The filthy A-Z history of the toilet

Though our basic needs remain the same, our toilet habits have certainly changed – and thankfully, for the better. Julian Humphrys discovers the unusual history of the toilet

Roman Toilet © Getty Images

A… is for Ajax

Although Elizabethan writer and courtier John Harrington wasn’t the first person to design a flushing toilet – Londoner Thomas Brightfield had done so in 1449 – he was the first to provide a written specification for one.

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In 1596, he penned his Metamorphosis of Ajax (a pun on ‘jakes’, a slang word for a privy) in which he described a remarkably modern-sounding device that he’d installed in his house.

This incorporated a pan with a seat and a cistern filled with water. When a handle was turned, the water washed the contents of the pan into a cesspool.

Although Harrington installed one for Queen Elizabeth in Richmond Palace, cost, problems of water supply, and lack of sewers meant that the idea wouldn’t catch on for centuries.

B… is for Bazalgette

Sewers

By the 1850s, London’s growing population was producing unmanageable amounts of sewage. Cesspools leaked and overflowed, contaminating water supplies, and matters weren’t helped by the outpourings of the increasingly popular water closet.

London’s Commission of Sewers had ordered that cesspools and house drains should be connected to sewers, but these fed directly into an increasingly noisome River Thames.

Following the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858, when the smell from the river was so bad that MPs even considered abandoning Westminster, the Metropolitan Board of Works was tasked with overhauling London’s sewerage system.

Civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891) was put in charge of operations.

His 16-year project included embanking parts of the Thames, constructing 1,100 miles of street sewers, 82 miles of main interceptor sewers and building four monumental pumping stations, all designed to take the sewage eastwards to be discharged into the river away from heavily-populated areas.

C… is for Crapper

In 1866, Yorkshire-born industrialist and plumber Thomas Crapper opened the world’s first bathroom showroom in Chelsea. For the first time, people could actually see sanitary products in place.

Some were even plumbed in so that potential customers could try before they bought. In the late 1880s, Crapper was asked by the Prince of Wales to install lavatories at Sandringham, and he went on to supply sanitary ware for both Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

The idea that one of our more robust terms for a bowel movement is derived from his name is a myth – that word was in use well before Crapper became famous.

However, it is possible that the American word ‘crapper’, meaning a lavatory, became popular after US soldiers in Britain in 1917 saw his name stamped on the cisterns in some public toilets.

D… is for Dung

Defenestration of Prague

The infamous 1618 Defenestration of Prague, which saw three Catholic officials thrown from a third-floor window in Prague Castle, helped trigger the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War. Remarkably, all three survived the 50-foot fall.

Catholic sources claimed they were saved by divine intervention, while Protestants ascribed their survival to the fact that they landed on a huge pile of dung beneath the window.

E… is for Espionage

It’s hard to believe that the unremarkable public toilets in the small Hampshire town of New Alresford played a part in the Cold War. But they did.

Harry Houghton used them as a dead letter box in his dealings with Soviet spy ‘Gordon Lonsdale’. A plaque on the toilet wall recalls how in 1961, Houghton was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for his part in the Portland Spy Ring, which sold secret information from the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment to the Soviet Union.

F… is for Fleet Street

Inspired by the success of Jennings’ toilets at the Great Exhibition (see ‘J’), the Royal Society of Arts tried to cash in on the act. On 2 February 1852, it opened London’s first modern public toilet (for men) at 95 Fleet Street.

Women had to hang on a little longer; the first female public toilet opened at Bedford Street nine days later. Delicately dubbed ‘public waiting rooms’, they featured water closets in wooden surrounds and cost two pence to use.

But, despite being extensively promoted by handbills and even an advert in The Times, only 58 men and 24 women used the rooms in the first month. Within six months, they were closed.

G… is for Garderobe

Originally a term for a storeroom for clothes and valuables, a garderobe is now usually used to describe a medieval privy, particularly in a castle. Actually, the two uses were by no means mutually exclusive, as the ammonia from urine helped deter moths and other parasites.

Many garderobes were built into the thickness of an outer wall, and consisted of a stone or wooden seat over a vertical shaft. Others were sited in a projecting turret over an open drop.

Depending on the design, the excrement would either hit the ground or land in a pit (which had to be periodically cleared out by an individual known as a ‘gong farmer’), or drop into a moat or river.The garderobes of some coastal castles, like St Andrews, simply projected over the sea and let the tide do the work.

Garderobes could be a weak spot in a castle’s defences. During the siege of the mighty Château Gaillard in 1204, the French captured its middle bailey after sneaking up one of its garderobe chutes.

When Henry III commissioned a new privy for Guildford Castle, the Clerk of Works was specifically told to fit bars to its outlet to deter intruders.

H… is for Hampton Court

To cope with the sanitary needs of the vast numbers of Tudor courtiers who assembled there, Hampton Court Palace boasted a huge communal garderobe. Known as the ‘Great House of Easement’, it was two storeys high and could accommodate 28 people simultaneously.

Occupants sat side by side on oak planks and their waste was carried into the Thames via brick-lined drains. The building still stands today, although now it has a different function: it’s the office of the Chief Executive.

I… is for Ironside

It’s always a good idea to check that a vacant toilet really is vacant. The 12th-century writer Henry of Huntingdon gives this account of the death in 1016 of English , Edmund Ironside:

“When Edmund, fearful and most formidable to his enemies, was prospering in his kingdom, he went one night to the lavatory to answer a call of nature. There the son of Ealdorman Eadric, who by his father’s plan was concealed in the pit of the privy, struck the King twice with a sharp knife in the private parts, and leaving the weapon in his bowels, fled away.”

J… is for Jennings

When the Great Exhibition opened in 1851 in Hyde Park, one of its landmark attractions was Britain’s first paid-for flushing public toilets, which were designed and installed by Hampshire-born plumber George Jennings.

For the price of a penny, visitors were provided with a clean toilet seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine. Records show that during the exhibition, over 675,000 pennies were spent.

K… is for King

Elvis Presley wasn’t the only King to die on the toilet. On 25 October 1760, George II’s valet was waiting outside the water closet for his master to finish his morning ablutions when he heard what he described as “a noise louder than the royal wind” followed by a crash “like the falling of a billet of wood from the fire”.

He rushed in to find the King dying on the floor. A subsequent post-mortem revealed that he had died from an aortic aneurysm, which had probably been caused by straining.

L… is for Luther

Circa 1520, Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483 - 1546), a leading figure in the Reformation. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Was the Protestant Reformation thought up on the toilet? It’s quite possible. Martin Luther, the German Augustinian friar who was a seminal figure in the Reformation, suffered from constipation.

He spent many hours in contemplation on the toilet, and later wrote that he was “in cloaca” – or in the sewer – when the belief that salvation was gained through faith not deeds came to him.

M… is for Monasteries

Many of Britain’s medieval monasteries still retain the remains of their communal toilets. Dubbed necessaria (for obvious reasons) or reredorters (because they stood behind the dorter or dormitory), they could be quite extensive in size.

One of the most impressive can be found at Muchelney Abbey in Somerset. Unique in having a thatched roof, it’s a two-storey affair that the monks entered at first-floor level from their dormitory.

N… is for Nightmen

Nightmen

In the days before sewers, people in towns had to find a way of disposing of their excrement. This is where the nightmen came in. So-called because by law they could only work at night, it was their job to empty the excreta from people’s cesspits and cart it away.

They usually operated in teams of four. One man, the ‘holeman’, went into the cesspit and filled a tub lowered by a colleague called the ‘ropeman’. Once full, it was pulled back up and two ‘tubmen’ carried it to a waiting cart.

The night soil was then taken away and mixed with other rubbish before being sold to farmers as manure.

O… is for Orford

For those with an interest in medieval toilet arrangements, Orford Castle in Suffolk is a must-see. Its 12th-century keep is equipped with garderobes served by a system of chutes, which directed their discharge to a single area at the back of the tower.

Like most castles, the majority of Orford’s toilets are of the sit-down variety, but it also boasts a rarity – a stand-up, triangular ‘poke and pee’ urinal in the corridor outside the constable’s chamber. Handily placed to save a night-time walk to one of the main garderobes, it now offers modern visitors an almost irresistible photo opportunity.

P… is for Pepys

Samuel Pepys, 1633 To 1703. English Diarist, Naval Administrator And Member Of Parliament. From The Book Short History Of The English People By J.R. Green, Published London 1893 (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

An entry in Samuel Pepys’ diary offers an insight into the rather ramshackle state of 17th-century London’s sanitary arrangements, even for the well-to-do:

“20 October 1660: This morning one came to me to advise with me where to make me a window into my cellar… and going down my cellar to look, I put my foot into a heap of turds, by which I find that Mr Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me…”

Things weren’t any better at court. The antiquary Anthony Wood acidly commented that when Charles II and his court descended on Oxford in 1665, “though they were neat and gay in their apparel, yet they were very nasty and beastly, leaving at their departure their excrements in every corner, in chimneys, studies, coalhouses, cellars”.

Q… is for Queen

If the 17th-century antiquarian John Aubrey is to be believed, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, may well have regretted not paying a precautionary visit to the privy before being presented to Queen Elizabeth I.

In his Brief Lives, a splendidly scandalous collection of anecdotes about the great figures of Tudor and Stuart England, Aubrey writes: “This Earl of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to fart, at which he was so abashed that he went to travel for seven years.

On his return, the Queen welcomed him home and said ‘My lord, I had forgotten the fart’.”

R… is for Rome

Toilet walls have always been a temptation for idle scribblers, and things were no different in the days of Ancient Rome.

One such wall in a house in the Roman town of Herculaneum (which, like Pompeii, was destroyed in AD 79 by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius) bears the words “Apollinaris medici Titi Imperatoris hic cacavit bene” – roughly translated, that’s “Apollinaris, physician of the Emperor Titus, had a good crap here”.

S… is for Stool

One of the most sought-after jobs in the Tudor court was the position of Groom of the Stool. The Stool in question was a ‘close stool’, a fixed or portable commode, and the Groom’s job was to help the king undress before using it and to supply him with water, towels and a washbowl when he had finished.

Whether the Groom was actually required to wipe the Royal Bottom is a matter of debate. The reason why this apparently lowly job was so desirable was the fact that it gave the holder an intimate access to the king that no other office holder enjoyed.

Because a word in the king’s ear could make or break a courtier, it was important to keep on the right side of the Groom, and people would often petition him to pass on their concerns or requests to the monarch. As time went on, the Groom’s duties expanded until they came to act more as personal secretaries.

Sir Anthony Denny, Henry VIII’s last Groom of the Stool, was also given the great responsibility of caring for the ‘dry stamp’, which was used to sign the king’s name on documents. In addition to the influence they enjoyed, Grooms of the Stool enjoyed high pay and a range of perks, including being given the king’s old clothes and furnishings.

T… is for Torrens

In 1868, William McCullagh Torrens, Liberal MP for Finsbury, introduced the Artizans and Labourers Dwellings Act, enabling local authorities to clear away houses without proper sanitation and erect decent dwellings for the working classes. Despite powerful opposition, the bill was passed.

U… is for U-Boat

In April 1945, just weeks before the end of World War II, German submarine U-1206 was cruising in the North Sea off Peterhead at a depth of about 60 metres when problems with the pressurised flushing system of its on-board toilet caused a leak, which flooded the hull with seawater.

When this came into contact with the ship’s batteries, poisonous chlorine gas was created, leaving the captain with no option but to surface. U-1206 was quickly spotted and attacked by Allied aircraft, forcing the captain to order his crew to scuttle the U-boat and abandon ship.

V… is for Vespasiennes

Vespasienne

Vespasiennes were metal open-air public urinals that were first erected in Paris in 1834, in a bid to put an end to indiscriminate public peeing (by men).

They took their name from the Ancient Roman emperor Vespasian who, according to legend, imposed a tax on the collection of urine (which was used in tanning and laundries) from Roman public toilets.

Vespasiennes were once a common sight on the streets of Paris; in the 1930s, there were over 1,200, but now, only one remains – on the Boulevard Arago in the 14th Arondissement.

W… is for Westonzoyland

After the Duke of Monmouth’s defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor in July 1685, the nearby church of St Mary’s, Westonzoyland was pressed into service as a temporary prison for hundreds of Monmouth’s defeated rebel followers.

Two comfortable toilets have recently been installed in the church, but no such facilities existed in Monmouth’s time… the church accounts record the expenditure of 5s 8d on frankincense, pitch and resin to fumigate the soiled building after the prisoners had been removed.

X… is for Xylospongium

How did Romans wipe their bottoms? They used a sponge on a stick called a xylospongium. In communal toilets, they were kept in tubs of water in front of where you sat. You took one, rinsed it, used it, and then put it back.

The well-preserved Roman latrine at Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall still has the channel which contained the running water used to wash the sponges. Writing in the middle of the first century, the philosopher Seneca described how a Germanic gladiator used a xylospongium to commit suicide:

“He withdrew in order to relieve himself – the only thing he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood tipped with a sponge, devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it down his throat.”

Y… is for York

Although pay toilets didn’t appear until the 19th century, the towns and cities of medieval Britain appear to have been well-equipped with public privies. The first recorded public convenience in York was sited in an arch of the old Ouse Bridge.

In 1380, one William Graa left 40d a year in his will to provide “a light in the common jakes at the end of Use Bridge”. One section of Conwy’s town walls houses a group of 12 projecting stone latrines, while London boasted Whittington’s Longhouse, a huge public toilet over the Walbrook river. Opened in 1421, it had seats for 64 men and 64 women.

Z… is for Zagreb

If you visit the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, check out Croatia’s most historic toilet. A magnificent blue-and-white porcelain creation, it was installed for the visit of Emperor Franz Joseph I when he opened the neo-baroque theatre in 1895.

Use it and you’ll be sitting where a range of historical figures have sat over the years, including Franz Joseph, Ustaše leader Ante Pavelić and Marshal Josip Broz Tito.

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This article was originally published in History Revealed in June 2018.