It is fifteen years, almost to the day, since I was asked to produce my first book away from my normal subject of toponymy or even etymology. When Countryside Books approached me with the idea of adding to their series on the subject of privies I was lost for words. However recently I was asked to speak on the subject and I was reminded of some of the oddities I uncovered during my research.
In the late twentieth century we take for granted the efficient disposal of sewage. The sole discomfort in the modern era is on cold winter’s days when greeted with the initial shock of a cold toilet seat in public conveniences. Yet it was as recently as the 1920s when the flush toilet became the norm in newly erected properties, although then the vast majority were outside (as I well recall).
Except for the limited influence on sanitary conditions during the Roman occupation, little change in waste disposal had taken place since man first walked these green and pleasant lands. Indeed, as the population of our islands increased and rural communities relocated to live in lines of tenement properties, the problem of sanitation grew proportionately. Buckets and pots were emptied straight from windows into the street below and if passers-by were unfortunate enough to be in the line of fire, so be it.
The Biblical reference to this basic requirement instructs us to go into the desert with a paddle (wooden spade) and make a hole in the sand, the paddle also being utilized to fill in the hole afterwards. No reference to toilet paper here, nor to any alternative. The Bible also relates ho Baal’s temple was destroyed by the forces of Jehu (Kings II, 10:27), henceforth the place used as a latrine. King Eglon’s murder is also covered (Judges, 3:24), occurring whilst the gentleman was relieving himself in the inner room of the house.
Even the most magnificent of castles of the Middle Ages had no conveniences to speak of. Most were limited to narrow passages situated within tower walls, with the excrement dropping down a shaft to form a pile at the base – or sometimes to fall straight into the surrounding moat. In some of the better planned keeps one may have been lucky enough to find such places located near chimneys, which did something to keep out the cold. However personal comfort was not at the forefront of the architect’s mind, rather that the natural updraught from the fires acted as a means to remove unwanted smells.
In 1367 the first Earl of Stafford began the building of Stafford Castle. A master mason, John of Bicester, was charged with: “Building a castle on the mound within the manor of Stafford, in length, breadth and height, with towers, rooms, bedchambers, chapel, privies, chimneys, loopholes, windows, doors and gates.” This is the earliest reference to a privy I could find within the county. It is interesting that this agreement lists privies before windows, doors and chimneys.
Monarchs both here and abroad were given little consideration when it came to a call of nature. They were more often than not under the very real threat from perfidious murderers and traitors, and in order to minimise the risk of assassination the reigning sovereign would be accompanied everywhere, even to the loo. The twelfth century German emperor found his way to one loo accompanied by so many the wooden floor gave way under the weight. Fortunately Barbarossa managed to save himself but several of his entourage failed to emerge alive from the pit below. The Saxon king Edmund Ironside was murdered in 1016. One chronicle records how he died when impaled on “a spear in the fundament (backside) while at the withdraught (toilet) to purge nature.” It was only in the seventeenth century that kings and queens started to receive special consideration of a sort, when commode-style contraptions were introduced into the richest homes in the land.
For the rest of the population the only conveniences were public ones. In villages this would often have been over a natural watercourse of some description, whilst townsfolk would have been treated to a communal cesspit. The rural version provided its own disposal system; the cesspit needed to be emptied. However owing to the appalling smell emanating from the places such a task would have been carried out only when the pit was overflowing. In Stafford town centre one cesspit from the seventeenth century was discovered during building work. It now forms part of the foundations of the Mark’s & Spencer store.
A map of Stafford dating from 1625 shows how the channel in the middle of the road, principally to allow surface water to drain away, ran towards the river Sowe through the town wall at Southgate opposite the bridge. Here it discharged into the river, taking with it all the rubbish collected on the way. This would certainly have included waste products – both animal and human. The run-off polluted the river to such a degree that the men of Stafford were obliged to cross the bridge to water their horses further upstream. This daily ritual is marked on the map.
To compound the problem still further, the town dung heap was located immediately downstream of this place, where the contents of the cesspits were deposited. The 1625 map identifies the dung heap and also tells us this was the ‘way to the Thieves Ditch’. As this is the only reference to such a name we do not know if this was a place where thieves would hide out, or if they were deposited there as a punishment. Either way it is enough to seriously consider going straight.
The cesspits were emptied by gongfermors. When the bucket privy arrived the same job was performed by those known as night-soil men, who clearly worked at night, fundamentally to reduce the smell nuisance and the vast number of flies. These outside privies did not have a toilet seat as we would know it today, although the hole cut in the board would be complete with a lid (until it was lost). To find the board across the pit with more than one hole was by no means unusual. Two-holers were common and even more. These would have holes of different sizes so that the kids would not be in danger of falling through the larger hole required by their parents. On my travels I heard of how the carpenter in the high street had a long board attached to the wall of his workshop. This was hinged and could be dropped down so that customers could take a seat and order a new board made to measure with holes in increasing sizes. It was said the board had no less than ten and possibly as many as fourteen holes!
Finally mention must be made of the automatic earth closet designed by John Parker, a cabinet-maker by trade, which improved on a manual lever-operated version invented by the Reverend Samuel Moule in 1860. In John Parker’s design a series of levers were connected from the seat to a hopper. As the user rose the system released an amount of soil (or ashes) from the hopper into a bucket. Of the 20,000 made two versions were produced, in pine for the poor and mahogany for the more affluent customer. The earth closet was soon to be pushed aside with the appearance of the flush toilet. Although in many aspects it was (and is) superior to the water variety.
Regrettably, from an ecological viewpoint, the water flush did not need to be emptied and therefore inevitably reigned supreme. Should the earth closet have taken up residence in all our homes instead, today there would be few worries regarding water shortages; sewage treatment plants would have far less volume to manage and would therefore be more efficient; with fewer pipes to lag burst pipes during the thaw would be less of a hazard; and lastly we could all be producing our own garden produce – organically grown of course.
My Staffordshire Privies also contains a long list of expressions referring to the privy and answering a call of nature. Next time I shall look at the origin of some of these but in the meantime I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.