The children pass artefact number one around the circle. Our aim is to come up with ideas to explain what it is and what it was used for in the days of Queen Victoria. As soon as it gets to James, he turns it upside down and places it over his head. “Look, it’s a hat,” he says, and everyone laughs. “Or is it a teacup?” he asks, and pretends to drink from it. That’s when I tell him what it really is.
“It’s a chamber pot,” I explain. “In Victorian times, only rich people had indoor toilets. If ordinary people needed to go to the loo in the middle of the night and didn’t want to sit in a cold, outside lavatory, which they would have shared with large spiders and other families, they had to use one of these.
“So I suppose it’s more of a wee cup than a teacup.”
While James cleanses his mouth of body waste from a bygone era, the rest of us examine artefact number two. It could be a tiny stool with four short legs, except there’s a long handle sticking out of it.
Nathan offers some inventive suggestions as to what it might be. These include a battering ram for bashing Victorian doors in and an implement for fighting off invasions of killer rats. When I remind him that it’s a household appliance, the ideas quickly dry up.
“It’s called a washing dolly,” I explain. “So what was it used for?”
After we have examined several more artefacts (including a glass washboard, some butter pats and a hobbing foot), the children are given 30 minutes to research a Victorian household appliance of their choice. After that, it’s back into a circle to discover what everybody has found out.
‘The washing dolly was used by Victorians to wash their clothes,” explains Sophie. ‘They put their dirty clothes in a big tub. Then they filled the tub with hot water that they had to heat up on a stove. Then they used the washing dolly to swirl the clothes around to get them clean.”
Next up is Nathan, who tells us that brass knuckles were what criminals used for beating up their victims. His enthusiasm is exemplary but when his detailed description of the damage they might do to a human face gets too graphic, I’m forced to interrupt. “I’m sure some Victorian households had brass knuckles, Nathan, but I don’t think that they count as a domestic appliance.”
“I’ve found out about this man who made toilets that could flush poo away,” says James. In order to extract the maximum laughter, he enacts the processes involved, complete with sound effects. “His name was Thomas Crapper, and some people think that’s where the word ‘crap’ comes from.” There is another wave of laughter. “And he made this thing called...” Here he pauses for maximum comedic effect: “...a ballcock.”
While we are in the mood for entertainment, I make a humorous announcement of my own. “I say, I say, I say, did you know that next week we’re learning all about the Victorian music hall?”... The laughter stops almost immediately. Tumbleweed rolls by on an empty breeze.
Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield