The post for the washing-line, once common on every village green.

The washing-line post, once common on every village green.

Mention of Nuneham has elicited a query from Mr B of Tiverton as to the origin of the washing-line.

It is true that, as John Parkinson reported, earlier generations had used small trees and bushes to hang their washing on to dry. Alternatively, and particularly for bleaching, the cloth was spread on rack meadows and hills (Chalford, Bibury, Quarry Bank Mill, the hills around Leeds, so white it was as if snow had fallen). It is also true that the garden at Nuneham had been a drying ground, celebrated as such by William Whitehead in the Gilbertian verses that he put into the mouths of the ‘laundry-maids at Nuneham’: ‘… our small things shall dangle on strings/ From tuberose tops and lilies…’. I do not see how clothes could have been spread to dry  over graduated herbaceous planting, but on the other hand Whitehead also proposed that the washing would be hung from the small trees in the garden (‘Our lines shall grace laburnums’), which shows at least that the use of lines had been contemplated there – the laundry itself was built by the 1st Earl Harcourt to spite his son, Lord Nuneham, who first made the garden.

Whitehead’s is the earliest reference that I know to a washing line and it may be that we should celebrate the flower garden at Nuneham not only for its original style but also for its innovatory treatment of washing. Might it not be the case that the need to accommodate washing lines generated its novel arrangement of flowers and island beds? Certainly the invention of the washing-line was to revolutionise planting around houses and make room in time for the herbaceous border.