Musings of a Magpie Mind

(Bits and pieces of history, travel and trivia, collected over the years by Bill Greenwell)

The lowdown on the LOO. A delicate dissertation on a rather indelicate subject.

This Christmas, Santa dropped off some nice little surprises for me, plus the usual bundle of books. One in particular caught my eye, a slim little volume with an intriguing title on its cover: A Lavatorial Miscellany.

I was naturally curious. How much in the way of royalties could a book like this generate, I wondered. It deals with a subject that we all know had long been almost unmentionable in genteel society, particularly in the fuddyduddy days when Victoria and the landed gentry set the tone for polite conversation. But this little volume has turned out to be a good read, with some quaint facts and funny illustrations, the sort of book that doesn’t take up much room at the breakfast table and produces the occasional chortle – good company for my poached egg.

I’ve always had an interest in social history, and military too of course, but the fascination of discovering how people through the ages had managed in their homes, in their work and in their determination not only to survive but to prosper, has kept

me hooked on authors like Bill Bryson and the like, who answer my questions so well.

This little book adds a few more chapters to this knowledge. It describes, with tongue in cheek, the various primitive means provided over the years for us to perform one of our more private functions, a subject that understandably hasn’t inspired much attention from the world of literature. But then, neither have the fridge, vacuum cleaner or other contraptions that we rely on. But the loo, however distasteful, has a sort of naughty relish to it as an object of interest, rather like some of those old, ribald music hall jokes, so beloved of boisterous audiences in the cheap seats. So let me share a few facts with you that I unearthed (and that very word reminds me of the primitive privy we used, when we kids were evacuated to the countryside, to avoid the Gerry bombs). But let’s look into the legendary loos of yore. We’re told that some of the ancient civilizations were remarkably advanced in their sanitation systems, but we’ll start with the Romans, who were certainly ahead of the western world at the time. In Europe in particular, despite some enterprising one-offs, we didn’t really catch up with their technology until the late 18th century.

My family lived very near to the Roman Wall that stretches across the north of England. In fact our neighbourhood boasted a wealth of excavations from that period, including an ancient temple that stood just down the street, between two houses. It was dedicated to Mithras, one of the favourite gods worshipped by the troops who manned those God-forsaken outposts against the marauding, blue-painted Picts, the tribal ancestors of today’s Scots.

The Emperor Hadrian’s engineers made sure that the wind-swept fortifications along his famous wall featured the latest comforts, which included central heating in the barracks, plus latrines served by running water. Today the excavated rows of stone toilet holes, which were originally capped with wooden seats, bear witness to early sanitary ingenuity. When the Roman armies withdrew from Britain around 408 A.D. plumbing over there took a turn for the worse. Perhaps that’s one reason why the centuries after the exodus were called the Dark Ages, because for the next few

hundred years, the monasteries were probably the only places where hygiene seemed to count. Many of them had quite sophisticated piped water systems and the monks obeyed sensible rules about washing before meals. Since they all had to follow a rigid routine every day, some of their latrines were huge spaces with seats set back-to back in double rows. Stored rain water from the roofs helped drain away the effluent.

But in the nobility’s castles, draughty private garderobes were built into the massive stone walls, and they usually emptied into the moat or cesspits below. But these facilities often caused more lethal problems than mere chilly discomfort because they compromised the castles’ defence systems. Several supposedly impregnable strongholds were captured by siege troops climbing up the garderobe shafts and taking the defenders by surprise.

By 1596, the man who might be called the "father of the water closet", Sir John Harington, invented a cistern and valve combination then wrote a book about it. The contraption didn’t rally catch on, but worked well enough for Queen Elizabeth to have one installed in her Richmond palace, and a copy of the book was kept chained to the

wall beside the royal loo.

By the late 18th century some of the great mansions boasted water closets, but invariably they were situated outside. The pottery industry quickly recognized the profit potential of these new gadgets, and soon the age of Victorian sanitary magnificence arrived with bowls, cisterns and seats sporting splendid designs and ornamentation. The gentry often ordered theirs complete with the family coat of arms!

Of course the workers, the men, women and their children, who were crowded into burgeoning cities to toil in the mills and factories, had no such luxuries. Housed in squalid rows of terraced tenements, they carried their water from a communal pump and shared an earth privy with several households. Not surprisingly, disease was rife. Cholera and typhoid claimed thousands of lives in these industrial slums. In my home town for instance, three epidemics killed off many, many families, and most of the deaths were traced to fecal matter fouling the community water pumps.

Eventually these dreadful mortality rates focussed public attention on the unsanitary disgrace of Britain’s congested urban ghettos. Their open cesspits were gradually replaced by underground sewerage systems but not without much grumbling

from many wealthy city aldermen, who railed at the expense. Meanwhile inventors continued to introduce more clever ideas, but sadly most of them were flawed. It wasn’t until the 1870s that efficient water closets were available to those who could afford them. Then an historic figure stepped into the public spotlight and added a new word to our lexicon – the wonderfully named Thomas Crapper, mistakenly believed by many to have invented the flush loo. Not so. What he did though, was to perfect a mechanism that can be found in modern cisterns, which allows water to circulate on demand. Perhaps his heirs are still earning royalties from his patent, but I recently read that a new lavatory valve has been designed which will perhaps have the same effect on plumbing as the silicone chip has had on electronics.

No wonder, when interviewed, its inventor seemed flushed with success.

(Bill Greenwell prospered in the ad agency arena for 40 years. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.)

Cowichan Valley Citizen