Lavoirs, or wash-houses, are features of the landscape around here. In times past, this is where the women (naturally…) did their laundry. They were normally constructed by a spring or a stream, so if the women were lucky, there was one in their village or hamlet. If they weren’t, they had to go some distance to the nearest one. This explains why some of them are sited in places far off the beaten track.
Doing the laundry in times past
The lavoir normally consisted of a pool or a stone reservoir into which the spring flowed. Sometimes it was roofed but open to the sides, so it must have been jolly cold in the winter. Doing the laundry was a time-consuming, uncomfortable and tiring task, but the lavoirs were places where women congregated and exchanged news and gossip. They were part of the social fabric of rural France. Here are a few examples in our area:
Many of the lavoirs you see in this region date back several centuries. However, the one in Caylus is much younger. The conseil municipal decided to construct one in 1922 and it was completed in 1925. Before that, it’s not clear where women did their washing. Perhaps they went down to the River Bonnette at the bottom of the village. The lavoir’s iron structure is unique, certainly in the region, and makes it look at bit like a bandstand.
Unusually, this lavoir was not supplied from a natural water source, but from the village’s drinking water network, which had been updated a decade earlier. Local people say that the lavoir was in use up until the 1960s.
By the first decade of this century, the building had fallen into disrepair and was potentially dangerous. The roof structure also contained asbestos, which needed to be removed. Enter Association Caylus Notre Village (CNV), one of whose priorities has been to have the lavoir restored. The work began a few months ago. The concrete basins have been removed, the floor levelled and the surrounding walls made good. The iron structure is currently undergoing repair and restoration.
The association’s former chairman, Jean-Paul Krintz, sadly died recently. He had taken a less active role in recent years, but could often be seen around the village with his camera. He took many of the photos before and during the restoration that are on the CNV website.
I met him in the Saturday market, held on the car park next to the lavoir, not long before he died. Jean-Paul told me that the lavoir was in use when he was a boy.
“My mates and I used to love playing in there,” he said. “We got under the ladies’ feet, so they splashed us with water to try to get rid of us!”
To finish, a lavoir joke (translated by me from the French). I can’t remember where I got this, but it might have been from Jean-Paul Krintz.
An elderly village priest didn’t want the local women to tell him during confession that they had been unfaithful to their husbands. Instead, when they had committed adultery they had to say, “Monsieur le curé, I’ve fallen in the lavoir.”
One day, a young priest arrived to replace the older one, who told him about village life and what went on. The day of confession arrived. A particular phrase kept cropping up: “Monsieur le curé, I’ve fallen in the lavoir.”
After a few weeks, the young priest went to see the mayor to request that he carry out work on the lavoir to avoid these recurring accidents. The mayor, who was fully aware of the famous phrase, patted him on the shoulder and reassured him, saying that it wasn’t serious and no one had ever been injured. The young priest replied, “If I were you, I would get this work done as soon as possible, since your wife fell in three times last week.”
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