All seated
round the tub

On 24 April, 1803, HMS Calcutta, the first British vessel to carry a consignment of convicts to Van Diemen’s Land, set out on her voyage to Australia. Among the 308 transported men on board were several who were to make their mark in the new colonies, John Fawkner, father of John Pascoe Fawkner, a founder of Melbourne, Francis Barnes, who printed the colony’s first newspaper, and, perhaps most remarkable of all, the forger, Grove, who after being condemned to death at Warwick, managed to get his sentence commuted to transportation for life by supplying the British government with interesting hints on the detection of forged Bank of England notes.

Thereafter he was treated with every consideration, driven to the Calcutta in a carriage, provided with a pleasant cabin which he was allowed to share with his wife and child, and left in peace to while away the voyage by teaching his four-year-old son to read from The Pilgrim’s Progress.

James Grove, whose wide-ranging talents, subtle wit and breathtaking cheek placed him in a class of his own.

On arriving in Van Diemen’s Land, Grove at once noticed a lack of any equivalent of the modern picture postcard. He dashed off the first recorded sketch of Hobart Town and was soon besieged by colonists wanting similar drawings to send home to friends and relations.

This was just the beginning. And in his spare moments, Grove established a soap-making operation. With his usual skill in ingratiating himself with the right people, he sent a presentation parcel of his best soap to the wife of Governor King in New South Wales.

Unhappily James Grove died young, dosed, some say, with arsenic by a jealous rival.

Unhappily James Grove died young, dosed, some say, with arsenic by a jealous rival. Had he survived, Hobart might have become the soapbowl of the southern hemisphere, as famous for its fine soaps as the European centres of Castile and Bologna had been in the past or the producers of Pears and Lifebuoy were to be in the future.

How did Grove pick up the art of soap-making? Perhaps, one day, glancing up from The Pilgrim’s Progress or a quick sketch of Mount Wellington, he noticed his wife doing something queer with wood ash and the fat of a kangaroo. Perhaps, searching through such books as he could find in the infant colony, he came upon the eighteenth century dictionary which states, ‘For black Soap, tis made with strong lye … and whale or fish-oil, commonly called 'Train-Oil’. Lots of soap-making lore like this was available in Grove’s time.

By the first decade of the nineteenthth century soap had been use in western Europe for a very long time. Basically soap is made by combining some kind of oil or fat with some alkaline substance such as potash or caustic soda. Some claim that it was invented by the Phoenicians around 600BC, others that the Tartars thought it up and that it came filtering into Europe with the caravans of merchandise that travelled the ancient trade routes from the East. (‘Have you tried our new yak-butter soap, madam? Matchless for the complexion!’)

The Romans spotted soap in the Teutonic regions. Pliny, the Roman historian, mentions soap (sapo) made by boiling goat fat with wood ashes, and the remains of a soap-factory have been found at Pompeii.

In England the Anglo-Saxons made soap. From their time onwards English records and works of literature are spattered with soapy references. Soap turns up in the York Minster Fabric Rolls of 1371, the fifteenth century Coventry Corpus Christi plays, and reports of cases heard in the Star Chamber in 1515. In 1592, the Elizabethan poet Thomas Lodge came up with the wise adage: ‘Who washeth the Asses eares, loseth both his sope and his Labour.’ By the 1640s soap, which could only be made under patent, was big business in London.

Despite all this, English soap was rather looked down upon by the connoisseur. It was Spain, Italy and Southern France, where olive oil and soda were readily obtainable, that came to been seen as producers of the finest and most delicate soap deluxe. In the soap houses of Lambeth and Westminster the usual ingredients were rather coarse—animal fats and lye, a caustic liquid produced by straining water through wood ash held in a sieve or ‘lye-dropper’. Yet English soap, right up until after the time of James Grove, remained expensive, a commodity reserved for the well-to-do.

Thrifty housewives made their own soap, but it was a fiddly business. Having made your lye, you had to boil it up until it reached exactly the right concentration for soap-making. Then you had to simmer it with the oil or melted fat and, after about three hours, throw in salt. This caused the mixture to separate into two layers—soap curd on top, brine and glycerol underneath. The curd was then creamed off into moulds, coloured according to taste—beetroot juice for pink, spinach for green, perfumed with herbs such as lavender and left to cool.

The poor fought shy of soap-making because they needed all the animal fats they could get for food and for their tallow candles and rushlights.

Sometimes they used herbs such as soapwort as a laundry aid. More often they did what people have done for centuries all over the world—trampled the wash in a tub of plain water, bashed it against the rocks in a stream or whacked it clean with a club known as a ‘beetle’. Occasionally they used lye on its own to whiten clothes, a practice which, in some areas, survived well into the twentieth century. In her account of growing up on Flinders Island in the 1920s and 30s, Ida West describes how she and her family carried water home from a well and then made lye with ashes to bleach their laundry.

In the late eighteenth century, soap-making took a great leap forward when a French chemist, Nicholas Leblanc, found a cheap way of making soda from brine. For a time though, the price of soap in Britain remained high and the stuff retained its sweet elusive scent of luxury—or so, one imagines, James Grove must have felt when he packed up a batch of his wares to send to Mrs King. He may also have realised that in the recent past soap had acquired other even more seductive qualities, exactly calculated to appeal to a Governor’s lady in a remote corner of the British Empire. It had taken on an odour of righteousness and was rapidly gaining the status of a civilising influence.

Christian literature is full of images of souls, spotted and stained with sin, washed and rendered pure by penitence and redemption

The conviction that dirt is linked with evil, and cleanliness with virtue is deeply ingrained in the culture of western Europe. Christian literature is full of images of souls, spotted and stained with sin, washed and rendered pure by penitence and redemption. Yet up until the late 1700s people seem to have been content to take all this in a figurative sense and, even when they could afford soap, saw no need to demonstrate the purity of their souls by constantly scrubbing their bodies.

Eighteenth century satirists, though often rather grubby men, were always poking fun at the fashionable lady’s tendency to use paint and false hair in preference to soap and water. ‘She drawls her words and waddles in her pace, Unwashed her hands, and much be snuffed her face,’ writes one.

Things started to change when John Wesley, in a sermon on dress, reminded his flock that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’. As Evangelical piety began to percolate through all classes of society, white linen, clean hands and well-scrubbed surroundings were seen more and more as evidences of virtue and respectability. The poor were divided into the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ according to the level of cleanliness they managed to achieve. Certain beggars, realising this, took to scrubbing their children.

As the missionary zeal for cleanliness tightened its grip, more and more philanthropists were advancing upon the lower classes with a Bible in one hand and a cake of soap in the other. Edwin Chadwick, born in 1800 and trained to wash himself daily, grew up to play a major role in reforming the Old Poor Law, motivated, according to G M Young, by ‘a desire to wash the people of England all over, every day, by administrative order’. Florence Nightingale, setting out for the Crimea, warned her nurses, ‘The strongest will be wanted at the wash-tub.’

There was a good deal of sense in this, of course. As the Industrial Revolution rolled on, the slums of the larger cities were rapidly becoming deathtraps, crammed with people living in indescribable filth.

The insanitary condition of the Crimean hospitals was doing more than the onslaughts of the enemy towards wiping out the British army. The trouble was, perhaps, that the British had started to equate soap with civilisation. They carried it all over the Empire. Missionaries were not content simply to convert the heathen. He or she had to be kept in a high state of cleanliness. Yet there were some who felt that there was something disagreeable about the feel of soapy things—something slippery.

They christened Bishop Wilberforce ‘Soapy Sam’ and took to equating flattery with soap. Even today a person who butters somebody up is sometimes said to be laying on soft soap.

One can’t help wondering whether Mrs King, on opening her present from Hobart, suspected for a moment that James Grove was adept not only at making soap but also at applying the soft variety.