A Private Function

Nicola wenchmark Nicola here, talking a little about historical concepts of privacy. The idea came to me this weekend when I was showing a group of visitors around Ashdown House. We were discussing the layout of the bedrooms and the fact that there are no inter-connecting doors between them and someone pointed out how unusual that was in a relatively grand 17th century house. As historian Lucy Worsley commented recently in a fabulous BBC TV series, If Walls Could Talk, most of our ancestors were accustomed to living far more communally than we are now. Sharing living space was the norm and privacy was a luxury.


Back in the Middle Ages almost everyone would eat and sleep in one room. This applied whether you were a peasant in a single-roomed cottage or part of a grand household. In the Great Hall of a manor servants would sleep on a sack stuffed full of straw – hence the phrases "hitting the sack" or "hitting the hay." Before pillows were invented they would lay their heads on a log of wood. Hardy folk. The master and mistress had a private room above the hall from where they could literally look down on their household below. This private chamber was a sign of status, privacy and status being inextricably linked. But even then you wouldn't really have the sort of privacy we take for granted now. The chamber would be shared with the rest of the family, with servants and animals (I guess the animal bit still happens quite a lot these days!) A proper bed as we know it was very expensive, carved from wood and with costly hangings. It was another sign of status, hence the fact that people often took their own bed with them when they travelled.

By the 16th century the "middling" sort of people, a yeoman farmer and his wife, Tudor cottage for example, would have their own upstairs chamber with a bed that might be the equivalent in value of a third of their worldly goods. The room would also contain a chest and a rod for the hanging of clothes. It would also contain the children and a servant or two. The bedroom was a social room up until the 18th century; it was the place where you might receive guests, hold events and you could even get married there! 

Bedroom - first floor NW A house like Ashdown, built in the 17th century, would more normally have had a series of inter-connecting bedrooms. (The picture on the left is one of the bedrooms at Ashdown). So whilst you might have your own room you would be accustomed to people tramping through it to reach their chamber. This was also the case in cottages. When were moved out of London 20 years ago I fancied living in a 17th century country cottage. I lost count of the number of houses that had one bedroom which could only be reached by walking through another one. The only privacy would be found behind your bed hangings. 

 It was in the Georgian period that the servants were finally banished from the bedroom, into the attics Servants bell or the basement or possibly even separate quarters, necessitating the invention of the bell to call them back again when you needed them! From that point the bedroom became a luxurious use of personal space. In the grand houses the idea of a vista of state apartments also fell out of fashion. By the nineteenth century the aim was very much for privacy.


The bathroom is the room of the house that has taken the longest to evolve and washing, like eating and sleeping, was for many centuries a communal activity (if it happened at all.) I was fascinated to learn from Lucy Worsley's programme that in the Middle Ages the urban population of Britain was very keen on washing. No unwashed peasants here! Every city had communal bath houses, a fashion established by the knights returning from the crusades bringing with them the idea of the steam bath. It sounds delightful; the steam was mixed with spices and herbs in the water and after the steam you would rinse yourself in rose water. London bath houses were the most sophisticated in the country. In addition to bathing they offered musical entertainment, a haircut, a shave and even a meal. But there were problems; bathing was communal and mixed and it was not long before the public bath houses gained a reputation for immorality.

Georgian Square By the end of the sixteenth century, washing oneself had fallen out of fashion as an urban habit. There was no clean fresh water in the crowded Tudor cities and medical opinion of the day believed that one could absorb sickness through the skin. Instead of washing the person, the upper classes wore white linen next to the skin to soak up the dirt and sweat. Eventually in the seventeenth century a way was found to pipe fresh water into the cities through pipes made of elm. Lead attachments took the water from these pipes into the houses. But only if you paid, of course. This system was so efficient that it was still in use in the Georgian period. This has interesting implications for books set in the London in the Georgian era. The streets and squares were crowded with not only carriages and people but up to nine water pipes above ground! You could have trouble manoeuvring your carriage past all that. And water was not available each and every day. Different streets had different  "Water Days." When it was your turn for the water you would fill up every receptacle you could find to last you until the next water day.

The water was piped into the basement where it was a servant's job – assuming you had one – to carry itGeorgian wash stand  upstairs for the family to use. Here, again in the Georgian era, we see the birth of the idea of the bathroom. A little corner of the bedroom was set aside for washing purposes with a wash stand, jug and basin. New items of furniture were introduced to fit this new fashion. There were men's shaving tables. The bidet was introduced. It was a hit in France but never caught on in England. But washing was still a communal event, even a social one. You might invite your friends around to watch you wash in the morning and it was a vast privilege to be invited to attend upon Queen Caroline, wife to George II, when she took her morning toilette. The concept of a private bathroom only really came in with the Victorians, aided by all the inventions of the industrial revolution, and of course for many people indoor plumbing only became a reality in the twentieth century. 

Victorian Public lavatories The first public lavatories in London were also established in the Middle Ages, most practically, on London Bridge. Again they were communal, a place to go for a chat! The use of these died out along with washing in the Tudor period and it was not until the Victorian era that public loos were re-introduced. They cost four pence to use but they were not popular, especially with ladies who were ashamed to be seen using them as it was considered immodest. (Until the 20th century it was not publicly acknowledged that women needed to fulfil this necessary function at all!) There are many Victorian conveniences still in use across the UK – these ones are in Oxford. Note the smart iron railings.

If  you get the chance to see Lucy Worsley's programme If Walls Could Talk or to pick up the accompanying book then it's well worth it as both are packed with fascinating detail of life in the British home down the centuries. In these days of privacy and having our own space it's sometimes difficult to imagine what communal living must have been like. How do you think you would have coped having to share your living space – or having servants about you all the time? How would you have found the privacy that sometimes we all need? And would you have fallen in with the Tudor fashion of not washing?