The journal that eventually became LCN first appeared in 1885 when the industrial revolution was well under way.

Until the early 1800s laundry had been largely a cottage industry with private individuals providing a family run service from the home.

The advent of mechanisation quickly changed that situation and laundry services began to operate from purpose-built factories.

Virtually every small town in the UK had its own dedicated commercial steam laundry that collected household laundry door-to-door, using a horse and cart.

This remained a common way of collection and delivery until the mid-1920s when, as a young man, my father worked for Lambert’s Laundry in Deal, Kent.

Most of the staff were family members, with mothers and daughters vying for employment. Girls often worked from 14years old and laundry work was considered a well-respected professional career for a young woman. It was one of the most sought after trades for the middle and lower classes.

However, the industry was slow in adopting some of the new ideas that were being promoted. Laundries mainly handled domestic linen from the more affluent members of society. Many businesses still washed the linen by hand, dried it on a line and then finished it with gas or coal heated “float-irons”.

Woe-betide any young female that scorched the work or added any extra creases.

Wooden rotary washing machines were the first advance on the dolly washer and scrubbing board. Then all-metal washers were introduced in the early 1900s. These were supplied by companies such as Isaac Braithwaite of Kendal – the illustrations of the early machinery are reproduced from that company’s 1900 catalogue.

These early all-metal machines had a cast-iron casing and a brass inner basket.

The main washing ingredients at the time were tallow soap and soda ash and no self-respecting launderer would consider washing linen without at least a 15minutes boil.

This was because the tallow used had a high fatty acid content that was not fully reduced by the alkali until the textiles were boiled for some while.

Failure to achieve the right wash temperatures often resulted in a rancid fatty odour that could become quite unpleasant.

The laundry industry made little progress for a couple of generations as the First World War was followed by the depression of the 1920s. The main changes were the introduction of bigger and more productive machines and the emergence of specialist soap companies such as John Drury. These soap specialists produced pure soap with fewer free fatty acids and different titre soaps for handling white-work and lower temperature coloured items.

During this time laundries still largely relied upon the domestic trade with door-to-door collections – and, if they were lucky, the occasional hotel contract.

The period after the Second World War saw great social and economic changes and the laundry industry needed to react to these if it was to survive.

The domestic market began to decline rapidly, thus placing increased pressure on the launderer to maintain turnover. The industrial/commercial contract sector and the hospitality industry became important sources of business. Competition for this work was fierce leading to price cutting and also to the need to increase productivity with larger and more efficient machinery.

Typical washer capacities of 200 – 300lb dry weight were quickly increased to 600lb and some machines could handle volumes up to 1,000lb.

Ironers running at 80lb steam pressure to produce 20 – 30ft/minute were replaced with those operating at 100lb steam pressure producing 60 – 80ft/minute.

Business also changed as the textile rental concept emerged shortly after the war with the aim of preventing customers moving to a competitor. By 1980 this sector had a turnover of more than £200million per annum.

The post-war period saw big changes in laundry chemicals that had a long term effect on the industry. Petrol giant Shell launched Dobatex, the first synthetic detergent for laundry use. This idea was quickly snapped up by Lever Brothers and relaunched as Stella.

Other developments included the commercial availability of sodium metasilicate from companies such as Joseph Crossfields and the introduction of optical brightening agents or fluorescers. These were originally in liquid format – rather like the blue rinse historically supplied by Reckitts.

Many launderers at the time were making up their own stock solutions. Some entrepreneurs made their own soap by boiling fatty acid with caustic soda – a practice that led to the first fully-built products in the form of bags of pre-mixed soap and alkali.

However, the early products often went solid and needed breaking up as the moisture in the metasilicate crystals turned the soap into a congealed mass.

The first break-through came with the addition of fillers to the formulae to ensure that the mixture of soap, alkalis and other ingredients remained a free-flowing powder. The soap was soon replaced with detergent and in the late 1950s products such as Procter & Gamble’s Pierce were launched.

Machinery also changed significantly at this time. Manually unloading 300lb side-loading washers was labour intensive and “back breaking”, especially when handling starched table linen.

The work had to be placed in a trolley and staff then had to pick out the sodden items and load them into a hydro-extractor, a slow and expensive process

The first innovation was the end-loading washer, which allowed work to be unloaded at waist level and made the task quicker and easier. Next the hydro-extractor was built into the washer so the washer-extractor was born.

The introduction in the late 1960s of the continuous washing process represented an important development. Baker Perkins was one of the first manufacturers to produce such a machine, the forerunner of the continuous batch tunnel washer.

The first tunnel washer I saw and worked on was at Watford Steam. Michael Ross installed the Baker Perkins Streamline in September 1969. This was essentially a hollow cylinder with an Archimedean screw coil welded to the inside of the drum. The soiled linen was fed to the machine manually, one or two pieces at a time on a continuous basis. The speed at which work passed through the machine was controlled by the angle of tilt as the front of the machine was raised by a jack.

Around this time the Stones continuous washer was developed. This was attached to the front end of the ironer and operated on similar principles to the modern continuous roller towel washers. Spray jets wet, washed and rinsed the soiled sheets. However, this did not meet expectations and further development was abandoned.

These are just some of the stages in the development of the modern laundry industry. Now, 125 years on from the start of the commercial industry, the laundry is an automated, computer-controlled environment that can produce up to 160pieces per operator hour.

Radio frequency transponders can count, track and trace individual items from the time they are delivered to the laundry until the return to the customer.

Loads of work are automatically weighed and loaded at the right moment into computer-controlled washing machinery that has the water levels, temperature and chemicals levels critically and continually adjusted automatically.

The washers discharge each load and direct it to the tumbler where it is processed for the correct time before being sent to the relevant finishing department for ironing, folding and packing and the whole process is automated. Manual handling is minimal. Soiled work is sorted and classified manually but is not touched again until it is fed into the finishing equipment. The third and last manual contact is the user breaking the seal on the packed work.

The past 125 years have seen incredible changes to our industry. A business that once worked at just five pieces per operator hour and used up to 50 litres of water per kg dry linen now produces 160plus pieces per hour and uses 1 – 4litres of water per kg. Chemical use has reduced form 20g/kg to 2 – 5g/kg. Now as in the past, the need for greater efficiency in costs and in production has driven change and this will continue in the future.