Young Explorers: The Dickenses' Bedroom

Master Bedroom

The Dickenses' Bedroom © Charles Dickens Museum

Most homes didn’t have bathrooms, which is why this bedroom has some items that you might not expect to see in bedrooms today.

Commode chair, © Charles Dickens Museum

This special chair is a very good example of this. Have a look at the picture. Can you guess why it is different to a normal chair?

Watch this video and find out.



That’s right, this chair was actually a toilet!

There was a big problem however! The chair didn’t have a flush handle, because there weren’t any pipes for the poo and wee to go down! This meant that the poor housemaid would have to empty the waste out. It was then the job of the night soil men to collect this waste and carry it away from each house. They would do this at night to avoid disturbing the neighbours with nasty smells, but sometimes passed out themselves from the fumes!

A lot of this toilet waste (sewage) ended up in the River Thames, which is where many Londoners got their drinking water from. What do you think might happen if you drank water which had wee and poo in it? Yes! Quite right! Unsurprisingly, lots of people got very ill. Diseases which love dirty, polluted water spread very quickly. One of the most deadly diseases, cholera, killed tens of thousands of people. By the hot summer of 1858, the smell of sewage coming from the River Thames, was so disgusting it became known as ‘The Great Stink’. The Government had to leave the Houses of Parliament for the summer, as they couldn’t stand the smell a second longer!

Something had to be done. Joseph Bazalgette was hired to solve the problem. He designed an extensive sewage system, carrying the waste away from people’s homes in underground pipes and tunnels to sewage works. Here, the toilet water was cleaned before it went into the River Thames. 

An embarrassing question? How do you think the Dickens family would have let the housemaid know the commode chair needed emptying?

Clue: Click here to have a go at this activity and we think you’ll be able to guess!


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