Widecombe History Group Talk on Devon Privies

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Devon's Privies - ‘A nostalgic trip down the Garden Path’

By Shan Toynes

Shan began her talk by explaining that her study of this subject led to the production of a book on the subject "Devon’s Privies" with the sub-title ‘A Nostalgic Trip Down The Garden Path!’

 A Privy has, according to a thesaurus, a whole list of other names, toilet, lavatory, bathroom, W.C., convenience, ladies room, powder room the list is endless. Shan has found 95 different names for privies all listed in her book.

She began by writing to several local papers and doing interviews on radio requesting details of any in the county. It was amazing how many replies she received

Evidently there has been a series of similar books published covering most of Britain and she felt that mention had to be made of the light-hearted book - the standard laugh on the subject - ‘The Specialist’ by Charles Sale, first published in 1930 and reprinted in 1994 and again in 1998 and 2001.

The standard of sanitation or more correctly the lack of it in houses and homes contributed to The Black Death. It was notable how Monasteries seemed to avoid this scourge, due mainly to their more sophisticated means of disposal of human waste. In the 12th century the Monks of Portland Castle had their ‘privy’ built so that everything landed outside the castle walls and was carried away either by a stream that ran along the exterior walls or into the moat, or were positioned so that the tide twice a day carried everything away out to sea. The Romans had a satisfactory method of dealing with this waste examples of which can be seen in Hadrians Wall. In some Roman Villas they even had marble seats with a fast flowing stream beneath. The early earth closets, at the bottom of the garden, did at least keep the smells etc away from the dwelling house, but in many cases they were situated just outside the back door. In many larger houses it was the duty of some unfortunate sole in the servant class to have the unenviable job of emptying the ‘slop-bucket’ of the lord and lady of the house, each morning. Commodes and Closet Stools were the prerogative of the wealthy, but an old enamel, earthenware or galvanised bucket was the receptacle of the chamber pot of the underclass’s. Most privies had doors but a photograph of one near Hexworthy was shown that did not, it was situated on the side of a hill that had a wonderful view, when seated in all your glory! Most doors were secured by an old thumb type latch that was called a ‘sneck’. Many houses still have that type of latch particularly on an outdoor shed! Many of these buildings had lids for each hole, some held on by a chain - one wonders why?

These earth toilets, that had to be emptied regularly, were simply a galvanised bucket situated under a wooden seat and the buckets were of a certain shape to avoid sloping when being carried! In several privies it can be seen that two, three and even eight seater privies were constructed. Was it, one ponders, coincidental that those with earth bucket lavatories had the best and most productive gardens! It must be said that the disposal of waste in Urban Areas was not as simple as in the country. There were horse-drawn carts that collected from the houses of the wealthy. Most of these buildings had an air hole, sometimes patterned, cut in the top of the door. It appears that there are examples still in existence in most parishes, some at the bottom of the gardens of completely modernised houses even in the towns. In one she even found paper hung on the back of the door with binder twine dated 1954. Many are now overgrown by ivy, roses, bramble and other vegetation. These privies are generally well constructed, there are some however that are simple timber and galvanised iron constructions These buildings were also wonderful havens for wildlife. Many were used by birds as nesting sites, small mammals as hiding places and innumerable insects, now many are used as log stores or garden sheds. When the Duke of Bedford built cottages for his workmen at the copper mines he was dismayed that a family, consisting of a man, wife, six children and four to six workmen lived in a room 14ft x 12 ft. He decreed that in his cottages, there should be outside, a pig sty and ash pit, a drying ground and a garden. Each cottage cost £89 7s 5d, c1850 to build.

The main concern of those who now own these "privies", when it comes to recording their existence, is the power of Conservation Officers, so the actual whereabouts of many of them is often not mentioned. This is due to the worry that a conservation order may be placed on it, resulting in great financial expense being incurred by the owner in maintaining them to a standard laid down by such bureaucrats, rather than the simple repairs that the individual is willing to undertake to save this little piece of our heritage. In Mid-Devon there was a case of a Conservation Officer getting a privy listed in three weeks flat! One photograph shown to the meeting was of a scale model of a "privy" complete with paper behind the door - brilliant!

Mention was made of a Thomas Crapper, toilet manufacturer, c1847, reputed to be the founder of the ‘water-closet’, this is questionable. Also mentioned was the boat that has been used for years to take the Exeter Sewage Sludge 3 miles out to sea before dumping the waste into the ocean. This boat used to make its regular journeys down the Exeter Canal and the river Exe every other day. This practice has now stopped and one wonders if this will effect the river and canal as its regular passage helped to keep the waterway from silting up! It was only about two years ago it was halted by E. U. regulations and there is now talk as to whether the canal will need dredging.

There is also an informative book on the subject of toilet paper - it seems that a study of any subject is indeed possible these days! Ian Maxted at The Westcountry Studies Library is a world expert on the study of lavatory paper!

An interesting and amusing illustrated talk, was enjoyed by all those who attended the meeting.

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The information on this page was last modified on March 18 2013 12:54:51.

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