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?

It’ll all come out in the wash!

Pavilion Nicola here. I’m on my travels this week, staying in an 18th century pavilion! It sounds idyllic – and it is except for the lack of facilities! All of which led me to wonder what it would have been like living and working in a place like this in the centuries before labour-saving devices were invented. In particular I’ve been doing some research into laundry and the care of clothes and thought I would share some of my findings with you.

Passing the Buck

The phrase “to pass the buck” is commonly thought to derive from poker, but long before the game wasWasherwomen  invented there was another buck, a wooden tub for the laundry. Washing clothes was a very long and time-consuming business so when you got tired you needed to pass the buck on to someone else. In The Merry Wives of Windsor Shakespeare uses the “buck wash” for comic effect when Falstaff is bundled into the buck basket along with all the “foul shirts and smocks, socks, stockings and greasy napkins.”

 Another phrase deriving from the washing process was “to wash your dirty linen in public.” Until the 17th century the most common way to wash clothes was to beat them clean in a stream or lake as in the picture above, or in a communal washhouse. Greasy dirt such as tallow from candles or fat from cooking required a more thorough process though. Clothes were first soaked in an alkaline solution called lye, which was prepared several days before the laundering began. Lye was made from the fine white ash collected from ovens and furnaces. This was placed in a sieve and water was poured through it and stirred so that it became infused with the alkaline salts from the ash. Greasy clothes would be left to soak in the lye for a number of hours and were rinsed and re-soaked until the water was clean. It could be an incredibly lengthy business; In January 1660 Elizabeth Pepys woke the maids at 4am to start the wash and by 1am the next day they were still hard at it! The more well to do paid a “whitster” (one who whitens things) to do their washing for them and you can see why.

Moorfields The open spaces around London were at a premium when it came to drying clothes. At Moorfields, which you can see in the map on the left, the washing was attached to hooks on posts and was wound tightly around them until the water had been squeezed out. It was then laid out to dry on the ground or hung from clothes lines. Some things haven’t changed that much!

Slaving over a hot Copper

Laundry in country houses was dealt with in a similar way. At Ashdown House the laundry, pictured Laundry right, was a quarter mile from the main house, adjoining the stables, so that the noise, steam and smell of the process did not intrude on the Craven family and their guests. More than one illicit liaison between the grooms and the laundry maids was the result! At Ashdown there were three laundry rooms. First was the washhouse, which held wooden washing boards and troughs and a huge copper with a fire constantly burning beneath.  There was a drying loft or closet in case clothes had to be dried indoors on rainy days and there was also the pressing room, home to a range of box and flat irons.

 The clean laundry was laid out in a walled drying area (so that again the family did not need to see their linen drying in public!) A special touch was to scent it by drying it over lavender bushes or rosemary hedges, but theft was a constant problem. It was easy to snatch a sheet that was drying in the breeze! Drying clothes indoors was a last resort because it was so slow, took up a great deal of room and required complicated arrangements of racks and pulleys to air it properly.

Flat iron Ironing was also a complicated business. An inventory from one stately home in 1726 lists four box irons and seven pairs of flat irons. In country houses there was a demarcation between the senior laundress who was entrusted with all the delicate laundry and the maids who did the household washing and servants’ clothes. As households were frequently very large, a careful record was kept of all items before they were sent to the laundry so that when they were returned they could go to the correct person or be stored appropriately. This was the housekeeper’s responsibility and in the grandest households she had a special sorting room set aside for the process.

Cleaning Remedies

Soap was also used for laundry but it was a great deal more expensive than lye and extremely complicated to produce. At the end of the 18th century Nicolas Le Blanc discovered a way to mass-produce soda from salt but soap was taxed up until 1853 so it was still a product that could only be afforded by the rich.

The first book of cleaning remedies was published in 1583. It was called “A Profitable Boke declaring dyvers approved remedies, to take out spottes and staines in silkes, velvets, linen and woollen clothes.” Pretty comprehensive. It recommended grease and oil be treated with ground sheep’s hooves, warm cow’s milk to remove wine and vinegar stains and that gold and silk embroidery be washed in urine, strong beer or ale.

The Early Laundrette

By the middle of the 18th century there were a number of specialist cleaning shops established in LondonThe Strand  where you could take your clothes to be treated. In 1742 Jane Franklin of Maiden Lane placed an advertisement in the Daily Advertiser offering to clean “silver and gold laced cloth, buttons and buttonholes.” Dry scouring was an option – an early form of dry cleaning. The material was rubbed on both sides with a mixture of turpentine and fuller’s earth and then the mixture brushed off with a hard brush followed by a soft brush and finally a clean cloth. In the early 19th century Thompsons in The Strand (pictured) provided a comprehensive mending, dyeing and cleaning service for shawls and fine muslins from India. An impoverished heroine might well have taken her clothes there for a spot of refurbishment!

Dyeing for a change of clothes

Jane Austen At the beginning of the 19th century it cost between 3 shillings and six pence and five shilling to dye a gown, and 2 shillings and six pence to dye a pair of breeches. This was a relatively cheap and useful way to refresh one’s wardrobe but the process was an uncertain one. In 1808 Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra: “How is your blue gown? Mine is all to pieces – I think there must have been something wrong in the dye… That is four shillings thrown away!” Blue dye came from woad or indigo, yellow from saffron and weld, and red from various different roots and also from cochineal, though that was more expensive as it was imported from South America. There was no fixed green dye until 1809, green gowns being made from covering blue dye with yellow.

Banishing the Moth

Moths and fleas were the greatest enemy of clothes that were kept in storage and there were many recipes and methods suggested to deal with them. Powdered elecampane root and orange peel were considered very powerful in banishing the moth. The lighter summer clothes could be scented with herbs; lavender, bay, thyme, rose and tansy. Heavy fur-trimmed outdoor and winter clothes were treated with benjamin and storax. Linens were kept in special bags of violet or damask. It’s rather nice to think of our heroines wafting around in clothes scented with herbs!

Which labour saving device of the modern day could you simply not manage without?