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Top 10 Toilets Through Time

Posted:
30 September 2014
Posted By:
English Heritage
Categories:
History Uncovered
Reconstruction of the toilets at Housesteads Roman Fort by Philip Corke

It’s not glamorous, but everybody needs to do it. From Romans gossiping on the loo to medieval royal bottom-wiping, to the invention of our modern flushing toilet, here are 2,000 years of toilet history!

1. Housesteads Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall: All together now…

The best preserved Roman loos in Britain are at Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall. At its height, the fort was garrisoned by 800 men, who would use the loo block you can still see today. There weren’t any cubicles, so men sat side by side, free to gossip on the events of the day. They didn’t have loo roll either, so many used a sponge on a stick, washed and shared by many people – lovely!

Visit Housesteads Roman Fort

Roman toilets at Housesteads Roman Fort on Hadrian's Wall

 

2. Old Sarum, Wiltshire: Luxury facilities, until you have to clean them…

These deep cesspits sat beneath the Norman castle at Old Sarum, probably underneath rooms reached from the main range, like private bathrooms. In the medieval period luxury castles were built with indoor toilets known as ‘garderobes’, and the waste dropped into a pit below. It was the job of the ‘Gongfarmer’ to remove it – one of the smelliest jobs in history? At Old Sarum the Gongfarmer was dangled from a rope tied around his waist, while he emptied the two 5m pits.

Visit Old Sarum

The garderobe pits at Old Sarum

 

3. Dover Castle, Kent: The royal wee

Henry II made sure that Dover Castle was well provided with garderobes. He had his own en-suite facilities off the principal bed-chamber. As with many castles of the era, chutes beneath the garderobes were built so that the waste fell into a pit which could be emptied from outside the building.

Medieval nobility would likely have a ‘groom of the stool’ - an important servant within the household responsible for making the experience comfortable for his employer, and bottom wiping!

Visit Dover Castle

Henry II's bedchamber at Dover Castle

 

4. Goodrich Castle, Herefordshire: The toilet tower

At Goodrich Castle there’s a whole tower dedicated to doing your business. The garderobe tower was built in the later Middle Ages to replace a small single latrine, and the survival of such as large example is extremely rare in England in Wales. The loos could be accessed from the courtyard from one of three doors, leading to the ‘cubicles’. There might have been more than one seat in each chamber.

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Garderobe Tower at Goodrich Castle - the middle tower

 

5. Orford Castle, Suffolk: A Norman urinal

Garderobes are quite common in medieval castles, but urinals are a little more unusual. Henry II’s Orford Castle was built as a show of royal power, and to guard the busy port of Orford. The constable – a senior royal official in charge of the castle – had his own private room, which has a urinal built into the thick castle wall.

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Norman urinal at Orford Castle

 

6. Muchelney Abbey, Somerset: Thatched loo for monks

Many medieval abbey ruins across the country include the remains of the latrines, or ‘reredorter’ (meaning literally ‘at the back of the dormitory’), including Muchelney Abbey, Castle Acre Priory and Battle Abbey. At Muchelney the building survives with a thatched roof, making it the only one of its kind in Britain. The monks would enter the loo block via their dormitory and take their place in a cubicle – you can still see the fixings for the bench and partitions between each seat.

Visit Muchelney Abbey

The thatched monks' latrines at Muchelney Abbey

 

7. Jewel Tower, London: The Privy Palace

A precious survival from the medieval Palace of Westminster, Jewel Tower was part of the ‘Privy Palace’, the residence of the medieval kings and their families from 11th to 16th century. It was well supplied with garderobes, with one on each of the three floors. As the tower housed the royal treasure, while sitting on the loo you might have enjoyed the richest view in the kingdom!

Visit Jewel Tower

Door at Jewel Tower

 

8. Old Wardour Castle, Wiltshire: ‘A new discourse of a stale subject’

The forerunner to our modern flushing toilet was invented at Old Wardour Castle. The inventor Sir John Harington met with five others at the castle to discuss his idea for the first time in 1592. Sir John might have been influenced by the plumbing situation at Old Wardour – in the 14th century the castle was built with luxurious ‘en-suites’ for many of the important chambers, but by the end of the century it was more likely to just cause a big stink as both shafts and drains frequently blocked up.

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Old Wardour Castle

 

9. Audley End House, Essex: Feeling flush

Along with many other technological advancements, Audley End was one of the first country houses in England to have flushing toilets. The first of Joseph Bramah’s new hinged-valve water closets was purchased in 1775, and a further 4 were bought in 1785 at a cost equivalent to the wages of two servants for a whole year! Although none of the Bramah toilets survive, there are two other early loos from the 1870s, one next to the chapel and another in the Coal Gallery.

Visit Audley End

Toilet at Audley End (structure on right)

 

10. Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire: Thunderboxes

Inside the elegant Victorian country house of Brodsworth Hall almost everything has been left exactly as it was when it was still a family home. So as well as the grand furniture, there’s also everything from the commodes of the 1840s to a modern pink bathroom from the 1960s/70s. A highlight has to be the flush thunderboxes – essentially mahogany boxes with a hole, and a brass handle for flushing – part of the original sanitary arrangements in the 1860s.

Visit Brodsworth Hall

Thunderbox at Brodsworth Hall

 

Uncover More Stories

If you fancy flushing out more toilet tales at historic sites around the country, choose from hundreds of castles, abbeys and ruins here. Don't forget that English Heritage membership offers free access to over 400 historic sites, free or reduced price entry to hundreds of events and loads of other benefits.

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    English Heritage
    English Heritage is a charity which cares for over 400 historic sites around England.

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  1. The garderobe at Stanks Old Hall in South Leeds (previously the hunting lodge for the Royal hunting parked stretching across from the now derelict Rothwell Castle) is pretty outstanding and a very rare survival, given the derelict state of the site!

  2. Are the guys in the first picture trying to get their clothes dirty?

  3. My grans tippler toilet in the back yard of her cottage in Burnley should be among these. It fascinated me when I was a child, and you could have eaten your dinner off the stone floor, my gran kept it so clean.

  4. The wooden thunder boxes at Brodsworth Hall remind me of my childhood in Grosmont, North Yorkshire. We had wooden thunder boxes with NO flush. The guys from Whitby council emptied them about once every 10 days or so. All the cottages in our terrace had one. That was in the 50’s,60’s, and 70’s

  5. “My mates built like a stone garderobe.” Doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  6. 9 AUDLEY END House
    Alexander Cumming a clock maker patented a ‘slider valve closet’ in 1775
    Joseph Bramah a cabinet maker patented a ‘hinged valve closet’ in 1778

  7. Longthorpe Tower in Peterborough has the original medieval loo seat dating to the 1300s, one of if not the oldest in England to survive intact. It’s made of stone so might have been a bit chilly….

  8. Pingback: Flere ‘lortefund’… | Anna