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If Walls Could Talk: what did we do without bathrooms?

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Lucy Worsley Lucy Worsley | 11:24 UK time, Tuesday, 19 April 2011

When the BBC suggested that I temporarily leave my usual rather grand surroundings at Britain's Historic Royal Palaces, where I work as a curator, in order to present If Walls Could Talk: The History Of The Home, I was thrilled.

This BBC Four series explores the history of British homes at all levels in society, from peasant's cottage to palace.

The series started last week and its four episodes examine the living room, bathroom, bedroom and kitchen respectively.

We cover the whole period from the Normans to the present day, examining shifting attitudes to privacy, class, cleanliness and technology.

Episode two tells the story of the bathroom, the room with the shortest history as it only developed in the Victorian period.

Lucy Worsley - If Walls Could Talk

While making this film last March, I found myself shivering in a Georgian swimming costume (a long white linen shift, with lead weights sewn into its hem so that it wouldn't float up and reveal a lady's legs), about to take a freezing dip from Bognor Regis beach.

I was trying to imagine the Georgian urge to bathe in cold water - an urge that the Tudors and Stuarts before them had failed to feel. 

As well as enjoying a chilly sea dip as a presumed cure for infertility, constipation and impotence, the Georgians were the first people to bathe regularly at home. But they still had no separate bathrooms, and washed in tubs in a bedroom or kitchen. 

In cities the tub might be filled from the exciting new plumbed-in taps now to be found in Georgian basements.

The bathroom's laggardly development is one of the things that surprised me most about the home's history, and bizarrely it was society's attitudes towards personal hygiene rather than technology that set the pace. 

Despite Sir John Harrington building and writing a book about the flushing toilet in Elizabethan times, it wasn't until the 19th century that the flush became widespread.

For If Walls Could Talk, we spent several (very cold) months recreating different bits of historic domestic life - and every time I learned something new about what it was really like to live in the past. 

Episode two also reveals exactly how well urine works as a Tudor stain-remover, when bubble bath was invented, and even how Georgian ladies went to the loo (they used a jug rather like a gravy-boat - easy to use discreetly in a big hooped skirt). 

I even used Sir John Harrington's detailed instructions to build his 1590s design for a toilet. To my amazement, it really worked, successfully flushing down a handful of cherry tomatoes.

Having made this series, I see my own home with new eyes.  And when I look at my clean, convenient, cholera-free toilet - the john - I thank its namesake Sir John Harrington. 

Lucy Worsley is chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces and presenter of If Walls Could Talk: The History Of The Home.

Episode two, The Bathroom, is on Wednesday, 20 April at 9pm on BBC Four and 9.50pm on BBC HD.

For further programme times, please see the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    A fascinating series that I'm really enjoying watching. I'm particularly interested in the Victorian and Edwardian era and loved the recent series written by Jeremy Paxman. It's really pleasing to see more informative and entertaining historical programming - more please!

  • Comment number 2.

    May I say how much I am enjoying this series,very enlightening and well researched.
    Tonights episode was brilliant.

  • Comment number 3.

    been trying to leave a complimentary message for an hour now. have lost the will to live with the registering process so just to say well done Lucy. nice program. bye bye BBC web site, life is too short to bother with you again.

  • Comment number 4.

    I was thrilled to notice this series on the home by Lucy Worsley when we were away on holiday. I would have been quite likely to miss it when submerged my usual routine. I adore anything to do with the home. We all have one and how we view it, arrange it, use it, nurture it etc is eternally interesting to me. Lucy Worsley's delivery is particularly engaging and her enthusiasm infectious. I have ordered the book that accompanies the series just this evening and look forward to immersing myself in it all over again.

  • Comment number 5.

    now that my account FINALLY seems to be working I wanted to express that I'm a 31 year old who normally tunes into 'dave' or C4 and your program was fantastic. you made a potentially very boring subject fascinating. will defo tune into the rest. please make more documentaries before you go back to the day job!

  • Comment number 6.

    I agree with tommytrumpet's comment above. More series please!

  • Comment number 7.

    This is a fascinating series and i am thoroughly enjoying it! It may help that i have a bit of a crush on Lucy Worsley! (Blushes)

  • Comment number 8.

    Having watched If Walls Could Talk - Bathrooms yesterday, I was instantly reminded of a bathroom I 'knew' in 1965/66 whilst a student at the City of Birmingham College of Education, Edgbaston. The house in question (a college property at the time) was situated directly opposite the college in what I remember as Harborne Road. The house had belonged to one of the Birmingham car magnate families and was built in the 30s. The bathroom in question was enormous. There was a sunken bath that would accommodate 2 people and you went down about 3 steps into it - needless to say it took considerable time to fill. The whole room was clad with green marble and had chrome fittings. The walls were terrific - they were panelled with mirror and the panels could be swivelled! I guess this was the main bathroom. The other one I remember was fitted entirely with chrome and black marble, on a smaller scale but very chic and highly impracticle, but then I guess you had a maid to clean it.
    I wonder if this property still exists and if the bathrooms have been untouched?

  • Comment number 9.

    I've fallen for Lucy Worsley, what an incredibly engaging, vivacious and televisual teller of historical tales complete with her own hands on experience. Only the smells are missing! The reincarnation of "Jean Harlow" in last night's episode was wonderful and who can deny the stunningly beautiful transformation that we watched as Lucy visited the 1920's.
    This series with Lucy Worsley, along with Dan Snow and his Filthy Cities, is showing us just how history can and should be presented, with humour and a focus on how most of us actually lived, rather than just those with the power. Brilliant stuff. Thanks

  • Comment number 10.

    I love this programe and the presenter is just fantastic. I look foward to more educative programes like this. well done bbc

  • Comment number 11.

    I really must applaud the choice of Lucy to present If Walls could talk, not only is she holding down a very good job, for one so young, but she is a delight to watch!, so young, fresh and completely knowledgable about her subject, I look forward to see her as often as possible on my screen! Ralph

  • Comment number 12.

    What a wonderful interesting series and well done to lucy who tells the stories very well. i have learnt so much already in two series and cannnot wait to watch next week. well done BBC

  • Comment number 13.

    The bathroom episode was very, very good. Does anybody happen to know the name of the painting (probably within the bathroom at Claridge's), of the art deco lady about to step into the bath?

  • Comment number 14.

    I can only access BB 1 and 2 on my Dutch cable. But, a friend downloaded the first episode and shared it with me -- what a pleasure to watch.

    My big hope is that before too long BBC will rebroadcast this series on BBC 1 or 2 so I can legally enjoy all four episodes!!

    Here´s hoping.

  • Comment number 15.

    Very good series (so far). I happened to tune into the first episode and found it very informative and very well presented, it’s now on my weekly watch list.

    Lucy is an excellent presenter, very likeable and comes across very well and not too squeamish or prudish to get involved with some of the subjects shown up to now. (i.e: sewers, cleaning and looking frozen in the sea.)

    I have not seen her in any other programs before, but I think she could have a bright future ahead in presenting.


  • Comment number 16.

    Its facinating how the House has evolved over time.
    The British house and the Portugues house have evolved along the same lines and mostly the same time scales, this series is just confirming it for me,
    there are exceptions ofcourse our Bath rooms are still evolving , in some areas (rural, isolated areas mainly) many houses still lack that room, but with each generation thats changing, as the restore older houses and add that room to the building, usualy in ther ground floor ( many old houses in Portugal rural areas are 2 storied, the animals were kept in the ground floor to help warm the upper living areas)
    Excelent series, great presenter, fun to watch

  • Comment number 17.

    I found this programme very intresting indeed Lucy is an excellent presenter and is very intrested in the subject herself and is pleasure to watch

  • Comment number 18.

    What a fabulous series - Lucy's enthusiasm is just so contagious. My Grandma lived in a back to back house near Sheffield. She originally had a shallow stone sink with just a cold water tap, hot water was heated on the range. I remember helping my father in the 1960s to take out the sink and we fitted a stainless steel sink with an electric water heater that would whistle when the water was hot. She bathed in a tin bath; they had no bathroom. The bath would be set before the fire in the range. Bath night was usually on a Friday. The toilet was across the yard; there was one toilet for each house. I remember helping my grandfather to cut newspaper into squares then tread on to string to hang up for toilet paper.

  • Comment number 19.

    Lucy Worsley and her team are to be congratulated on what is turning out to be an excellent series. The range of topics covered and the new insights into domestic social history are quite outstanding.
    I thought the demonstration of the bourdaloue was charmingly done.

  • Comment number 20.

    I've managed to catch up with this series though have had to start with Episode 2 (Bathroom) as iPlayer wasn't showing me Episode 1! It looks very good and I quite enjoyed it and am looking forward to the rest of the series.

    I do have a slight "bone to pick". The idea that The Tudors didn't wash their bodies is not true.

    It is true that they were very proud of their linens being very clean etc, but that was not new. The medieval man and woman would have been just as keen to keep their linens clean and ensure they were washed frequently.

    Throughout the later medieval and the 16th century, children are exhorted to ensure they keep themselves clean. They were expected to wash their bodies, head to toe, twice a day: once when they got up and once when they went to bed. Teeth had to be cleaned, hair combed and clothing brushed and body linens washed.

    Before eating, hands has to be washed and would be again at the table so that all diners could see that everyone had washed. This became a formal part of dining with a finger bowl of scented water presented in turn to each diner starting with those of the highest status.

    All these instructions were presented in numerous books of courtesy or "manners" books - the forerunners of the Victorian Etiquette books.
    These books also provide information on the duties of upper servants such as stewards and pages.
    One such duty was to prepare a bath for the master when he has been travelling. These instructions are very detailed and include the bath itself being lined in linens, a stool placed within with a soft sponge on it and again covered in linen. Linen curtains placed around the bath and this have flowers pinned to them. Soap provided and towels laid out warming by the fire. There are towels for specific parts of the body - so towels just for the feet, and towels just for the body. Once the master has been bathed (with warm water), he must be dried properly and then dressed in a warmed linen shirt and then wrapped in warm linens and put to bed.

    This description shows that full body bathing WAS occuring but it was done when there was a reason such as after travelling which makes perfect sense when one remembers that people would get very dusty and possibly muddy when travelling.

    There are a plethora of receipt books that have recipes in them for soap of various types, many scented as well as "soap" for washing hair, scented toilet waters and perfumes. Writers in the period discuss fountains in formal gard

  • Comment number 21.

    (As my previous post was truncated, I'll finish off here again...)

    ....There are a plethora of receipt books that have recipes in them for soap of various types, many scented as well as "soap" for washing hair, scented toilet waters and perfumes. Writers in the period discuss fountains in formal gardens which were big enough for a number of people to bathe in.

    Shakespeare himself has Lady Macbeth talk about washing the blood off her hands using the basin which is in one corner of the bed chamber.

    Washing in the Tudor period was quite common and socially important. People did not want to be "smelly". They just could not wash in a fully immersive bath as frequently as we can now. As you, Lucy, experienced with filling a bath in the Victorian period by numerous bucket loads, its a hard job. It takes up time that the servants need to use for other tasks!

    Its just as easy to be fully washed by a large bowl and Ewer of water.

  • Comment number 22.

    I am a PhD student studying embodiment and public-private space. I would really like to get ahold of a transcript of the second episode of this program (The History of the Bathroom). I will continue to try to find a contact through the BBC website, but figured this was a good place to start. My e-mail address is [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 23.

    I don't think you mentioned on the programme that some houses had two or more toilets together, so you could be sociable as you performed your morning motion. Maybe the Edwardians weren't as prudish as the Victorians - or was that just my family?

    My grandfather lived in an old abbey, and he described the 'thunderboxes' that were emptied once a month by the servants, while the family went out for the day! I was interested to see that fully flushing toilets were available long before the turn of the century, and I wonder why they didn't have one. Maybe they were scared of the humours rising from the drains as you mentioned on the programme.

    Really enjoyed the programme, by the way, though my heart sank when Lucy went down into the sewers. I had recently watched Dan Snow doing the same. I could almost smell the stench!

    But I can remember camping in France and having to go in a hole in the ground - and that was only thirty years ago ...

  • Comment number 24.

    i love watching the programme but can i have a house plan of a typical georgian house plan thanks

  • Comment number 25.

    Love the programme! Lucy is fantastic - quirky and scrubs up well. :0)
    Please do some more programmes after this has finished.

    I missed episode 1 and cant find it anywhere on iplayer. When will it be repeated and if so when ?

  • Comment number 26.

    As BBC4 is a fairly new addition to our viewing programmes and not always watched (or the evening's broadcasts consulted on our EPG) so I was only introduced to this series with the bathroom episode.
    Thankfully I know my way around a PC and managed to download 'the living room' from another source. Iplayer doesn't work in Holland so I'm forced to bend a few rules until such time as the BBC bring the whole series out on DVD.
    This is such a great programme and far more compelling to watch than some of the other attempts at awakening our interest in history.
    I followed the series relating to both the Victorian and Edwardian eras but have to say Lucy has a way of bringing her knowledge and research not only into our living room but into my heart and soul.
    I'm an ex-pat and old enough to remember late 50's onwards and it's just thrilling to see some of the items my dear Mum threw away as soon as she could, replacing all our utility furniture with the plastic of the 60's. I hated brushed nylon sheets (coupled of course with nylon PJ's and nighties!) and saw sparks most nights when I went to bed:D I soon reverted to cotton and natural fibers once I left home and haven't ever looked back..... until I saw this program..... which in fact just re-enforced that I had made the right choices of bedding when aged only 19.
    I love entomology and giggle each time Lucy informs her viewers where this or that saying originates.
    I feel somewhat akin to a sponge and can't soak up enough.
    Such a shame the series only has 4 episodes.
    BBC should feel proud of themselves.... it's programmes like this which give them such a good name outside the UK.

  • Comment number 27.

    I must allow myself a second post now that the series is over! It more than realised my initial expectation and i enjoyed every episode! Lucy Worsley is a great find, and i hope the BBC allow her to apply her infectious enthusiasm to more British history!

  • Comment number 28.

    What an enjoyable and interesting series. Particularly outstanding - and in more ways than one! - was the codpiece worn by the Tudor kitchen 'boy'.


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