Washing places

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A lavoir

This article by Joan Stevens first appeared in Jersey Topic magazine in 1966 as one of a series on aspects of Jersey houses

Importance of water

For our ancestors the availability of water was one of the most important aspects of life, and houses were sited with this in mind. This is testified by place names, and the frequent occurrence in manuscripts of affairs concerning springs, streams, wells and pumps.

How did people wash their clothes a hundred, or more, years ago? How fortunate we are nowadays with all the inventions we have to assist us. Washing out of doors, in cold water, is never, I think, done now in Jersey, although it did occur not so many years ago. In Normandy outdoor washing places are still used, and a lady there told me that, although she now has an electric washing machine, she still prefers to rinse in the lavoir and she pointed out, only too accurately, that one could rinse far more thoroughly in clean running water, than by putting everything into one tub to rinse.

Family washing places

In Jersey the family wash used to he done in some nearby stream, the clothes being rubbed on flat stones. These washing places were, and still are, called douets a laver by local people, but were referred to as lavoirs in official documents.

The word varvot is sometimes used, but incorrectly. Field names such as Le Cotil de la Lavanderie, in St Martin, and Le Jardin de la Laverie in St Ouen, must have the same meaning as lavoir, and there is a mention in the sale of a house in Charing Cross in 1800 of a laverie belonging to it, no doubt situated on the stream which ran there.

It was a matter of great importance that these washing places should be kept in good condition, with the water flowing freely, and that the path leading there should not be obstructed. Such matters often appear in contemporary documents.

A lavoir might be a private one, to which only one household had access, or it might be a communal one to which several nearby householders had the right - le droit au doubt.

The most interesting example to survive is that at St Cyr, on Rue des Chenolles, in St John. The recorded history of this example goes back to 1629, and the right of neighbours to use it occurs in documents of various dates,

Evidently it must have been allowed to fall into disrepair, for in 1813 the interested parties rebuilt it in the form which can now be seen, and they put by it a stone inscribed with the names, in syllabic initialling, of the 18 householders who had the right to use it. This stone, which looks somewhat like a tombstone, is headed Noms des personnes ci-dessus qui ont droit au Douet et qui l’ont fait reédifier dans l’année 1813.

Another similar one, dated 1832, is Le Douet Fleury in St Martin, which has the names of 13 neighbours who evidently had a similar privilege, though they have not explained it so clearly. In both cases it has been possible to identify nearly all the initials, if not with certainty, at least with probability.

Another example at St Peter, just south of the church, has now disappeared, but there is evidence that it existed in 1637, and that in 1742, 22 persons had the right to use it. The document of 1637 stresses how "necessary and useful" the lavoir and fountain were for the use of the public of the near vicinity.

Private lavoirs

A few private lavoirs are known. One had to be demolished in recent years at Old Bagot Manor Farm, and it had a stone dated 1637, a year when Philippe Messervy is known to have done some rebuilding to his manor. In this instance the actual washing place was roofed over.

Another similarly roofed, but much later in date, and in excellent condition, is at Le Douet, St John. Another, again in perfect condition. is on tne main road at Old Farm, St Clement There is also one at La Place, St Ouen.

These are just a few examples, and there may be many others not recorded. In some cases they are humbler and simpler than those described, but have as much right to be recognised.

An abreuvoir is different; it is a place for watering animals. These may also be very simple, just an area where a farmer or group of farmers arranged a place at a spring or stream where the horses and cattle could conveniently drink. Later, some 80 or so years ago, many public abreuvoirs were constructed, mainly for horses, no doubt, and these can be seen by the roadside in many places.

It would be interesting if some keen student were to catalogue them, marking them on a map, recording details, and taking photos where they are especially interesting. For instance one on La Marquanderie Hill in St Brelade has the water flowing from a cow’s mouth, and one at St Catherine has a lion’s head.

There are public fountains, too, and the greatest boon they must have been in days when no one had thought of piped water. There is a fine one near Grouville Church, and another on Route du Marais in St Ouen. These would also make an interesting study.

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