twice a day. As one local remembered: 

I’ve seen my mother scrub ours twice a day, year in, year out sort of thing.  Because she used to do it in the morning.  Well then we used to come home from school, we used to be pittering and pattering, in and out, because there was no tarmac roads, you carried a lot of rubbish on your shoes.  And I’ve seen my mother set to and scrub the floor before my father come home from work.  And that was twice a day, and that was regular. 

If they were lucky, a working class household might be able to afford a small carpet or rug. This would also be sprinkled with damp tea leaves or bicarbonate of soda catch any dust or dirt lodged in the fibres and to remove any unpleasant smells like tobacco smoke. It would then be taken outside to be beaten with a carpet beater.  


Most Victorian furniture was made from wood and needed a deep polish every now and again to keep it in a good condition. Polishing wooden furniture was commonly referred to a ‘warming the wood’ in household manuals of the time. Most woods were polished with a furniture polish that could either be bought or made from a mixture of beeswax, vinegar and linseed oil. It would be applied with a rag or cloth and buffed out with a clean cloth. It was advised that the clean cloth was ironed, not for the sake of neatness but because a cloth that was ironed smooth left a better finish on the wood. 

Metal objects in the house would also need a good clean and polish to bring them to a gleaming shine. Brass doorknobs and letter boxes, metal ornaments and decorative furnishings, and any metal dinnerware would be given a good polish using whatever was appropriate. Brass could be cleaned and buffed up using a piece of leather, whilst copper cooking pans could be cleaned using silversand mixed with malt vinegar or lemon. This mixture would be gently rubbed into the pan to remove any burnt on food and to bring up a nice shine once the pans were clean. Even utilitarian objects like kitchen ranges and stoves would be polished every week using black lead.  


During a spring clean, curtains and drapes, bedding and linens and any other fabrics and soft furnishings that could be washed would be. Laundry was often cited as the most dreaded and hated of all the domestic tasks left to women in the Victorian era. There were no washing machines, tumble dryers or electric irons to make the process easy and simple. Everything had to be done by hand and the whole process was time consuming and exhausting. One local remembered  

“…my mother starting to wash when Dad went to work in the morning at half-past six, and I’ve seen her washing up to half-past seven, eight o’clock at night. 

First, water had to be collected from the nearest water source which was then heated in the copper (a large copper pan over a small fire). Once the water was warm, flakes of carbolic soap would be lathered into it and the hot soapy water would be put into a dolly tub with the dirty fabrics. Just like a modern washing machine, the laundry was cleaned by being churned forcefully in water. However, in the Victorian era this was done by hand using a dolly or a posser. A woman would normally have to dolly or posser vigorously for half an hour to get the dirt out before wringing the washing out using a mangle. The fabric would be forced between the rollers to remove any remaining dirt, soap, and excess water, and then put into a dolly tub with clean water for a rinse. Following a rinse the laundry was mangled again, then rinsed and mangled, and rinsed for a final third time. This time a little bit of blue dye would be added to the water as brightener, as it would make the whites appear whiter. Once the laundry had received its blue-dye rinse it would be put through the mangle one final time before being hung out to dry. This whole process would have to be repeated for however many loads of laundry the household had, and then everything would be ironed using flat irons heated on the kitchen range. 

Keeping a Victorian home clean was a constant challenge, and one that millions of women coped with throughout the era. As one local aptly put it: 

that was a woman’s life.  And keeping the house clean, having the children and all, I don’t know what the modern woman would think today if she’d got all that to do.  There’s no comparison. 

So as you give your home a spring clean using your vacuum cleaner, your washing machines and any other labour saving gadgets, give a thought to those Victorian women who spent their lives carrying out a daily ‘spring clean’ without any of the time and labour saving technology we have today. If you’re feeling brave, you could even have a go at using one or two of their techniques listed below. 

Removing Burnt Substances from Pans 

Put about 100ml of cider vinegar into the pan and pour in enough freshly boiled water to cover all the burnt-on substances. Leave to soak for an hour so before giving the pan a scrub, and anything burnt-on should be removed quite effortlessly. 

Cleaning windows 

Windows can be cleaned using just white vinegar and newspaper.  

Removing tarnish from silver 

Line a washing up bowl with aluminium foils and place the silver on top. Pour a cup of baking soda over the silver and pour enough very hot water into the bowl to cover the contents. When the water stops bubbling the silver will be ready to take out and hand wash as usual before giving it a polish. 

Furniture Polish Recipe 

Mrs Beeton provided the following recipe for a furniture polish: 

Ingredients: Equal proportions of linseed oil, turpentine, vinegar and spirits of wine [methylated spirits] 

Method: When used, shake the mixture well, and rub on the furniture with a piece of linen rag, and polish with a clean duster.  

Removing Stains From Enamel Pans 

Stains can be removed from enamel pans using stewed rhubarb. Put freshly boiled water and a stick of rhubarb in a pan and simmer over a low heat for ten minutes. Take the pan off the heat and leave the mixture in the pan for an hour or so. Afterwards give it a quick rinse and any stains should be removed. 

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