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Home  > News  > Toilets Through The Ages - A Show Me Guide To The Loo
 

Toilets Through The Ages - A Show Me Guide To The Loo

June 21 2007

Ok, so we're not actually going to tell you how to go the loo, hopefully if you can read this you've cracked that one. But have you ever wondered what people did before the days of the modern, flushable toilet?

Did you know that Romans used to go to the toilet to discuss the news or that the word 'wardrobe' comes from medieval loos?

Read on to discover more weird and interesting facts about this strange and rather whiffy subject…


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 and sit next to each other.

Some people used a similar method in the Middle Ages as this picture shows. © YAT

drawing of two men in robes sat on a wooden bench with holes in it


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 and you can still see some of their buildings.

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!

photo of a castle wall


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.

© 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.

© York Archaeological Trust

photo of a muddy pit with a plank of wood with a round hole in it

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.

photo of a courtyard with a lean to shed and a line of washing going across it


'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.

© NTPL/Dennis Gilbert


It was still common for people to have an outside toilet until the 1950s - ask your granny or grandad 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.

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.

photo of a women and two children walking along an old brick sewer

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If you want to see what a dark, creepy sewer actually 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.

© MOSI


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.

photo of a toilet connected to a kind of large brass instrument like a tuba and with a sort of harp as a toilet seat


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 uncomforable to sit on!

© National Museums Liverpool


Another loo in a gallery can be found at Tate Modern in London. It's just a porcelain man's toilet. The artist, Marcel Duchamp, didn't do anything else to it apart from put it upside down, sign it and call it art.

© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS

photo of a white porcelain man's urinal toilet


What do you think? Is this really art, funny or just plain weird? It's worth a lot of money now - imagine what the museum bosses would do if someone actually used it.

What's the most unusual piece of art you've seen, and what other uses can you think of for a toilet? What about using one as a plant pot or a fish tank? Write in and let us know.

Graham Spicer