Medieval privies & latrines
(Picture: © Museum of London)
Incredibly, we probably know the names of some of the people who sat on this triple seat, which dates from the 12th or 13th century and was painstakingly restored by the Museum of London. The latrine seems to have been used by residents of a tenement building called Helle, and records from the 13th century tell us it was owned by cap-maker John de Flete and his family.
(Picture: Private Collection © Look and Learn/Bridgeman)
In various towns and cities, toilets emptied waste directly into rivers as well as pits. This Victorian engraving shows an old, ramshackle privy overhanging the River Frome in the centre of Bristol. Like the Fleet in London, for centuries the Frome acted as an open sewer, with residents dropping waste into the water or onto the banks, to be washed away only on high tides. This continued until both rivers were covered over in the mid-19th century.
Also in London, a number of public latrines were built during the Middle Ages to serve the growing population. Some of these latrines were on London Bridge, with waste falling into the Thames. A huge public toilet known as Whittington’s Longhouse, funded by Lord Mayor Dick Whittington (of panto fame), was built in 1421. The waste dropped from its 128 seats – 64 each for men and women – into a gully on the bank of the Thames near the site of the modern Southwark Bridge, where it was washed away by the tides. The Longhouse was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666.
(Picture: Bridgeman Images)
As the populations of cities grew, so did sanitation problems. By the 13th century, the Fleet was already polluted, reeking and becoming blocked by human and other waste. This late-16th-century map shows the Fleet flowing into the Thames; today that river is largely underground, and its outflow is almost hidden beneath Blackfriars Bridge.
Cesspits under privies were often designed to be porous, leaking liquids into the soil so that solid waste became drier, and thus required emptying less frequently. Removing the contents of these pits was smelly, unpleasant and costly, so people often avoided having it done more than once or twice a year, or even less frequently. Sometimes, if it was left too long, the pits overflowed, and stinking sludge seeped over streets and into houses. The famous diarist Samuel Pepys wrote on 20 October 1660 that when “going down my cellar to look, I put my foot into a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr Turner's house of office is full and comes into my cellar”.
These problems largely continued until the mid-19th century, when wide-scale municipal sewerage and sanitation projects were undertaken across British cities. Still, many people lacked even the most basic toilets inside their homes well into the 20th century.