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!
*Updated November 2017*
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Uncover More Stories
Learn more about a recent conservation project to restore a hidden Victorian privy at Brodsworth Hall and Gardens on our news pages.
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.