Dishing the Dirt

The Hidden Lives of House Cleaners

Nick Duerden,

Dishing the Dirt: The Hidden Lives of House Cleaners

'Succeeds brilliantly in dismantling casual assumptions about the drudgery of cleaning – and about the kinds of people who do it for a living.' – THE GUARDIAN

'A jaw-dropping investigation' – THE BOOKSELLER

'A great book, well researched, funny and poignant. I loved it.' – KIT DE WAAL

Dishing the Dirt tells the jaw-dropping stories of London’s house cleaners for the very first time.

We hear from immigrants who clean suburban family homes to butlers who manage the homes of the super wealthy, and from joyful cleaners and entrepreneurs to escaped victims of human trafficking.

Then there are women who dust nude and male cleaners who have to fight off wandering hands. And the crime scene cleaners.

With the revelation of Maid by Stephanie Land and the cleaning tips of Mrs Hinch's Hinch Yourself HappyDishing the Dirt will turn all of your assumptions about cleaners upside down.

About the Author

Nick Duerden is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, the Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph, the i paper, and GQ. His books include Exit Stage LeftGet Well Soon: Adventures in Alternative Healthcare, A Life Less Lonely, and The Smallest Things. He lives in London with his wife and two daughters.


Prologue. Clocking On

It was as if she were invisible, like she wasn’t even there. Or, perhaps more accurately, like she didn’t really count, not in any tangible sense, this mostly silent domestic cleaner with the broken English whose back was perpetually stooped over the vacuum cleaner, the dustpan and brush, the damp mop; someone who likely knew her way around the utility room better than the homeowners themselves.

Today, the wife was away on business, as she frequently was, but the husband wasn’t here alone. The marital bed was not empty.

‘A different woman,’ she says. ‘Younger.’

And he didn’t hide this from you, wasn’t embarrassed, ashamed of parading his affair so brazenly under your nose?

She shakes her head, and smiles tightly. ‘No,’ she says. ‘No.’

She was seemingly in his confidence, then, but not through any prior agreement, a finger to the side of the nose, and nor was he paying her for her silence, her implicit complicity. ‘I don’t think he even considered me,’ she says. ‘Or my reaction.’ She was merely part of the furniture, a once-weekly presence in the house who mutely got on with her work as she always did, over three floors, three bedrooms and two bathrooms: the vacuuming, the polishing, the dusting...


Domestic help, now so common, such a factor of everyday life, was once a comparative rarity in the UK, the preserve of the upper classes, those who lived upstairs and employed those who dwelt downstairs. By the early 1900s, the middle classes had begun to enjoy the benefits of cleaners, too, not merely because they also craved tidy homes that they did not have to toil over, but because employing domestic staff had become an indicator of status...

After World War Two, and the introduction of the welfare state in 1948, money was scarce and demand for cleaners evaporated. Throughout the 1950s and beyond, they became, once again, largely the preserve of the wealthy.

But the 1980s saw another shift. Increasingly, both husbands and wives were now required to go out to work, to pursue careers. This left little time for domestic upkeep, and if wives— traditionally the housekeepers—were too tired to vacuum after a long day at the office, their husbands were unlikely to step into the breach... Previously out-of-work women began to advertise themselves as cleaners. They brought their friends with them, their mothers and daughters. There was no shortage of willing char ladies. They advertised in the windows of local newsagents, and relied upon word-of-mouth. Business grew.

A generation on, cleaners began utilising the internet. Now anyone can find one at the click of a mouse, and many of us have done just that. Type ‘cleaners London’ into a search engine, and over 39 million results come up.

In the 21st Century, we are willing to delegate more, specifically to pay others to do the work we’d rather not do ourselves, even if we cannot really afford it. A wave of cheap immigrant labour entered the UK between 2000 and 2020, especially from the new EU member states in eastern Europe. Better to pay a Magda from Poland, say, £30 a week to run the Hoover around the house for a few hours than to save the money for a rainy day.


Those that clean for Londoners are a silent army. They bring order to our lives, they put out the bins, and relieve us of at least some of the myriad pressures of modern life. They are privy to our indiscretions, our peculiarities, our curious habits. They put up with us, which isn’t always easy because some of us are complicated souls.

But who are the members of these well-drilled regiments? What are their stories? Do they know that we talk about them when we are among ourselves—at dinner parties, at coffee mornings, at the school gates—and how much do we care that they, too, talk about us? If we are the prism through which they view their host nation, what conclusions do they draw? Do we make for decent employers, fair and kind, perhaps even generous? And if we are sometimes cruel, and talk down at them, why do we do that? Do we treat them fairly—or are they being taken advantage of?

If we asked them, what would they say?

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