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I have reviewed several Shire Library books this past year and have yet to be disappointed. Case in point, Privies and Water Closets by David J. Eveleigh, an excellent small book on the history of fixed and portable sanitation and waste management. I have discovered that this topic is of everlasting curiosity and many of my readers have asked questions similar to the following: How well  did our ancestors manage without indoor bathrooms or running water? This book largely answers the question.

Starting with the 17th and 18th centuries, Mr. Everleigh traces the history of sanitation and the problems our ancestors had in handling waste sewage. While the topic may not seem glamorous, it is hugely fascinating, for sanitation management was intricately connected to the safety of a community’s water supply and the populace’s overall health and well-being. He classified the earliest sanitation methods as either portable or fixed.

Portable Solutions

Chamber pots were the easiest method of sanitation. Placed under beds, or a commode or closet stool, the contents could be easily emptied into a covered slop pail and carried outside. In the 17th and 18th century small rooms or closets were introduced that adjoined the bedrooms. These areas were outfitted with a comfortable commode, under which a pan would be placed.

16th century water closet

The wealthy did not handle the chamber pots, leaving the servants to clean up after them.  Chamber pots were not always so well situated, as the image below shows (p. 8).

L'apres Dinee des Anglais

English gentlemen, known for their prodigious drinking habits, were wont to relieve themselves where they were – in the dining room, for instance, or in a common room of a public inn – where they did not always aim straight and true (as the young man at left), much to the chagrin and disbelief of French travelers, some of whom wrote about this unsanitary habit.

Fixed Solutions

The privy was a fixed out house (or necessary house or house of office), with no water supply or drain and usually located some distance away from the house. A fixed wooden seat with a rounded hole was placed directly over the cesspit or “void.” Occasionally privies were attached to the side of a building, projecting out from a top floor, or reached through on outdoor entry on the ground floor of a service wing. More often than not they were placed at some distance from the main house at the far end of a garden or yard, where its contents could be used to “enrich” flower and vegetable beds.

Earth closet contents were put on the garden, Chawton Cottage. Photo courtesy Tony Grant**

In cities, neighboring privies were placed side by side in yards and drained into a common cesspool located under an alley that ran between the row of cottages or townhouses. In rich to middle class households, nightsoilmen would be paid to cart the waste away when the household was sleeping. This service was quite expensive, and quite often neglected in poorer districts where the lower classes could not (and landlords would not) hire these men until the cesspools were filled to overflowing.

A woman obtains water from a well situated near garbage cans and outdoor privies, which can be seen through the opening in the wall. (Image taken in 1931!)***

Lack of sanitation led to diseases like typhoid, dysentery, and cholera. It was common in the slum districts for cess pools to be left unlined or partially finished, allowing liquid sewage to seep into and contaminate a nearby well, cistern, or other common form of water supply. In cities the public privy was often the only “necessary” available and was shared by a number of households, sometimes as many as sixty-five. The crowding and lack of maintenance and emptying of wastes led to disease and death.

Alley with open sewer drain and privies for the surrounding houses

In Privies and Waterclosets, Mr. Eveleigh traces the improvements in street sewers, indoor plumbing and running water, and sanitary habits throughout the nineteenth century, especially after the second great cholera epidemic in Bermondsey, London in 1849, which killed 13,000 and was the result of water contaminated by raw sewage.

While the book consists of only 64 pages, authors of historical novels will find it a fascinating and welcome addition to their research library. I give this book three out of three Regency fans.

Pages: 64
Published: 2008, Shire Library 479, Shire Publications, UK
150mm x 210mm, soft cover, indexed, new
ISBN 978-0-7478-0702-5

Additional links:

*Image of water closet: Abertillery and District Museum

**Image of Chawton Cottage garden, Tony Grant, London Calling – Personal Hygiene in Jane Austen’s Day

***Image of woman at well, North East Midland Photographic Record, The University of Nottingham, 1931 (This is a correction.)

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