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Cheap toilets for the working classes


10 Cottage A 8HS_4787-Sirex-10.jpg

(Picture: Hugh Sainsbury/Crossness Engines Trust)


This soil-pan, a simple combination of a basic, durable pan and water-sealed trap costing a few shillings, could be bought and easily fitted to privies indoors and out. Usually made with stoneware, though sometimes with cast iron, variations on this design were installed into the early 20th century.

10 Cottage B Short_hopper_water_closet.j

Another similar design was the hopper closet, illustrated here. In this kind of toilet the pan, which might be straight sided like this, or a more rounded bowl called a ‘cottage basin’ like the Sirex, was connected to a water-sealed trap. Both parts were boxed in wood or brick, beneath a hole in a wooden seat. Initially, before towns installed integrated sewer systems, the waste was typically flushed into a cesspit. There were no metal valves, levers or springs, so there was less to go wrong, and it could be sold at a fraction of the cost of the more-sophisticated water closets descended from Bramah’s design.


Such a toilet might be flushed from a high-level cistern or, in places without an adequate piped water supply to the privy, by simply throwing a bucket of water down the pan. That usually resulted in soaking the seat, and sometimes emptied the water trap through siphonic action, allowing smelly gases to rise into the privy. Occasionally, mains water was connected directly, and simply opening a tap let water into the pan.


Whether the flush came from a cistern or a tap, though, the flow of water was often too weak to adequately clean the pan or drive waste out of the trap, so many of these closets became filthy and clogged, particularly where outside privies were shared between multiple households.

10 Cottage C 8HS4790-Peel-10.jpg

(Photo: Hugh Sainsbury/Crossness Engines Trust)


This kind of closet shares many similarities with modern toilets. The shape resembles the early wash-down closets of the later 19th century. And this example has the advantage of a folded rim, which helped swirl water around the pan to clean more effectively. Yet by the early 20th century this style was largely phased out.


Providing effective and affordable toilets in places without adequate water supplies or integrated sewerage systems continues to pose a challenge in many parts of the world today. That’s why designers continue to devise alternative sanitation solutions tailored to various local circumstances.


See this and other simple closets at Crossness Engines in southeast London.

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