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Ash closets


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(Picture: Lee Hudson/Alamy)

This basic privy of the 1870s is essentially a bucket in a box with a wooden seat, housed in a brickouthouse. Light is provided by a candle or lamp, and sheets of newsprint impaled on a nail on the wall are provided as toilet paper. The door would have been notched at the top to allow ventilation.


Ash dropped into the pail after use dries and deodorises faeces. Full buckets were regularly removed by municipal authorities and exchanged for clean ones in a system instituted by, and widely named after, the town of Rochdale in Lancashire (now in Greater Manchester).

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(Picture: Reading Room 2020/Alamy)

This illustration shows a woman emptying ash from a household fire into a cupboard containing iron grids or sieves to sift out larger cinders that can be reused as fuel. The finer ashes that fall through the sieve can then be used to cover stools in the bucket toilet that sits alongside the ash container.


In towns and cities in northern England particularly, this basic material was, unlike soil, widely available: households burned coal, producing huge amounts of ash. In some cities, dry closets consisted of covered pits or middens beneath the privy seats, into which ash was poured. In places such as Manchester, these pits were emptied regularly, the contents carried to processing sites where the waste would be further dried or mixed with lime, and the mixture then sold as fertiliser. These ash middens were improvements on old, unhygienic and infrequently emptied cesspools.


From the late 1860s and early 1870s, several towns and cities in the English Midlands and North, including Birmingham, Nottingham, Blackburn and, famously, Rochdale employed the ‘pail system’. Instead of large middens or pits, each individual privy (housed in an outdoor structure) contained a wooden pail or galvanised iron bucket, into which ash was dropped after use. Sealed pails were collected and clean replacements provided weekly by the town corporation, along with tubs containing ash and other household waste. The system was introduced in Rochdale in 1868; ten years later, more than 7,500 of these pail closets were in use, and public health improved commensurately. Word of the success of this system spread internationally; the illustration above shows a pail closet in Kentucky, US, in 1878.

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(Picture: Victoria Gardner/Alamy)


The system relied on careful use of ash to cover solid waste, and effective administration by authorities. As with other shared outdoor toilets, this method wasn’t always convenient or pleasant. George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937): ‘And there are the special miseries attendant upon back to back houses. A fifty yards’ walk to the lavatory or the dust-bin is not exactly an inducement to be clean.’


As water supplies, sewerage systems and water closets became more common during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pail closets fell out of favour.


Today, in urban areas without integrated sewerage in many parts of the world, container-based sanitation systems employ similar concepts. Regular collection and replacement of waste containers from toilets can be scaled up as populations grow.

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