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


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.

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.


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