Clearing crime scenes is just part of the job for Sarah Southworth and her unusual business.
But Sarah Southworth has made a career out of doing just that, to help others in the most desperate and traumatic of times.
The 45-year-old began cleaning and ironing to pay the bills, after being left alone to care for her two young sons, Luke and Nathan, when her partner died suddenly.
She now runs a cleaning business that specialises in cleaning empty properties, crime scenes, and properties where people have died, and believes her tragic experiences have helped her understand and empathise with sad situations.
“I genuinely go into a property and I do think about the person who has died or the family left behind,” says Sarah, who now lives in Samlesbury. “I don’t know if it’s because of what I’ve been through, thinking ‘That poor person, I know what they feel like’, but I genuinely care about people.”
Sarah grew up in Leyland, but rebelled against her parents and would often run away from home.
She was thrown out at 17, moving into a bedsit in Avenham, Preston, before falling pregnant and moving into a house in Clayton Brook with partner Phil.
She recalls: “We struggled, we had no money, we had nothing.”
And things took a devastating turn when Phil, who had suffered from depression, died suddenly.
Remembering back 20 years, Sarah says: “My life was completely horrendous.
“I had two little kids, I was off work trying to cope with everything, I lost all my family and friends, everyone. Everyone just turned their back on me.”
Sarah returned to work for a company in Bamber Bridge, but left after a disagreement.
She says: “There was an advert in the paper for ironing from home at £3 an hour. I took some ironing on and I put an advert in a shop for cleaning and got my first customer in Clayton Brook for £5 an hour. All of a sudden it just spread and I got a full week’s work.”
Sarah quickly secured regular clients, and spent years cleaning and ironing full time.
She moved to Samlesbury in 1999, and she and husband Mick married in 2005.
Sarah was contacted by a company that maintained social housing, and took on work cleaning for them, and later for a similar company in Manchester who offered her their whole cleaning contract.
She remembers: “It snowballed from there. All the work I’ve got is all through word of mouth, I’ve never advertised my company.”
Specialised Cleaning Services, which is based in Roman Way in Preston, but has clients across the North West, grew 40 per cent in 2013 and was expected to turn over £800,000 by the end of last year.
Sarah explains: “The bulk of our work are voids, like when someone moves out of a housing association property. If it’s full of stuff, we will go and clear it out and do the garden and clean the property before the new tenants move in.
“We clean up after dead bodies if somebody hasn’t been found for months. To somebody who has never done a job like that it’s gory and not very nice and it smells awful. But I find it fascinating, I enjoy it.”
Sarah says her experiences have taught her to be caring towards those faced with awful circumstances.
She says: “I went to do one where an old lady’s house had been burgled, and she was dead in the kitchen when they broke in. It looked like she had been shopping, dropped her shopping at the door, gone into the kitchen and dropped dead.
“When I went in I noticed the shopping was there and there was some food that had gone off, so she must have been there a while.
“The first thing I thought was a family member or close friend would have walked in and realised she had been lying there all that time, so I took that out so they wouldn’t see it. It’s taking that time to be a little bit thoughtful.”
Sarah and her team also work to clear crime scenes, and can be called by police to help.
She says: “To me, they are just all the same. With the crimes you know you’re going to be faced with something quite bad with lots of blood, but I find it fascinating.
“I think, it’s just a job and I’ve got to go and do it. Obviously it’s sad if someone has been murdered or someone has died, but you can’t dwell on that or else you wouldn’t get anything done.”
Sarah’s company works with hoarders, and people whose homes are in desperate need of cleaning.
She says: “I’ve done jobs where people have been in this situation and can’t afford to pay hundreds of pounds, so I will charge them what I think is suitable for what I’ve done.
“I’ve got people beds who haven’t even had beds, because it’s all about helping people.
“I’ve been in the situation where I’ve had nowhere to live, I’ve had nothing to sleep on, and I’ve had nothing in the cupboard to eat and I just love helping people. It doesn’t cost anything to help.”
Sarah’s achievements and dedication helped her win business woman of the year at the 2012 Eva awards, and she was also highly commended in the inspirational women category in 2013.
But she says: “I still see myself as Sarah the cleaner, I don’t see myself as Sarah who owns a company, which I don’t think is a bad thing because I’m quite grounded.”
Sarah says she couldn’t have achieved all she has without the support of her husband. She says: “When you look back 20 years ago to what happened when I first met him, so many people would have run away from that. But he has stood by us all, he’s been brilliant.
“I was in such a lonely place at the time, I had nobody to turn to except him. But you’ve got to look at the good that’s come out of it.”