Opening up the 'olden days' by Sarah Hutton

In this blog by our Education Manager, Sarah Hutton, we gain a first-hand insight into educational workshops held at the museum. If you are interested in booking a workshop, or for more details on our programme, please have a look at the learning pages on our website.


Some children arrive at the Museum primed with lists of Charles Dickens’s works, some children arrive with a pressing need to share their favourite moment in the Barbie version of A Christmas Carol, and some children arrive never having heard the name Charles Dickens before. Yet, as they step across the threshold and look around them, all these voices suddenly unite – the ‘Olden Days’ are real! A dusty idea conjured up in a classroom on a wet Tuesday afternoon becomes a fully realised, tangible Victorian present. Charles Dickens becomes an actual man, living and breathing, and the gap of 180 years vanishes – just like that!

On a tour of 48 Doughty street we look at Dickens’s quill, page turner and octagonal ruler, we venture ‘below-stairs’ and investigate things his servants would have used, we huff and puff to the very top of his former home to poke about in the nursery and exclaim at the lack of TV and computer games. But, despite all these wonders, there is nothing that can provoke the same squeals of delight as the subject of Victorian dirt and squalor – and the dirtier and more squalid the better! We love the commode chair (‘did Catherine Dickens watch Charles Dickens do a wee?’), we love the hip bath (‘did he really not have a bath every day?), we love the sound of the ‘Great Stink’ so much that we say it again, and again, as we clomp down the stairs together.  

The children cluster by the windows in the dining room and think about how things might have looked, sounded and smelled when Charles Dickens himself looked through them. We imagine the horses clip-clopping down the street, pulling carriages with visitors and deliveries, but we never get further than six ‘clip-clops’ on the audio system - there is always one child who can contain it no longer. A hand shoots up and we are told with piercingly loud delight that there would be horse ‘poo’ absolutely everywhere! A nearby parent can be seen visibly praying at this moment for the floor to open up and suck them down into the kitchen, and so I take the opportunity to reach down into my bag and pull out my first mystery object!


A nineteenth century skirt lifter, a ‘mystery object’ used as part of our education workshops. Part of the museum’s educational handling collection.


‘What is this?’ I ask and ‘Who do you think might have used it?’

Silence descends.

This small, metal object, about 7cms long is passed around reverentially from little hand to little hand with audible levels of puzzlement. Finally somebody realises that the clip near the top can be lifted, allowing the two ‘legs’ to be moved together and apart, ‘a bit like chopsticks!’ one little boy said recently, followed with a triumphant shout of ‘they ARE chopsticks, from the olden days before they invented the ones that work!’.

‘It’s a good answer’, I reply, ‘but not quite’.

The group of little brows furrow once more, as round it gets passed again and now the grown-ups start to whisper too.


Sarah Hutton with participants examining their ‘mystery object’.

‘Is it a nose-pincher’?

‘I’m afraid not’

‘A candle snuffer?’

‘I’m afraid not’

‘Eyelash curlers’? (a mum looks concerned for the safety of her make-up collection)

‘I’m afraid not’

‘Sugar tongs!’

‘Another excellent guess! So close. They do work like tongs to pick something up, but not sugar….’

I point back out to our imagined Victorian street. I tell them about Great Expectations where Smithfield market is ‘all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam’, about Oliver Twist with ‘women with fish-baskets on their heads; donkey-carts laden with vegetables; chaise-carts filled with … whole carcasses of meat…’, and about Bleak House where ‘…horses [are] splashed to their very blinkers … [and] tens of thousands of … foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke … adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud’.

They look impressed by my knowledge of dirt, but are no further along.

It’s time for a clue!

‘Have a good look at my skirt’, I say. If I had popped round for tea in 1838, what do they think Charles and Catherine Dickens would have thought about it? We look at Catherine Dickens’s skirt, we look at my skirt – we all agree that actually mine is a bit too short. I’d need something long and to the ground, it was important for a Victorian lady to look decorous.

We imagine me arriving in my carriage and stepping down onto the street in my very long skirt. We imagine the streets with their mud, their spilt vegetables and their horse ‘poo’. I wave our little device in the air. ‘It does pick up something….but what?’

Realisation dawns, and my child of dining room window infamy shouts out: ‘It lifts your skirt out of the ‘poo’!’

‘Yes! Exactly! A lady needed to keep the hem of her skirt out of the dirt of the streets and this device let her do this, whilst also keeping her hands nice and clean!’

‘Of course’, everyone says (‘I was just about to say that!’ murmurs a parent).

At last the mystery is solved – I disengage my object from a little girl trying to helpfully demonstrate by yanking up her sister’s skirt.

‘It’s called a “skirt lifter”’!

Grown-ups raise eyebrows, one Dad titters, but I counter disbelief at the name -Stephen Fry said so on QI, so it must be fact, and if that does not satisfy, I direct them to a very illuminating tome by Barbara Kotzin, ‘The Art of the Skirt-Lifter: A Practical and Passionate Guide’.

Everyone looks satisfied! And on we march, there are so many other rooms and objects to investigate from the ‘olden days’!

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Museum Blog

This blog takes you behind the scenes at the Charles Dickens Museum, giving fresh insight on everything from discoveries new and old in our collection, to exhibitions, events and learning initiatives.

You’ll be hearing from a variety of Museum staff and volunteers as well as guest curators, academics, artists and even members of the public who want to share their experiences at the Museum. If you would like to get in touch about guest blogging or have any questions relating to the blog please email

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