How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life - Ruth Goodman (2014)

Chapter 3. A Trip to the Privy

When the practical business of washing and dressing was complete, a trip to the privy was often the next part of the morning routine.

The Privy

Most privies were sited at the far end of the garden or yard, as far away as possible from the house, so a trip to it was generally made after you had taken the trouble to get dressed.

Traditionally, a privy consisted of a hole, a repository for, effectively, a compost heap of waste, over which was erected some form of lightweight shelter, comprising wooden walls, a sloped roof and a door. The door had a gap of a few inches at the top and bottom to allow a gentle draught of air to circulate; this meant that most privies were well ventilated. If an outhouse was too tightly sealed, the smell could quickly become unpleasant.

Inside was a wooden seat, rather like a shelf, raised above the ground. It was relatively comfortable to sit upon even in the frostiest of weather (a modern plastic seat would have been far colder). The best kept of such outhouses had their walls and ceilings whitewashed regularly, their floors and seats sternly scrubbed daily, and were stocked with a good supply of toilet paper, or newspaper squares, and a vase of fresh flowers.

Most privies were hygienic and functioned well, as long as there was enough time and space for the waste to decompose naturally, away from people and their water supplies. It helped, of course, if the waste was managed in the same way a compost heap would be, with an equal measure of fibrous, absorbent materials such as straw, leaf litter, wood shavings, scrunched paper and dry earth added to the waste. In some areas of the country, the pigsty was situated next to the privy, so pig manure and soiled straw could be added to break the waste down more quickly.

Away from the cities, the privy continued to be in use well into the twentieth century, because it was clean and cheap. For the rural Victorian, therefore, it remained almost completely unchallenged.

However, as soon as the number of people using a privy increased above the decomposition rate, it would quickly fill up. If there was more land at your disposal, this was not a problem. A new hole could be dug a little further away and the shelter moved to a new location. A thick layer of soil dug from the new hole could be used to seal off the old pit, which could continue to decompose undisturbed. The real problems occurred when people started living in more densely populated areas, without access to long gardens that kept the privies away from homes and water supplies.

In London, the authorities tried to solve the problem by insisting that people regularly scoured out the holes beneath the privies (otherwise known as cesspits). When privies filled up, the waste was dug out and removed from the city to great compost heaps in the countryside, before being spread on to the fields once it was safe to do so. At least, that was the theory. Each parish in the city had its own street scavengers and official jakesmen to clean out the public facilities; their carts trundled the streets at night, when they would cause the least nuisance. Local laws required that private householders hire these men regularly to clean out their own homes and carry the waste away. Sadly, not everyone was as conscientious as they should have been, and prosecutions for overflowing privies causing offence to the neighbours were frequent.

As towns and cities became larger and ever more populated, the problems grew. Pools and puddles of filth from overflowing and inadequate privies became increasingly common in the poorer districts, where people could ill afford to have them cleaned. Similarly, unscrupulous landlords were loath to spend money on their slum properties. The sharing of facilities only exacerbated the problem. One survey carried out in Sunderland in the 1840s recorded one privy for every seventy-six people, while, in Worcester, one privy was recorded as being shared between fifteen families. The journalist Henry Mayhew frequently wrote about the living conditions of the poor of London. His reporting was a call to action to his contemporaries, and his observations were reflected in towns and cities the length and breadth of Britain. One evening he accompanied the night-soil men as they went about their business emptying out the cesspits in much the same way their predecessors had been doing for the last three hundred years. A special long-handled shovel was their main tool, used to haul the excrement into large wooden buckets, which were then slung on to a pole, or the handles of the shovels, and carried between the men out to a cart in the street. Mayhew described the smell as ‘literally sickening’. If the privy being cleaned was located in a well-kept courtyard with direct access to the street, then the operation could be carried out without too much inconvenience to the householders. However, particularly in the poorer and more crowded districts, the excrement had to be carried through people’s homes, often in the middle of the night. In the Victorian period, the jakesmen charged around one shilling per privy: a poor living for them but still a major expense for working-class households. The cesspits they were emptying were usually small. Mayhew records that most city cesspits were brick-lined and held about a cubic yard of sewage. Many, however, were unlined or had no mortar between the bricks. Some people left the base unlined to allow liquid matter to drain away into the soil: it was only the more solid waste that was hauled away by the night-soil men; the rest would leach into the soil. Basement dwellers were known to find it oozing in through their walls.


Fig. 38. Jakesmen at work, 1861.

In the largest cities, and London in particular, the subsoil was becoming saturated with human detritus, and it began seeping through the earth to pollute the groundwater that fed the wells. Even for people who believed in the miasma theory of disease, this was considered to be highly unpleasant, but the direct link between polluted groundwater and illness was only just being discovered in the 1830s and 1840s. After all, the water from these wells both looked and smelled clean. It would be the pioneers of epidemiology and germ theory who would first see the danger signs.

In 1849, an inspection of over fifteen thousand houses was made in the City of London. Some of the results were disturbing. Twenty-one houses used their cellar as a cesspool; thirty had cesspools that were overflowing; and two hundred and twenty-three cesspools were classed as ‘full’. Around five thousand more were classified as ‘offensive’ or ‘unhealthy’. Of the houses inspected, this represents approximately a third having major problems with human refuse.

Reliable supplies of piped water offered a solution. It was believed that the flushing away of waste from people’s homes and places of work would create a much healthier and more convivial environment. But while private enterprise in early Victorian towns and cities was rapidly – if in piecemeal fashion – bringing piped water to town dwellers, there were few people who were willing to pay for the large-scale investment needed to install drains and a sewage system to take it away. With private enterprise failing so visibly, in 1848, pressure mounted for the government to act, and it became illegal to build houses without a drain connected to a public sewer. At this date, ‘public sewers’ usually meant local rivers. Sir John Simon, then Medical Officer of Health to the City of London, concluded in a report that was to be influential in bringing about this new legislation, that ‘part of the City might be described as having a cesspool city excavated under it.’ As a believer in miasma theory at this point in time, he was concerned to get the waste away from people’s homes, but he had little thought for it thereafter. His great drainage push was initially successful in forcing the problem out of the individual house and into the Thames. This alleviated the soil contamination of the previous decade, but at the expense of the waterways. It took the Great Stink of 1858, when sacking soaked in chloride of lime had to be hung at the windows of parliament to combat the nauseating smell rising from the river, before the politicians were sufficiently convinced that a solution to the problem had to be found.


Fig. 39. The ‘Great Stink’ of 1858, as depicted in Punch.

The vast engineering feat undertaken over the next few decades to combat sewage was one that not only worked, largely eliminating cholera and typhoid from London and then, as they followed suit, the other main towns and cities of Britain, but is still the backbone of the system in place today. An enormous network of brick-lined drains and sewers collected waste and channelled it not out into the streams and rivers but to large treatment works where it could be filtered and purified before the clean water was returned to the river system.

The Water Closet

In 1851, seven years before the Great Stink, water closets, or WCs, had attracted the public’s attention. The first public water closets opened that year in Fleet Street. They were also displayed in several washrooms at that year’s Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, which would have been most people’s first chance to see them. However, they were not exactly a new invention in 1851. The first diagram of a water-flushing toilet (complete with a small fish swimming in the cistern) was Elizabethan. Invented by the writer Sir John Harrington in the 1590s, or so he claimed, this first incarnation of the modern toilet was a development on from the old monastic habit of siting the latrine over a small stream of flowing water. Several sixteenth- and seventeenth-century houses in London are described in inventories as having privies that were regularly flushed by rainwater collected in tanks and then channelled away by guttering. In the late eighteenth century, a number of technical improvements began to take place. Different types of valve and shapes of toilet bowl and rim were introduced to direct the flow of water. Development continued throughout the nineteenth century with many competing designs arriving upon the market simultaneously. These not only differed in terms of engineering, but were also designed to accommodate particular social groups. A range of simple closets in cheaper materials, for example, was produced for servants and inmates of institutions, who were thought to be incapable of operating the more expensive mechanical-valve models.


Fig. 40. The two main styles of water closet: the ‘wash-down’ and the ‘valve’.

For all the advantages of rapid waste removal, the early adopters of water closets still had their problems. Many simply piped the waste into their old cesspits, some even directing it to the gutters in the street. Another problem was the initial lack of an ‘S-bend’ pipe. In early water closets, the contents were tipped out from the basin by means of one of a number of differing valves or pans, and a flow of water then cleared the bowl and pan into the waste pipe, which ran straight from the toilet to the sewers. Without a one-way S-bend pipe, any smell or fumes from the sewer could easily waft back up the pipe and into the homes of the wealthy. With the miasma theory of disease so prevalent, this caused untold worry, as well as nasal discomfort. The new water closets were therefore thought to be much less hygienic than the old privy at the bottom of the garden, which, however foul and overflowing, was at least situated outside in the fresh air, and not in the home, exhaling its dangerous fumes day and night.

I regularly use one of these early models of Victorian WC when I am working in Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. Even with an S-bend to prevent the smell of the drain wafting back up, the WC still retains an odour, no matter how carefully you try to keep it clean. Victorians experienced the same problem, as was pointed out by S. S. Hellyer in 1877 in his book The Plumber and Sanitary Houses: there was no way of cleaning the underside of the pan. The water from the flush simply did not reach, and in order to clean the toilet manually it was necessary to dismantle the whole appliance. Victorian WCs in general require much more regular attention to keep clean than their modern-day equivalents.

Flushing systems gradually improved, delivering much more forceful streams of water which were capable of dispersing waste more reliably, and the hinged pans came to be replaced with the full ‘wash-down’ system that remains the twenty-first-century standard: water is forced out under the rim, washing the whole surface of the toilet bowl, and the force of that water is the mechanism that pushes the waste down the pipe. From the 1870s onwards, the water closet was on the march. Once the initial problems were overcome, in towns, they became the must-have convenience of the day. As part of a marketing drive, the new railway companies even advertised their availability at train stations. In many districts, train stations were the first public buildings to install WCs. They were a facility that not only impressed the customers but drew locals to inspect the novel sanitary ware.

Dry Closets and Pail Closets

Outside major towns and cities, however, these new-fangled toilets remained few in number. Piped water, for country dwellers, was a luxury, and one that most of them would have to wait until well into the twentieth century to experience. Rural water closets were possible if you could find a way of filling a tank, and, though some large country houses went to elaborate lengths to achieve this, they were the rare exception. But the century’s great interest in sanitary matters did not pass the country dweller by, for they had seen another development: the earth closet. This was a form of dry composting that was devised to reduce the smell and render the waste much safer. The system was designed to utilize topsoil, which is naturally rich in bacteria, to break down human faeces quickly into compost. If the two materials were well mixed, given plenty of ventilation and kept dry, composting was so complete that the same earth could be reused several times over without any problems. The patentee, in 1860, for this system, which was based to a large degree on traditional privy management, was the Reverend Henry Moule. Earth had long been added to privies as an aid to composting and smell reduction, but Moule’s novel intervention was to keep it dry so it could be reused. He, along with several other companies, also set about making earth closets that would be easy to use. The most popular and longest-lived proved to be the self-contained portable unit. Shaped like an old commode box with a hole in the seat that led to a bucket, this held a tank on its back. When you pulled the lever, a certain amount of earth fell from the tank into the bucket on top of the faeces in the bucket. The bucket was regularly emptied into an area reminiscent of a woodshed, where the composting would occur. For country dwellers, this was a useful improvement on the plain privy.


Fig. 41. An earth closet.

In towns, or in large institutions, it was difficult to obtain sufficient earth. Household ash offered an alternative. With almost every home burning coal, most Victorians had a plentiful supply of cinders. Urban schemes in Manchester, Rochdale, Burnley and a host of Midlands towns adopted this technology for their ‘pail closets’, which were very similar to the country toilets. The buckets were regularly collected, and in some areas were disinfected before being returned, or returned with a layer of dry, absorbent material to improve their efficiency. The areas in which they were used in organized and well-regulated public initiatives reported a huge impact upon health statistics. In Rochdale alone, the death rate dropped from 27 per cent in 1870 to 21 per cent by 1878.

Toilet Paper

Just as water closets were newly common in Victorian Britain rather than being an entirely new invention, so too was toilet paper. Cheap seventeenth-century publications were termed ‘fit only for “bum fodder”’, indicating that people were recycling printed material as toilet paper. For most of the Victorian era, it was indeed newspaper that provided most people with the means of cleaning themselves. Advertisements, paper bags and old envelopes were also pressed into service. Cut into squares with a hole in one corner through which they could be threaded on to a piece of string, the toilet paper used by most Victorians was a home-produced affair. The idea of spending good money on something that you were going to throw down the privy or WC was one that seemed ridiculous to most of the population. However, as news of germs began to spread, it seemed sensible that the material you used to wipe away disease-carrying faeces from your body should be impregnated with some germ-killing agent. The earliest commercially produced toilet paper was thus ‘medicated’, and so the industry began.

America was the leader in this field, with the first brand being launched in 1857. The British Perforated Paper Company began production in England in 1880; its products could be bought in packs of one hundred or five hundred sheets. Emphasizing the medical nature of the product, rather than its comfort or convenience, the manufacturers sought to make it a necessity of healthy life.

The medicating process left the paper hard and shiny, much like tracing paper. Indeed, the medicated toilet paper that was still the norm in schools of the 1970s and even 1980s was often pressed into service as tracing paper in the classroom – as long as it was a new, clean pack, of course. Soft, absorbent toilet tissue is very much a late-twentieth-century phenomenon.