The Steam Laundry

Mill Road History > Steam Laundry


In September 1891 the 25-year old Malling miller, Frank Stone, applied successfully to the Borough Council for permission to build a flour mill and bakery on the empty site on the corner of Mill Road and the main highway, where the flats now stand. The firm of Messrs Berry and Bussey of Malling Street erected the building, which later included a baker’s and confectioner’s shop.[24]

Eight years later he came up with a new scheme involving a new purpose for the premises. In 1899 Stone & Co issued a prospectus for the sale of 3000 shares at £1 each in a proposed company to establish a steam laundry. Stone was to retain 10% of the shares. The company would lease a 2-acre site comprising the 1891 flour mill building and an adjoining field, together with stabling and the right to take water from a well at Malling Mill. A well would subsequently be sunk on the laundry premises. The Company would have the option to buy within 5 years the whole of the Stone & Co premises: the laundry building, windmill and dwelling house (Mill House).

The prospectus emphasised the importance and benefits of modern laundries – better hygiene, support for the town’s economy and good working conditions:

“Of late years it has been generally recognised that a steam laundry, fitted with up to date machinery and appliances and run on hygienic principles, is an almost indispensable institution, and it is felt that such a laundry ….. will, by doing the work which has for years been sent to other towns, keep the money paid therefore in the town and thus tend to benefit its prosperity, and …. also by the fact that a good deal of Local Female Labour will be required, which will enable many workers who have for a long time done their work amidst disadvantageous surroundings to work under conditions far more pleasant and healthy …”. [25]

The same firm that had built the flour mill was contracted to convert the building.

Lewes Sanitary Steam Laundry, postcard posted 1911
Lewes Sanitary Steam Laundry. Postcard, posted 1911. East Sussex Record Office Ref AMS 6871/1/3


The laundry business was established in December 1900 and flourished: in 1902 trade was described as ‘beyond all expectations’. By that time Mr Castle Leaver of Brighton had bought the land on which the mill and the laundry stood and had bought the business from Frank Stone.

(William) Castle Leaver was born in Newhaven in 1861, the son of the proprietors of Albert School at Sussex Lodge, Newhaven, which stood at the top of the High Street until it was demolished in 1961. In the 1901 census he is described as ‘living on (his) own means’ at Villa Alsace, Waldegrave Road, Brighton. In 1890 he had married Elisa, an author and French national from Strasbourg, which presumably accounts for the name of their house. They appear to have had no children. By 1911 they occupied the grander, 12-roomed Alsace House in Surrenden Road, along with a housemaid and a cook. Castle Leaver died in Brighton in 1938.

In March 1902 Mr Leaver’s property was described for tax purposes thus: ‘(a) windmill which is very little used; a house worth £30 a year; stables; laundry started a year ago; this property stands on 1 and three quarter acres of grass land.’[26] Leaver leased the land to the laundry company, of which he was the managing director. The laundry also rented on a yearly tenancy land stretching along Malling Street as far as the Prince of Wales pub (now Horsman’s solicitors) from the trustees of the late Robert Hillman.[27]

An advertisement for the laundry in the 1902 edition of Pike’s Blue Book for Lewes, Seaford and Newhaven reads:

The premises are situated on the outskirts of the Borough and are fitted up with the finest and most approved machinery and appliances; the Company is therefore enabled to turn out and guarantee perfect work.

All linen is thoroughly aired before being delivered – special care is given to this important question.

The admirable position of the Laundry, with its well adapted drying fields, ensures a freshness, sweetness, healthiness and colour to the Linen unobtainable when dried in towns.

The Lewes (later East Sussex) Sanitary Steam Laundry Company was created in 1903 with a nominal capital of £6000 and with Castle Leaver as majority shareholder and Managing Director. The other directors were John Lade of Falmer and William Gates, solicitor, of 23 School Hill, Lewes.[28]

Receiving offices stood on the right hand side of Malling Street going out of town, between numbers 5 and 7, as well as in Newhaven, Seaford and Uckfield. These offices were used only to collect small parcels of laundry because horse-drawn vans called to collect direct from customers throughout the towns of the district.[29]

An inventory of the premises in January 1902 listed, among other items, a 6 horsepower horizontal engine, a vertical boiler and two horses to pull the vans.

The laundry building was extended in 1910 by the addition of a two-storey extension to the east side, which housed a ‘mess room’ (canteen) for the staff and a further store room. It appears that the work was begun without planning permission having been obtained from the Council. A letter of apology from Castle Leaver to the planning committee states that ‘it never entered my head that I had to submit plans’ and stresses that he, rather than the Company, had borne the expense and that the work had been carried out ‘for the better accommodation of the workers’. The Valuation Office Survey, conducted in December 1914, lists an ironing room and a staff mess room on the first floor and, on the ground floor, an office, washroom, mangling room, WC, engine house and boiler house. The stables comprised 3 horse stalls, a loose box, fodder store and staff room. The premises also included a harness room and a cart shed. The market value was assessed as £730.

A 30 feet high brick chimney was added in 1915 to replace the existing shaft, which was 16 feet nearer to the road.  A garage was added behind (to the east of) the laundry building in 1924. The plans for the new garage describe the land on the north side of Mill Road, the area currently occupied by The Lynchets and both sides of Church Lane as ‘arable land’.

Thomas J. Frampton Carter took over as Managing Director and Company Secretary in 1921. According to the trade directories, he lived at Mill House from November of that year until the late 1930s. He was Mayor of Lewes from 1929 to 1931.

Lewes Steam Laundry staff
The laundry staff outside the premises, Mr Frampton Carter at centre, undated photograph, East Sussex Record Office: AMS 6871/1/3

The fire

The Laundry building was destroyed by fire in the early morning of 18 January 1941. In one source at the ESRO the fire is described as having been caused by enemy bombing in the East Sussex Office record. However the contemporary newspaper report makes no mention of a bomb and there is no account of such an incident in the meticulous police records of the time.[30] It therefore seems highly unlikely that the laundry’s destruction was the responsibility of the Luftwaffe, although the newspaper account advances no suggestion of what might have caused it. R. A. Elliston claims that it was later established to have been caused by an electrical fault.[31]

Only the walls remained after the fire; the interior and the roof were gutted. It was the last large fire attended by Lewes Fire Brigade: all brigades were merged to form a wartime National Fire Service in August 1941 and then re-organised into county brigades in 1948. The Brigade attended promptly when the alarm was raised at 1.32 am. The alarm was raised so late because, owing to blackout regulations, the fire did not become visible until flames burst through the widows. Serious damage was prevented from spreading to the adjoining garage, which contained soap and other materials. The fire was brought under control in about an hour. Three quarters of the customers’ items were destroyed, although the safe and the cabinets in the office were saved.

The fire spelled the end for the East Sussex Laundry. The Wick Laundry at Hove stepped in to provide an emergency service for customers and eventually bought the business outright.

It proved impossible to save the main building, although the site is still marked as East Sussex Laundry on the 1950 edition of the OS map. And for many years after that the bus stop at the bottom of Mill Road was known as ‘The Laundry’.

The fire achieved some national significance. The Council took the Laundry Company to court because no firewatcher had been on duty at the time of the fire, as required by the Fire Watching (Business Premises) Act. The prosecution failed because the court found that, while the Act obliged the Company to maintain a rota of fire watchers during the hours when the premises were closed, the owners were not responsible for ensuring that the rota was implemented. The Home Office subsequently amended the order to close this loophole.[32]

Lewes Sanitary Stream Laundry building after the fire, 1941
After the fire, January 1941. East Sussex Record Office: AMS 6871/1/3

After the fire

The laundry site stood empty for several years following the fire. The Council demolished the buildings and levelled the site in 1950, following a letter from Sir Frank Sanderson at Malling Deanery complaining about the unsightly condition of the outer walls.[33] At some point, which I have as yet been unable to identify precisely, it passed into the possession of Lewes Borough Council. Lewes Borough Council Housing Committee minutes indicate that the Council acquired several acres of land at Mill Field shortly after the War for the Lynchets housing estate, so perhaps the former laundry site was included in that purchase.[34]

The Flats

There were several proposals for developing the old laundry site in the immediate post-war years, including plans for shops and landscaped gardens. By 1953 the Council’s preferred option was to build two houses and a bus shelter, but these plans were deferred. In 1956 the Council was considering building 8 garages on the site for the use of its tenants at the nearby Lynchets estate. The site was considered inappropriate for housing because of the high cost that would be incurred owing to the great difference in levels between the laundry and the surrounding ground; the length of drain required to connect it to the nearest sewer; and the need to insulate any building from the adjacent electricity transformer.[35]

However, in October 1957 an official from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government visited the site and suggested the Council consider building a two-storey L-shaped block of six flats with three garages to the rear, behind the transformer. Accordingly, the Council adopted a scheme for one two-bedroom and five single-bedroom flats, which the Ministry approved in January 1958. In October, Ringmer Building Works won the £9240 contract, which was to include the supply of a cooker to each flat. The flats were designated to be occupied by elderly people.

In January 1959 the Ministry agreed to pay the Council an annual subsidy of £22.1.0 for each flat for a period of 60 years, provided they were used directly or indirectly for slum clearance purposes.

Perhaps thanks to the unusually fine weather that summer, the building work was completed three weeks ahead of schedule on 15 October 1959. All but one of the first tenants were reallocated from what the Council considered under-occupied 3-bedroom properties in the town and the Council paid their ‘reasonable removal expenses’.

The Flats, 1-11 Mill Road and the Laundry bus stop, Lewes, 2019
Numbers 1 to 11 Mill Road and the ‘Laundry’ bus stop, 2019

[24] East Sussex Record Office: DL/A 25/81

[25] East Sussex Record Offic

[26] East Sussex Record Office: ACC 4113/4/93

[27] Valuation Office Survey field book, Dec. 1914

[28] East Sussex Record Office: ACC 4113/4/93

[29] East Sussex Record Office: ACC 4113/4/93

[30] East Sussex Record Office: AP/A/2/21/1/2

[31] R. A. Elliston, Lewes at War, 1999

[32] R. A. Elliston, ibid

[33] East Sussex Record Office: DL/D/169/11

[34] East Sussex Record Office: DL/D/169/11-12

[35] East Sussex Record Office: DL/D/169/3