Toilet, loo, lavatory, water closet, restroom, bathroom – no matter what you call it, they all refer to the same thing: the porcelain throne on which we spend an average of three hours and nine minutes a week. The flushing toilet is a quintessential part of modern life. The press of a button and our waste is whisked away, never to be seen again (unless you have to face the horror of working on wastewater pipe renewal projects). Yet it wasn’t always that way.
Archaeologists studying ancient and more recent civilisations have shown that the principals of sanitation are basically the same no matter when or where you lived, those being: when people are living too densely for the ‘just find a bush’ method to work, collect the waste in something and find a way to dispose it. In Ancient Greece, Rome and Babylonia latrines with pipes that connected to cesspits or drains were installed in cities. Ancient Egypt also had latrines, but these drained directly into sandy soil, with waste sometimes then collected and used as fertiliser. People from the Harrapan civilisation in India also collected waste and used it as fertiliser, while in Mesopotamia, privies had a portable pot that was removed and emptied once full (Genc 2009).
Of course, while the broad principals of sanitation may be transcultural, some cultures did it better than others. As with anything engineering related, the Romans did it best. Nearly every Roman city dweller had access to a toilet (unlike some of the other ancient civilisations where it was only the wealthy and elite), and Roman latrines were connected to an elaborate drainage and sewer system, with the Cloaca Maxima draining into the River Tiber.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the engineered drainage systems they had constructed fell into disrepair. Those living in cities in the Middle Ages likely collected waste in a bucket or chamber pot that was emptied into the street or river – if they weren’t just finding a private spot outside to go. Latrines did exist (with public latrines that emptied directly into the River Thames located on the London Bridge), but they weren’t as common nor as engineered as those from the earlier Roman period. This approach to sanitation led to stinky, disease ridden cities, that worsened as population density increased. The Great Stink of 1858 refers to a particularly hot summer when the Thames River water level dropped, exposing centuries of waste and a stench so offensive that it apparently caused people miles away to throw up when the wind changed.
You might be, by this point, wondering what has inspired today’s blog post on the humble toilet. Well, it’s because we recently found one. Our toilet was made by Twyfords in 1889 and likely dates back to when flushing toilets were first introduced to Christchurch. But more on that soon. For now, let’s look at what came before the porcelain potty.
Privies, cesspits, closet pans, earth closets and water closets were all different options available to our 19th century counterparts when nature called. Early settlers to Christchurch built privies (or long drops) that discharged into cesspits. These privies proved problematic as they were smelly and prone to leaking, which contaminated soil and sources of water. As early as the 1860s, councils were requiring people to seek council permission before constructing a cesspit to ensure that the cesspit would not leach into drinking water (Press 30/08/1862: 4; Press 31/03/1863: 2). Councils weren’t big fans of cesspits, for obvious reasons. Instead they encouraged people to use closet pans (Press 31/03/1863: 2). These were essentially a bucket (or similar receptacle) that collected the waste, rather than being stored in a cesspit. This waste was collected by nightsoil men and scavengers, who would empty the pans onto a cart and remove it from the city.
In 1870 Bylaw No. 10 under the Municipal Corporations Act 1867 gave council governance over all privies, cesspits and house drains (Press 06/05/1870: 4), and later pieces of legislation required that all houses needed their own privy (Press 22/02/1873: 2). Council employed an Inspector of Nuisances (an amazing job title) who was responsible for inspecting privies and cesspits. The inspector’s reports to the Board of Health in the late 1870s often complained that cesspits were unsanitary and recommended that they be replaced with closet pans or earth closets (Press 08/08/1871: 3; Press 30/11/1878: 2; Press 01/02/1879: 5).
The cleanliness of the privy was dependent on nightsoil men and scavengers doing their jobs. In 1879, W. J. White was summoned for causing a nuisance on his premises in Tuam Street by allowing a closet pan to overflow and for burying night soil in his backyard; something that was illegal under the Local Board of Health Act. At the proceedings, White said that the nuisance was not his fault but instead that of the nightsoil man who had failed to collect the nightsoil, despite White having paid him to do so. White was forced to bury the nightsoil on his premises as the nightsoil man had not collected it in seven months (Press 15/02/1879: 5). While the services of the nightsoil men were contracted by the council, individual households still had to pay for the service. Today’s landlords will be horrified to hear that in 1880, the Christchurch City Council had the gall to try and seek payment from property owners for this service after some tenants defaulted on their payments (it turns out that landlord’s complaining about providing liveable properties is not unique to the 21st century).
The work charged for was done for the benefit of the tenant, and it was absurd to charge it to the landlord. If the landlord could be charged for one closet pan, there was no reason to prevent him being made to bear the cost of any number of pans his tenant chose to scatter over the house.
-Press 09/09/1880: 3
As early as the 1860s, calls were being made to introduce water closets to Christchurch (Press 30/08/1864: 2). The problem with privies, closet pans and earth closets was that they relied on nightsoil men to remove the waste. The advantage of water closets was that the refuse was flushed into a sewer and carried out to sea (good for public sanitation, bad for river quality and marine life). The problem with water closets is that cities needed to have a good drainage and sewage system in place to give the waste somewhere to go.
The water closet dates back to the late 18th century (although credit for the first flushing toilet goes to Sir John Harrington, godson of Elizabeth I, who in 1592 installed a water closet of his own design in his house), when Alexander Cummings took out a patent for a flushing water closet (Eveleigh 2008). Like most inventions of the Georgian and Victorian era, once the first water closet was patented different inventors and engineers patented their own versions, with improvements made over time. Cumming’s toilet had an outlet that was controlled with a mechanically operated sliding valve. The bowl was filled with water and once one had finished their business, they opened the slider (causing the water and waste to discharge), and then closed it, which triggered an inlet valve to open and refill the valve. The fundamental flaw in this design was that the waste valve was never cleaned by fresh water, meaning that over time it built up a coating of encrusted dirt (Eveleigh 2008: 30). Excrement sticking to the toilet bowl was a problem in many early toilet designs. Improvements such as Edmund Sharpe’s 1855 flushing rim patent, and later wash down closet designs helped this problem (Eveleigh 2008: 37-45). New patents in toilet design were introduced in the 1850s, but it was really between the 1870s and early 1900s that the modern pedestal toilet rose to popularity (Eveleigh 2008).
Our toilet dates to this period. It is a pedestalled water closet, made by Twyfords. The Twyford family has a long history in the Staffordshire region, and since the 17th century there have been Twyfords producing commercial pottery. In 1849, Thomas Twyford began to make sanitary ware at his factory in Hanley, but it was not until the 1870s under the direction of Thomas Twyford’s son, Thomas William Twyford, that Twyfords became established as one of Britain’s leading sanitary ware manufacturers (Eveleigh, 2008: 46). In 1887, Twyford opened his Cliff Vale factory, which exclusively produced sanitary wares (Birks, 2021). Twyfords is still in operation today. The toilet is made from what Twyfords referred to as their “C V Porcelain Enamelled Fire Clay” (Twyfords, 1894), with ‘C V’ standing for Cliffe Vale. This was a stoneware body covered with a thick white enamel glaze, also known as vitreous china (Birks, 2021). The ware type ‘sanitary porcelain’ is used to catalogue this specific ware type, reflecting the 19th century terminology that often referred to the ware as “sanitary porcelain” or just as “porcelain” (Twyfords, 1894). It should be noted though that the body is not a true porcelain but is a glazed stoneware imitating porcelain.
In 1882 the Christchurch District Board introduced an amendment to The Christchurch District Drainage Act of 1875, which would enable the construction of water closet drains to be connected to sewers and the construction of a pump station to run the system (Star 14/06/1882: 3). Every house within 200ft of a sewer was required to have its privy or closet connected with a drain (Press 29/04/1880: 2). Interestingly, this decision was met with some pushback from residents. People thought that the connections between houses and sewers would lead to filth and disease being brought into the household (Press 7/05/1880: 3; Press 27/05/1882: 3; Press 04/08/1882: 2). Throughout the 1880s, the Drainage Board regularly reported on the progress of constructing drains. In 1884 Christchurch had 293 water closets. By 1901, there were 1915 spread across the city (Wilson 1989: 29). If you’re interested in these developments, we’ve already written several blogs about Christchurch’s drains and sewers. You can read them here, here, and here.
Perhaps what I find most interesting about our toilet, is that is appears to have been thrown out not too long after it was made. The toilet was found in a rubbish pit that contained black beer bottles, ring seal bottles and transfer printed ceramics, all things that are typical of 19th century Christchurch assemblages. There were no artefacts in the pit of later manufacture dates, and, at the absolute latest, I would date the pit to the early 1900s, but really it fits better with an 1890s disposal date. We don’t normally find toilets on our archaeological sites simply because most weren’t introduced until around the 1880s, and they have a long lifespan meaning most weren’t disposed of until well after the 1900 cut-off date that we operate under. The site the toilet was found on was occupied by a working-class family who probably weren’t the sort of people that were replacing their water closet so soon after purchasing it. Which begs the question, why was it thrown out so soon? My current theory is that the toilet was damaged, perhaps during shipping, or installation, or shortly after having been installed, and that meant it had to be replaced. The faulty toilet was then disposed of in a backyard rubbish pit. And we dug it up over 100 years later.
Birks, S., 2021. The local history of Stoke-On-Trent, England. [online] Available at: <thepotteries.org>
Eveleigh, D., 2008. Privies and Water Closets. Oxford: Shire Publications.
Press [online]. Available at <https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers>
Star [online]. Available at <https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers>
Twyfords, 1894. Twyford’s 1894 Catalogue of Sanitary Specialities in porcelain earthenware & porcelain enamelled fireclay sanitary appliances & fittings. Cliffe Vale Potteries Hanley Staffordshire. Hanley: Twyfords.
Wilson, J., 1989. Christchurch: swamp to city. A short history of the Christchurch Drainage Board. Christchurch: Christchurch Drainage Board.