Soap, Empire, and Boarding in Brighton


By Sarah Alwin, PhD student at the University of Sheffield.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, soap was a scarce and humdrum item and washing a cursory activity at best. A few decades later, the manufacture of soap had burgeoned into an imperial commerce; Victorian cleaning rituals were peddled globally as the God-given sign of Britain’s evolutionary superiority, and soap was invested with magical, fetish powers.

The opening lines of Anne McClintock’s chapter ‘Soft-soaping Empire: Commodity Racism and Imperial Advertising’ in her provocative and extremely readable Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest make a connection between the growth of soap, washing, and the ideal of British superiority as a vindication for imperialism. This post uses the idea of washing as a starting point to tease out a different perspective on mid-twentieth century imperial relations.

In January 1958, my seventeen-year-old mother made the epic and mostly nauseating journey from Singapore to Brighton over three days to complete her schooling at the elite girls’ boarding school, Roedean. Her journey was mapped across the British Empire, and into Europe, with stops in Colombo, Bombay, Karachi, Bahrain, Rome, Paris and finally London. England itself, for my mum, and for my grandparents, was ‘invested with magical, fetish powers’. She and her two brothers were always destined to attend sixth form and university in England at immense cost to my grandparents despite the fact that the British had sent up excellent schools and highly-regarded universities in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. One of the oddest things she had to become accustomed to was the five-day roster to have a bath. When I asked her about this again recently, she wrote, ‘I was told we didn’t have to bathe every day in the UK as the cold climate prevented sweating. I suppose it might be true if you don’t have to participate in sports. I used to steal a bath after lights out, even though the water was no longer hot.’ This was a strange experience for my mum who had habitually had two showers a day in Singapore, and I am struck by the idea that she was told that it was okay not to wash every day. A little bit of the idea of ‘Britain’s evolutionary superiority’ was forever eroded at that moment, as she clearly did not believe that only washing on a five-day rotation was proper or hygienic. She commented dryly that the girls and some of the teachers seemed to be oblivious to their own fetid smells. My mum’s small act of rebellion against the imperial motherland was sneaking in to bathe at night.

Ania Loomba writes about the contradictory effects of colonialism: ‘One of the most striking contradictions about colonialism is that it both needs to “civilize” its “others”, and to fix them into perpetual “otherness”.’ My mother felt very ‘othered’ in Roedean. She was othered from her family and friends in Singapore. She was lonely and found the food, weather, and washing roster bewildering and unwelcoming. She was in a highly-privileged position, attending a school which was out of reach to all but the wealthiest families not only in Singapore but in Britain too. She said, ‘I was sent for the education, I came and suffered greatly. Everything was better at home: the food, the weather, the relationships. Everything was less artificial or at least less artificial-seeming at home.’ She clearly is not referring to physical suffering through the depravation that had taken its toll in post war Britain. She really means the emotional suffering of the othered subject, the colonised subject who is defamiliarised and isolated, and what is interesting is that the family legends, the passed-down anecdotes which depict this are all centered around washing and sometimes food.

The global pedaling of cleaning rituals that began in the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth which McClintock refers to had had a big impact on my mum’s daily routine as she grew up in Singapore. As exemplary subjects of the British Empire, the family bought into the cleansing ideal. The reality was that in Britain, the lack of hot water for daily showers on the south coast of England was also symbolic of the devastating cost of two world wars in the twentieth century and the ensuing economic desolation and eventual crumbling of Empire. The myth of ‘evolutionary superiority’ continues however to this day, with continued attempts to fix ex-colonies and their citizens into the ‘perpetual otherness’ that Loomba refers to. Today, my mother simply says, with some sadness, ‘Britain brought education, commerce and the sciences to its colonies in exchange for its wealth but it need not feel superior.’

My own research interrogates the othering effects of living in the colonies on colonisers, so the symmetry of my mother’s experience as a colonised subject othered in the imperial homeland is important in reminding me that otherness takes many forms and is dependent on experience, time, and viewpoint. The dream of Empire was compelling to the wealthy and aspirational colonised too, as they sought to soak up the ‘evolutionary superiority’ just as the colonisers sought to utilise the resources and strategic geographical location of the colonies. This was a delusion that proved murky and complex in the realities of relations between both colonised and colonisers.

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