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Down the Garden Path

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January 2008

The history of the privy

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society recently enjoyed a visit from Linda Hall who outlined the history of the privy from Roman times.

She began with illustrations of Hadrian’s Wall where evidence of communal privies remains. The Romans shared this basic bodily function with their colleagues by taking up their positions over drainage ditches where running water would ensure disposal. In front of the seats were ran channels of water where sponges attached to sticks could be used to remove any residue and then, presumably, were placed back into the water for use by the next man.

The builders of English castles later developed this idea by ensuring that the contents of any privy dropped straight out of the castle walls into the moat below, often later to be recycled as drinking water. These small rooms were given the amusing title of ‘with draughts’. Chepstow Castle displays some fine examples of privies which stretch out over the walls in this way.

As the times of the Tudors approached, the builders of large English houses ensured that their designs incorporated en-suite facilities which were known as ‘guarderobes’. By locating the privy next to the chimney, they ensured that the user remained warm and that the contents were easily disposed of by dropping down an exterior chute. Acton Court in Iron Acton has such a privy which was a design feature of the suite of rooms built for the visit of Henry VIII. It can be clearly seen from the outside of the building where the chimney has the breadth to accommodate both privy and smoke and betrays where the owner of the house located his most important rooms.

This trend for inside facilities continued well into the seventeenth century where examples of middle class housing continued to have a small room off the living room for the convenience of the householder. In the case of semi-detached or terrace properties, these facilities were often designed to be back to back with those of their neighbour so that they could also be emptied communally. This work was done by a ‘night man’ who, as his name suggested, would ply his trade at night when fewer people would be offended by the smell.

Those living in the country, however, had largely always relied on a visit ‘down the garden’. Ms Hall illustrated that a surprising number of these buildings have survived in our area. Often unassuming brick buildings, they were by necessity well-ventilated without light or heat. A typical interior arrangement provided two seats, one at a lower level for children. As older children were often tasked with accompanying younger siblings, some even had places where a second person could wait sheltered from the elements.

Although some owners were lucky enough to have a stream over which they could locate their privy, the vast majority emptied into pits or buckets. The pit type is typified by a low level arch at the back of the building where, when full, the owner could dig out the contents and use to fertilise the land. In this way, many gardens grew a smattering of fine tomato plants whose seeds cannot be harmed by passing through the human digestive system.

Those privies which used a bucket were designed with a door usually to the side from where the bucket could be reached for emptying.

With regards to hygiene, the walls of the privy were typically lime washed which helped to keep down the bacteria. Newspapers were torn into squares and threaded onto a string to serve as latter day ‘Andrex’ and Yew trees were often planted nearby as it was believed that they would take the ‘poison’ from the soil.

In finishing, Linda Hall, gave us a whole new appreciation of ‘toilet humour’ in describing how principally little boys would take great delight in throwing stones onto the roof of the privy or banging trays in order to frighten the occupant whilst he/she was otherwise engaged, or in opening up the hatch intended for emptying and inserting stinging nettles up the hole.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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