Based on childhood recollections
of working class family life in north London in Edwardian times.
The Victorian-style terraced houses
where my mother grew up in the early 1900s were state of the art at the time
with flush lavatories, but many working class
families in older properties lacked such modern conveniences.
My mother wrote
that one of her grandmothers lived in little more than a hovel and used an outdoor
privy as a lavatory. I wanted to know what this involved and much of what I
found out is due to discussions with Bill Hogg, Anne Davey (born Anne Cole)
and Phyllis Durbidge (born Phyllis Money) who were familiar with such privies
The location of a privy
All privies were down an outside path somewhere to keep the smell away from
living quarters, and they were used in all weathers, rain or shine. However
chamber pots were used inside the house, particularly
during the nights.
The privy building
Privy at the Tottenham
Tile Kilns. Photo taken in 1897, around the time when the kilns went
out of business. Either the door opened inwards or it was off its hinges,
leaving only a thin slat behind..
Some privies were in wooden huts and some were brick-built. The roofs sloped
to let the rain drain off, and the doors had ventilation in them (above eye
level) to keep the air as fresh as possible.
Inside a privy
The lavatory seat was made of wooden slats with a hole to sit over. Some
families had two holes of different sizes to accommodate the children. Or there
was just one large hole. Sometimes there was a board behind to lean on, so that
users could line themselves up with the hole.
Not even a privy? - use a tree
I am told from first hand recollections that certain
poorer people in rural Ireland did not even have an outside privy. They
just went outside and leant against a tree. It seems likely that this practice
was widespread everywhere in labourers' families during the 1800s and earlier;
it just did not and does not get reported.
Keeping the privy as fresh as possible
There was no water flush.
A privy was kept fresh by sprinkling the products of a visit with whatever
was readily available and would serve the purpose. Ash was an effective common
commodity at the time as open fires and cooking ranges were the only forms of
heating. Sawdust was also used, as was plain garden soil. I wonder if a bucket
of water could have been thrown in, but no-one has experienced this.
Apparently some privies had a lever system which 'flushed' like modern lavatories,
but with the ash or sawdust - but by all accounts they never really worked effectively.
Disposing of the contents of a privy
There seem to have been various ways of disposing of the products of a visit
to a privy.
The principle of one type is shown in the diagram below. The area under the
seat was open at the back and there was a sloping floor to let urine drain out
behind. Presumably one person's urine helped to wash out the previous person's
faeces, although the occasional bucket of water probably helped. Behind the
privy was a compost heap for any rubbish that would rot down. This 'enhanced'
compost heap was said to be a great soil improver for the garden. If or when
the privy got blocked up, there were contractors who would come to dig it out
and empty it. They were referred to as 'night soil men', and they came round
at night by horse and cart.
The principle of the draining privy. The area under the
seat was open at the back and there was a sloping base to let the results
of a visit drain out behind.
In another type of privy, a bucket was placed under the hole(s) in the seat
to receive the products of a visit. It was a specially made bucket which was
wide at the top with an oval basin. This bucket was taken out at intervals of
between a day and a week, and its contents either buried or put onto a compost
heap. Alternatively the 'night soil man' could be engaged to come round by cart
to do the emptying.
I don't know whether the seat lifted for removal of the bucket or whether
it was fixed, so that the bucket had to be taken out through the back of the
Toilet paper / lavatory paper was newspaper, cut into squares, pierced with
a skewer and hung on the wall with string, as in the
lavatories of the Victorian-style terraces.
The coming of mains drainage
Mains drainage did not come to some rural areas until the 1950s or even after
This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in early to mid 20th century Britain, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.
It is © Pat Cryer.