The Royal Navy had many traditions, procedures, routines, organisations, but none transcended the act of nightly communal dhobying and showering followed by a change of uniform into 'night clothing', affecting every member of the crew.

Recently, we have witnessed the passing of Mary, the Mary of the Hong Kong side-party. She became famous because she took on a task (with her mainly female workers) sailors didn't like doing, namely to keep the ships side at 1 deck and below looking smart, clean, rust free and well painted right down to the water line so including the boot topping.  In the main, sailors maintained 01 deck upwards.  To those of us who served in Hong Kong, Mary was not only a 'saving grace' work-wise (even mine, but in black instead of grey for I was a submariner there), but had a choggie (naval speak for Chinese people) smile which illuminated Hong Kong and Kowloon together.  However, it has to be said that Mary was nothing but shrewd and  became a rich person whilst most of her peers were markedly poor.

It is not absolutely certain when Mary started her service to Hong Kong's dockyard, and after its demise, to the ships moored in the environs of HMS Tamar, but it is believed to date from the 1950 period more or less five years after Hong Kong bounced back from the Japanese occupation of the area.

However, her services do pre date the more profound yet unsung services of the inestimable value of the Chinese Laundry, which just about every warship came to value irrespective of where, geographically, it served.  If Mary provided a 'service' to the Royal Navy it was parochial, whereas the almost countless Hong Kong families afloat in HM Ships provided a service considered by many to be yet another branch, living, working and yes, fighting alongside the other more well known branches of seamen, engine room, electrical, S & S, communicators, aviators and Royal Marines. In short, the Chinese laundry in HM ships became indispensable.

So, if Mary and her side party pre dates the proverbial Chinese laundry, when did this service begin and as importantly, what service was in place before it did so ?

I can remember so well the Suez War in 1956 and being a member of the crew of a big ship namely the Flagship, HMS Tyne. She was berthed alongside in Port Said at the northern end of the canal and serviced not only the needs of the large crew, made so by having all the extra officers and men required to service the Flag, but also the needs of many shore based personnel, even including some elements of the army and the air force, and in addition many of the small vessels (minesweepers etc) present in the harbour.   Add to that, that Tyne had Egyptian senior officers as prisoners of war in her cells and spare officer cabins, and they too had their needs!  Tyne had a huge laundry and also a huge bakery providing clean clothes and bread rolls in the thousands for many who were engaged in this conflict.  Prior to joining Tyne, I had served in a small frigate for eighteen months with no laundry of any sort other than bathroom sinks and dhoby buckets. A couple of years after the Suez War, I gave up my bucket/wash basin/ laundry/and packet of DAZ dhoby dust (soap powder), swapping it all for a can of DAS (diesel after shave) when I joined submarines.

Many of you I know will have been to Cyprus, not too far away from the Suez Canal, whilst others would have visited Egypt or sailed East through the Canal heading for the sun of the Indian Ocean and beyond. All of you will recollect that the temperature in those climes, even in October/November, can be very high, and whilst pleasant dressed in shorts and tea shirt, it is unbearable when dressed in No 8's with full anti flash gear, and remember, in a ship with 1950 style air conditioning: my meaning here, is to suggest a ship circulating cooler air than ambient, and still bloody hot down below in enclosed and confined spaces. 

In such conditions, personal hygiene, dhobying of worn articles of kit and bedding,  is a prerequisite,  and even if the facilities are available, prickly heat, dhoby rash and other discomforts are still common place in such an operating environment.

In HMS Tyne, the laundry dealt with thousands of articles of kit from everything above the very personal articles like socks, handkerchiefs, underwear, and these included such items as hammocks, sheets and blankets (where used). This was the case in every large ship at this time, indeed all cruisers and above, with reduced laundry services in destroyers and below until just the ubiquitous 'dhoby bucket' was the only laundry available.  Obviously, all shore establishments had a laundry and pussers laundry chits were in use shortly after WW2. So who manned and ran these LAUNDRIES?  Answer, sailors from the crew. These were usually all volunteers, mainly from the stokers, the greenies, the seamen and Royal Marines branches/divisions, who like many others (butcher, fresh water tanky for example) were brown card ratings neither daymen or watchkeepers but full time special duties.

In approximately 1950/51 (certainly during the early part of the Korean War) the Admiralty ordered that spaces should be made available in HM Ships to be assigned and dedicated as permanent LAUNDRIES - HMS Tyne was also the Flagship for the Korean War.  Laundry machinery was designed or procured from well known manufacturers and for the first time in naval history, a laundry school was established at Devonport in HMS Drake. The whole process of washing, ironing and starching clothes which started from pragmatic experience very soon became a science and led to the appointment of the Laundry Officer.  In the early days, the Laundry Officer was an important appointment (not readily given to any old subby/junior officer) although later on in the story, and after the introduction of the Chinese Laundry, the appointment was ridiculed by the lower deck.

Many local orders were scripted to lay down the rules for these embryonic LAUNDRIES, being relevant to the type of machinery fitted, the crew borne and the number of laundry men engaged. By 1955, the very first BR (Book of Reference) BR 1277 had been issued to the Fleet sponsored by the Engineer-in-Chief's Department of the Admiralty called ''LAUNDRY MANUAL''.  The BR was dated 26 August 1955.  

Whilst doing one of my regular runs to the National Archives, I was able to get this BR, and because dhobying per se and laundry matters generally affect the whole of the crew, I thought it a fitting subject for a webpage.

In a moment, I am going to publish the content of the BR, but before I do just a quick note about the Laundry School in HMS Drake.  The Laundry School was just one of several schools within the main RNB at Devonport. It became known as the ''NAVAL JOURNEY'', and throughout units in the Fleet (which had a laundry),  a laundry man became known as 'Journeyman'.  Now, the definition of a 'Journeyman' is a person who has finished an apprenticeship and is qualified, but works for a person other than for himself. Clearly, a laundry man was not so well qualified, and in any event, in the navy, that description fitted well to an artificer or a mechanician.  The title, although coined to fit the nomenclature used in the naval laundry business was soon dropped, but for many years it meant that your dirty laundry would take a 'journey' through the cleaning processes and finish up all nice and clean the other end. That will become apparent in the contents of BR 1277 below.

For many years, ships based on Hong Kong and Singapore used laundry features offered by the locals.  This method ran in parallel with what was happening in the Fleet at large viz, RN Laundries.  Some of the larger ships which had LAUNDRIES fitted, stood down the RN laundrymen and in their place came local Chinese men often interrelated. At first, when such a ship had completed its 2 year commission and was due to return to the UK, the Chinese crew were landed and the RN 'dhoby Wallah's' resumed their task. However, as time passed, these Chinese crews would take passage to the UK and then transfer to a ship coming back to serve in the Far East. After a while, they became permanent in the RN, shifting ships when necessary as refits and long DED's occurred.  Moreover, the permanency soon saw them serving in ships in waters around the world, and that was the point, albeit piecemeal, when the RN stopped servicing their own LAUNDRIES. Remembering the piecemeal bit, by the early to mid 1960's Chinese laundrymen were the norm onboard RN surface ships.

I was amazed about what was involved in the RN laundry service and the BR tells all.  Different I agree, but worth a browse to recall names like Teepol, Bendix washing machines, detached stiff collars which I wore in the early 1960's with front and back stud, and the like. Some of it is really fascinating especially the Presses and Pressing section.  Get your wife to have a look at it and check that she is doing it properly - the pukker and pusser way !  Enjoy.

LAUNDRY MANUAL INTRO ADMIN AND ORG.pdf Washing machines in HM Ships and Fleet Shore Barracks.pdf Materials used in RN Laundries [Soap, bleach etc].pdf RN Laundries - The Washing Process.pdf
RN Laundries - Drying Equipments.pdf RN Laundries - Flat Ironing Machinery.pdf RN Laundries - Presses and Pressing.pdf RN Laundries - Collar and Dress Shirt Processing.pdf
RN Laundries - Racking & Packing Processed Articles.pdf RN Laundries - Decontamination of Clothing & Equipment.pdf RN Laundries - Appendix and Work Routines.pdf

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ROYAL NAVY CHINESE LAUNDRY WORKERS

  • Session: 1997-98
  • Date tabled: 23.07.1997
  • Primary sponsor: Hancock, Mike

Sponsors:

That this House notes with concern that loyal Chinese laundry workers who have been serving the Royal Navy for decades face having to accept draconian and appalling changes to their contracts of employment; condemns the ruthless way the laundry workers have been faced with the sack unless they accept the new contracts by Guernsey Ship Management Ltd.; and notes that if dismissed the workers would have to return to communist-controlled Hong Kong with no rights to stay in the United Kingdom despite their long service.