The forerunner of the laundrette was the 'bagwash'. It appears to have been common in the 1940s and possibly before but to have disappeared by the mid 1960s as laundrettes became increasingly common.
I have spoken to a number of people who remember the bagwash and have come to the conclusion that it differed in detail in different parts of the country and as time went by. More of this later but first what all bagwashes had in common.
Everyone who has spoken to me about their recollections of the bagwash agrees that it was a means of washing fairly heavyweight white items, never coloureds. The items to be washed were put into a bag which was supplied by the bagwash company, washed by the company and returned to the household in the same bag while still damp. In this latter respect, the bagwash differed from a conventional laundry which returned items washed, ironed and aired.
Because the washing stayed in its bag, the items inside never got separated so never got lost. Conventional laundries which did handle items separately had to mark every one of them. This was normally with a customer number, known as a laundry mark, attached either with a tape which was sewn on or with a stamp. The ink was indelible and even remained so after numerous washes.
There was disagreement about how the bag reached the bagwash company. Some people remembered that it was the job of a member of the family, often an older child, to take the bag to a bagwash shop in the high street and collect it from there later. Other recollections are that the bag was collected and returned by van. Possibly in some places both were options.
None of the people I spoke to actually saw the washing being washed, but most of them felt certain that it was washed in its bag and that washing meant boiling - at least in the early years of the bagwash. This seems reasonable as in the days before washing machines it was customary for women who did their own washing to boil and rinse their whites rather than actually wash them. The action of boiling with soap and soda did the cleaning. So it seems likely that the bagwash company had a large copper in which it boiled then rinsed a number of bags together.
As laundrettes came onto the scene, the bagwash process probably started using laundrette-style washing machines and spin dryers. In some cases it seems that the bag of dirty washing was emptied into its own washing machine, along with its bag and then refilled afterwards.
Some people told me that the returned washing smelled of bleach, so probably bleach was put into the final rinse. Maybe this was an option. I wonder if the bluebag was also used.
The bagwash bag seems to have been made of a fairly sturdy thick cotton or linen which was permanently marked with a name or number which identified the owner.