Memoirs of an Octogenerian : Outdoor toilets.

From childhood to early adulthood the experience of toilet provision loomed large in my life – or, rather, the lack of it!  I still regard ‘going to the loo’ as something which is something you get over as quickly as possible – and I am amazed at how long younger generations now spend in such accommodation. They too are amazed when I tell them of the, quite recent, days before indoor flushing toilets and dedicated lavatory paper.  My own, often uncomfortable, memories include the ‘potty’ under the bed, the outdoor bucket lavatory, flushing mechanisms which rarely seemed to work, and the carefully cut-up newspaper before the invention of, uncomfortable, ‘toilet paper’.                                                                                                                  I am reminded of a short ditty that my father used to recite :- ‘What is the difference between a rich man, a poor man, and a dead man ; a rich man has a canopy over his bed, a poor man has a can of pee under his bed, and a dead man canna pee at all’                                                                                  What a younger generation do not realise is that there was a civilised world before the universal provision of running water and indoor toilets. Even in the 1970’s staying in a B&B in London on visits in connection with my job as a provincial museum curator meant having, in the middle of the night, having to find the only toilet in some remote corridor (and before the days of central heating). If there was a wash basin in the room (no hot tap) then that could provide a possible solution. But I digress!

There is no coherence in these ramblings – just plucking out of memory particular things which I remember in a world where outside lavatories, perhaps shared by the whole street, was the norm – or when flushing was not part of the story.

Outdoor toilet 1

An outside privy – I remember these when we moved to remote rural Suffolk – but ours was different being much cleaner and being a ‘Three holer’ not like the one pictured above. In ours the walls were pristine whitewash and the seat in beautiful polished mahogany (with lids to each hole). The large bucket beneath held a mixture of water and a disinfectant and chemical with, I think, the trade name ELSAN.  The buckets had to be emptied about once a week – which was a task my father and I were delegated to undertake. We went into an adjoining field (ours) and tipped it carefully into a large pit – which was surrounded by very verdant foliage!!                                                  In towns the provision was different – usually an outside privy with a flush toilet.

Oudoor toilet 2

In town terraces there was usually a group of such toilets at the end of the terrace but semi-detached town cottages usually began to have one of their own – I remember my girl-friend’s house in Ipswich had such as did my Grandparents in Sheffield.   Bitterly cold and with cut squares of the local newspaper hanging off a hook!    Even as late as 1960 when my new wife and I took up residence in a Village School House at Wetheringsett, where my wife had been appointed Head Teacher, the toilet was outside and doubled up as the staff toilet for the school.  After some argument with the School Governors an indoor toilet was provided, along with another ‘modern’ convenience, a bath.


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