Posh Privies

Our first meeting of 2022 was conducted via Zoom due to on-going Covid restrictions. Over the last year this has proved to be a successful way of providing our members with some excellent talks. Our Chair Kevin Slattery welcomed everyone and introduced Dr Marian Gwyn our speaker for the evening. The title of her talk was “Posh Privies” and we all settled into our armchairs at home ready to be informed and intrigued. We certainly weren’t disappointed!

Dr Gwyn is a heritage consultant, writer and researcher who is published in peer-reviewed journals and teaches courses on history and heritage management. She is committed to helping heritage organisations flourish and has wide expertise in many areas of history and heritage

The presentation began with Dr Gwyn explaining the background to the subject which was focused on large country houses. She told us of the attitudes of those who owned these properties, attitudes which differed in their approach to the development and installation of gas and electricity and of water and waste management.

We were then introduced to the history of human waste management. Dr Gwyn showed slides which included examples of indoor plumbing from Skara Brae on Orkney 5,500 years ago, a picture of a waste system from Crete in 1700 BC, and the communal toilets of the Romans. Nearer to home we saw a photo of the waste system in Conwy Castle (a sight which always gives rise to lots of unfortunate comments from my young grandsons…). Dr Gwyn discussed the development of the thunderbox and showed lots of examples from Tudor and Georgian England. She also looked at the difficulties women faced and the French solution of the “bourdaloue”.

French Bourdaloue

For the elite and the clergy there has always been a system of disposing of waste but there was no mechanised system until the first flushing “privy” was invented by John Harrington during the reign of Elizabeth 1. Unfortunately it didn’t become popular and for hundreds of years there was little change until, at the end of the 18th century the ram pump was developed. These are still in use today in areas with little running water. Technology began to develop, and in the 1770s Joseph Bramah and Alexander Cummings developed the flush, the S bend and then the 15 second flush

In the 19th century changes happened including the development of the close stool and the commode. Close stools had been used for centuries but now they became more elaborate and often disguised, for example as chests of drawers. Water wheels and donkey wheels to pump up water were still widespread. However systems of getting water into a property and getting rid of that water tended to stop at the garden of the large country houses. There are examples of fountains as early as 3000 BC in Mesopotamia. Fountains were demonstrations of wealth; privies were the work of servants. This attitude of the elite hampered the spread of mechanised waste management systems in their large houses as the removal of waste was considered to be servants’ work. The first bathrooms in these properties were in the servants’ quarters. However, the middle classes embraced bathrooms in their houses and finally, in the 1920s and 1930s the elite, faced with a shortage of servants, were forced to change their attitude and they installed bathrooms for their own use

This was a fascinating and wide-ranging presentation on a little-known topic. Kevin thanked Dr Gwyn for presenting us with such an interesting and thought-provoking talk and then members of the audience asked questions. An excellent evening.

Diane Williams

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