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Toilets through the ages

Toilet Sign

© Jack Shoulder

    • You may use one every day but have you ever considered the history of the toilet? We reveal some strange but interesting facts about this rather whiffy subject...

      Roman toilets

      Unlike us, the Romans thought nothing of going to the toilet in a public place. They had rooms with stone benches with lots of holes in them where people would go to the loo as they sat next to each other.

      A cartoon of two men sitting on a wooden toilet bench© YAT
      In fact rich Romans would use public toilets as places to discuss the day's news and to maybe even make a business deal. The Romans were in Britain for more than 350 years. They left in AD410 and you can still see some of their buildings today.

      You can still see the toilets they used at Vindolanda in Northumberland, more than 1,500 years ago - luckily there's no Roman poo left in them.

      Segedunum Roman Fort, also in Northumberland, has made a reconstruction of a Roman bath and toilet. You can actually use the baths but don't think about asking to use the toilets - they are only a model.

      Loos in the Middle Ages

      During the Middle Ages, rich people built toilets called 'garderobes' jutting out of the sides of their castles. A hole in the bottom let everything just drop into a pit or the moat.

      A photo showing the remains of a medieval garderobe style toilet on the side of a castle© Dave Dunford
      You had to be careful you weren't walking underneath it when someone was in the loo and take care on a dark night not to fall into the moat. In the summer time the smell would have been terrible.

      In fact, people used to store clothes in the garderobes as the pongy smells kept moths away that might otherwise eat holes in them - this is where the word wardrobe comes from.

      Not everyone lived in castles - poor people lived in huts and would have used dirty pits like this for toilets. You can see the plank they would have sat on at this medieval toilet found in York.

      A hole with a wooden slat which has a hole in it.© York Archaeology Trust
      The Industrial Revolution

      During the British Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, thousands and thousands of people moved to towns and cities and lots more houses were needed for them.

      Many of these were very crowded with no room for toilets inside.

      'Back-to-back' houses were very common and had no gaps between them. Several houses would share a small yard where there would be an outside toilet - you might have had to queue up to use the loo while you waited for your neighbour to finish.

      It was still common for people to have an outside toilet until the 1950s - ask your granny or granddad and they might remember all about having to sit on horrible cold toilet seats if they had to get up for a wee in the middle of the night.

      Sewers

      These days almost all of us have flushing toilets - maybe even more than one. It wasn't until a man called Thomas Crapper came along in the mid 19th century, about 150 years ago, that they became widespread.

      But what happens after you flush? Poo, wee and all that water doesn't just vanish into thin air, it goes down the drains and into the sewers.

      A photograph showing three people exploring some sewers© MOSI
      If you want to see what a dark, creepy sewer really looks like but avoid all the smelly poo, then the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester actually has a reconstruction of a Victorian sewer you can visit and lots more about the history of toilets besides.

      Musical Loo?

      Since we're on the subject of loos, what about the Loophonium? This 'wind' instrument is on display at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

      A porcelain toilet with the flow pipe connected to a large brass instrument with a harp as a toilet seat© National Museums Liverpool
      It's an old toilet connected to a euphonium, an instrument like a tuba, and has a sort of harp instead of a toilet seat - not the sort of thing you'd normally see in an orchestra - it might also be a bit uncomfortable to sit on!

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