Skip to content

The World Of The Car Washes

January 27, 2017
by the gentle author

Mohaimenul Islam, Car Washer

Car washes come and go in the East End, opening up in vacant railway arches or disused petrol stations, enjoying a brief flowering and then vanishing as unexpectedly as they appeared. When Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie and I drove around in her (unwashed) car, we found several favourites had gone whilst others had sprung up overnight. Yet within the mutable world of the car washes, business goes on relentlessly, because as quickly as vehicles are cleaned, the traffic and the weather and the mud restore the necessity for it to be done all over again. Teams of men work ceaselessly in shifts, twenty-four hours a day, at a job that requires astounding stamina and patience.

It gives me the shivers just to imagine the lot of a car washer, working outside through the damp and cold of a London winter, so I was humbled by the goodwill that we encountered from these men, demonstrating resilience and tenacity in circumstances that few would envy. Arriving at T2 Car Wash under the railway arches at the Western extremity of Cable St, beneath the main line coming out of Fenchurch St Station, the car washers welcomed us into their cosy cubby hole off the main working area, a den where they enjoyed a bowl of porridge and watched satellite TV, toasting their toes by the heater during a rare break from the everlasting parade of taxis which pass through here night and day.

Yet once a vehicle pulled up, they were all over it with a preternatural dexterity and speed. Working in concert, they were spraying shampoo, mopping it with sponges – one in each hand – then rinsing it down and polishing it up with chamois leathers – again one  in each hand – until the customer received his charge back, gleaming and spotless. And then the car washers moved on to the next in line with undiminished enthusiasm. While one team attended to the exterior, others were hoovering and cleaning out the interior, and everyone worked round each other – like some elaborate dance in which the moves kept shifting as everyone accommodated to everyone else in the constant imperative to keep things moving. These men are expert at what they do and show grace, in demonstrating the warmth of mutual respect, and excelling in an endeavour which to others might be of little consequence.

All this spectacle takes place within a whitewashed arch lit by fluorescents, open to daylight at either end, where, in a glacial mist, every surface glistens with damp and the floor is awash with water and soap suds draining away through culverts. For the most part these men do not wear gloves, even working with wet sponges and wringing them out in cold water, but when I asked “Don’t you get cold?” – the answer was automatic – “We don’t feel the cold when we’re working, and when we’re not working we’re in by the heater.”

In each car wash, I sought human details – the Christmas baubles, or the plastic birds, or the bunting, or the odd chairs scattered around, or the newspaper cuttings stuck to the wall, indicating that the employees had taken possession of their space. Be aware, the car wash is an arena we entered as guests, because the car washers are rulers of their soapy domain and customers must understand the decorum and necessity which requires a retreat to the waiting room, or to use the facilities, or to stand outside, at a respectful distance from the centre of activity.

Alone in the den at the T2 Car Wash, a room excavated into the thickness of the old brick vault, where I was privileged to hover and warm myself, I realised that I had found the inner sanctum in which the car washers came to regroup, sitting upon the worn couch and old office chairs, wiling away the long dark nights and bolstering each other’s resolve to make it through another winter. In the face of this arduous repetitive work, a group of Ghanaians and Romanians had banded together to make the best of it under an arch in Cable St.

You might say that washing cars is a pointless activity since the vehicles get dirty again at once, yet, as with many human occupations, the nobility lies not in the nature of the task or even in the reward, but in the manner of its execution. And there on the wall in the den, I saw the medal for car washing, awarded to the team for the ever-growing number of customers each month, objective evidence – if it were ever necessary – of the otherwise unacknowledged heroism of the car washers of the East End.


The den

Rosoi Lucian

Working without gloves in winter

Kofi shows off the customer facilities

Car washers never cease work, twenty-four hours a day

Albani Cletesteanu

The champion car washers of Cable St

Wet boots and socks

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Anders Bellis permalink
    January 27, 2017

    Dear Gentle Author,

    several years ago, when I first visited the East End for real, staying at a hotel very close to a row of car washes, I had read a far earlier piece of yours – included in the book – about these same car washes. Ordinarily, I would hardly even have noticed these car washes, but having at that time read your close on lyrical account, I was fascinated and a bit touched when coming upon them. They became an interesting attraction, so to speak, and I took a number of photographs of them.

    This, among very many other things, is what you accomplish with your excellent blog. You make one realise that there are small wonders to behold in everyday life, small wonders that one would otherwise have missed.

    I am happy to wake up to another piece about the car washes this morning, and they are but one of very many examples of what you have made me, as a foreigner, notice in the East End of London.

    Thank you.

  2. January 27, 2017

    What a lovely and insightful story. So full of warmth despite the obviously challenging conditions. I am truly humbled.
    I also love the photography.

  3. tanya boyd permalink
    January 27, 2017

    Thank you for writing so eloquently about the car washers. This is the sort of social history I love reading about. Our local washers work incredibly hard which is so much better than the crazy brush machines at the garage, although using them in the seventies counted as childhood entertainment.

  4. Annette McCann permalink
    January 27, 2017

    I so enjoy reading Spitalfields Life, but this item really struck a chord with me. I found it particularly moving.
    Thanks for telling us about these guys. They are an inspiration.

  5. January 27, 2017

    Thank you for the post. There is indeed something very dignified about the men who do car-washing. Such hard work.

  6. January 27, 2017

    Thanks for transporting us to this specialized “under the radar” work environment, clearly full of hard-working, diligent and stalwart gents. The Gentle Author and photographer Sarah Ainslie have made “noticing” an Art. The world is full of wonders and insights, when we pay attention to our fellow man. Thanks for the awareness on this cold morning.

  7. Russell permalink
    January 27, 2017

    Wonderful story. It makes me want to go get my car washed and when I do, I’ll pay closer attention to the fellows doing the work. Thanks.

  8. Seth Egham permalink
    January 28, 2017

    A nice insight into these operations. They look like decent, hard-working guys. As a country cousin, though, I must wonder who is in control of these operations? Somehow, I don’t think that the fellas band together in co-operatives to buy the pressure washers, find and rent the sites, etc. Are there London car-wash wars, like the old Glasgow ice cream scene?

  9. John Rowe permalink
    January 28, 2017

    I think you are well on the way to becoming the Henry Mayhew of 21c London.

  10. Beryl Happe permalink
    January 29, 2017

    What a wonderful blog, I have oft admired the way these car washes have set up and taken over a job I always dreaded doing. Pure enterprise on their part.

  11. Rich Barnett permalink
    January 29, 2017

    A fantastic piece, and one worthy of any car magazine….

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS