In the privy that annoyes you

Given that this week marks 100 years since Thomas Crapper died, the man widely believed to have been the inventor of the flushing toilet, I thought a few snippets on the history of this most essential of household devices might prove interesting.

It was not in fact Thomas Crapper who invented the internal flushing waste disposal system but an Elizabethan, Sir John Harington, godson to Elizabeth I. In 1596 he published his New Discourse of a Stale Subect: An Anatomie of the Metamorphosed Ajax. Subtitled Wherein by a tripartite method is plainly, openly, and demonstratively, declared, explained, and eliquidated, by pen, plot, & precept, how unsaverie places may be made sweet, noysome places made wholesome, filthy places made cleanly. Published for the common benefite of builders, house-keepers, and house-owners. Harington was quite the wit, and the title is a pun on the slang for urine (stale) and for privies (jakes).

The traditional receptacle used by the Elizabethans was the chamber pot. Chamber pots would be stored out of sight, perhaps placed discreetly under the bed, or in a corner behind a door. They were emptied by servants, if the owner was lucky enough to have any, otherwise people were forced to empty their pots out onto the street from an upper window. The very wealthy invested in a close-stool; a forerunner to the commode.



Elizabeth I had four richly decorated commodes, which she used in her bedchamber, and when touring the great houses of England. Most buildings had privies; outdoor sheds or huts with a bench over an open hole, but it was not until later that waste disposal became more organised. By the 1660s, the wealthy had cesspits installed in their homes, into which all the waste would be deposited before being collected at night by the Night-Soil men. Most homes by this stage did have some running water, but it would be another century before homes were fitted with flushing toilets.

What follows are Sir John Harington’s instructions on installing a flushing loo, complete with Ikea-style diagrams.

Wherefore now, seriously and in good sadnesse to instruct you, all Gentlemen of worship, how to reforme all unsaverie places of your houses, whether they be caused by privies, or sinkes, or such like (for the annoyance comming all of like causes, the remedies neede not be much unlike) this you shall do. In the Privie that annoyes you, first cause a Cisterne, containing a barrell or upward, to be placed either behind the seat, or in any place either in the roome, or above it, from whence the water may by a small pype of leade of an inch be conveyed under the seate in the hinder part thereof (but quite out sight) to which pype you must have a Cocke or a washer to yeeld water with some prettie strength, when you would let it in. Next make a vessell of an ovall forme, as broad at the bottome as at the top, two foote deep, one foote broad, xvi. inches long, place this very close to your seate, like the pot of a close stoole, let the ovall incline to the right hand. This vessell may be brick, stone, or leade, but whatsoever it is, it should have a Current of 3. inches, to the backe part of it, (where a sluce of brasse must stand) the bottome, and sides all smooth: and drest with pitch, rosin, and waxe, which will keepe it from taynting with the urine.



In the lowest part of this vessell; which will be on the right hand, you must fasten the sluce or washer of brasse with soder or Ciment, the Concavitie or hollow thereof, must be 2 inches and ½. To the washers stopple, must be a stemme of iron as bigge as a curten rod, strong and even and perpendicular; with a strong skrew at the top of it, to which you must have a hollow key with a woorme fit to that skrew. This skrew must, when the sluce is downe, appeare through the planke not above a straw-breadth on the right hand, and being duly placed, it will stand three or foure inches wyde of the midst of the backe of your seate. Note that children and busie folke disorder it not, or open the sluce, with putting in their hands without a key, you should have a little button, or scallop shell, to bind it down with a vice pinne, so as without the key it will not be opened. These things thus placed: all about your vessell and elsewhere, must be passing close plastered with good lyme and hayre, [Note: Else all is vayne. ] that no ayre come up from the vault, but onely at your sluce, which stands close stopt, and ever it must be left, after it is voyded, halfe a foote deepe in cleane water. If water be plentie, the oftener it is used and opened, the sweeter; but if it be scant, once a day is enough, for a neede, though twentie persons should use it.

If the water will not run to your Cesterne, [Note: the great washer you shall buy at the Queenes Brasiers in Lothbery at the Bores head. ] you may with a force of twentie shillings, and a pype of eighteen pence the yard, force it from the lowest part of your house to the highest.

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One comment

  • January 29, 2010 - 9:30 pm | Permalink

    “that children and busie folke disorder it not”

    Sir John has thought of everything. I wonder what experience he had of children and busy folke.

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