History of the toilet

Ancient toilets
The world’s oldest ‘water closet’ (W.C.) was found in north-west India and is 4,000 years old. Instead of a flush with a handle, people would tip a pot of water into the loo. This would wash away the waste through pipes and into drains, which were underneath the streets. Instead of toilet paper, people would wipe their bottoms on fallen leaves.

The Romans [753 BC – 410 AD]
Most homes had proper drains. For Romans going to the loo wasn’t private, they treated going to the toilet as a social event, to share with friends and family! Roman cities had many public toilets. In 315 AD, Rome had 144 of them. Some were very large. The Romans went to meet friends, exchange news and gossip. Romans used a piece of sponge fixed onto a short wooden handle. In front of the loo was a water channel to ‘dip the stick’. You didn’t get your own stick. The same stick was shared by everyone who used the loo! Rich Romans didn’t like to use the stick – instead they used an ostrich feather.

The Saxons [410 – 1066 AD]
Unlike the Romans, Saxons had little time for luxuries. They used pots or deep cesspits.

Medieval times [1066 – 1485]
In Medieval times people used potties. Streets had open drains so it was easy to empty the pots. You just chucked the contents out of the window. When people flung their potty waste out of the window, they would shout “Gardez l’eau” [gar-day low]. That’s French for “watch out for the water”. We probably get the word “loo” from this expression, although some people think it comes from “Room 100” which is what European people used to call the bathroom.

Rich people had little rooms jutting out from the walls of their homes. There would be a plank of wood with a hole in it, to sit on. There was nothing underneath – whatever you did would just fall to the ground! Sometimes these loos were over a moat, so the waste would fall into the water. Sometimes there was a chute which went down to the moat or a cesspit. The cesspits were emptied by people known as “gongfermors”. In castles these little toilet rooms were known as garderobes (to ‘guard’ the ‘robes’). They were called that because people kept their clothes in them. The smell kept moths away.

Tudor and Stuart times [1485 – 1714]
Henry VIII’s courtiers at Hampton Court shared a ‘great house of easement’ with 28 seats on two different levels. It emptied into brick-lined drains, which carried the waste into the River Thames. A team of ‘gong scourers’ cleaned these royal loos. Gong scourers were boys small enough to crawl along the drains. While the servants shared the house of easement, Tudor kings did their royal business on a luxurious ‘close stool’. This was a large bucket and water tank, with a padded seat. Henry VIII’s close stool had a padded seat, trimmed with silk ribbons and studded with gold nails.

Tudor people would happily ‘pluck a rose’ (have a wee) anywhere – in chimneys, corners of rooms or in the street. In Edinburgh, you could hire a portable toilet, which was a bucket with a tent-like cloak. Poor people would wipe themselves with leaves, moss or stones. Better off people used bits of old clothes. They called the loo ‘the jakes’. In 1596, Sir John Harrington invented the first water closet with a proper flush. He built one in his house. His godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, used it, and she was so impressed that she had ‘a john’ built at Richmond Palace. Unfortunately, it was knocked down after John Harrington died and it was almost 200 years until the WC was re-invented.

Georgian Times [1714 – 1837]In the 1700s, the most likely place for a potty would be in the dining room. They were kept inside furniture, such as a sideboard. Most Georgian city people had a cesspit in their garden or under their house. They would empty the pot into the cesspit. There are lots of stories from that time about people dying in the ‘night air’. We now know that it was deadly poisonous gas given off by the waste in the cesspits. Around 1750, a new type of loo called a “pan closet” was invented. At the bottom of the closet was a pan designed to seal in unpleasant odours. It wasn’t very good because they couldn’t keep the pan clean.

A watchmaker called Alexander Cummings invented the first modern flushing toilet in 1775. It was improved in 1778 by Joseph Bramah. Lots of people think Thomas Crapper invented the toilet, but he didn’t. His name is associated with toilets because his company made them, and his toilets had his name on them.

The Victorians [1837 – 1901] During the 19th century the population in Britain increased greatly. In overcrowded cities like Manchester and London many poor families had to share a single loo called a privy. Sometimes more than 100 people shared one loo! In London, sewage, dead animals, horse manure and chemicals from factories were all dumped into the Thames. People drank the same water. It was brown when it came out of the taps! It caused outbreaks of cholera in the 1830s and 1850s. Because of this, the government said in 1848 that every new house should have a water closet or ash-pit privy. This was a loo which had a pile of ash instead of water underneath. Sometimes children would dip a stick into the waste and go and wipe it on the door knockers of posh houses! ‘Night soil men’ would come to empty the ash-pits.

In 1858 a heatwave caused the ‘big stink’. London smelled like one, big, recently-used toilet. The government had a new sewer system built, which was finished in 1865. It meant toilet waste would get taken away instead of going into the river or staying near houses. People stopped dying of cholera and typhoid. However, many houses weren’t connected to a sewer system or piped water until the 20th century. Public toilets, known as ‘halting stations’, were redesigned too. The normal charge to use them was one penny. People spoke of ‘spending a penny’ as a polite way of saying they were going to the loo.

The 20th Century The first loo paper was used in Britain in 1857. It was called ‘curl papers’ and came in flat packs. Chemists sold it from under the counter because people were embarrassed to see it displayed. Toilet rolls were first sold in 1928. Soft paper was introduced in 1932 but was unpopular at first. In 1957, coloured paper was first used. Despite the Victorian age seeing so much progress in the world of toilets, many people in rural areas still used the privies at the bottom of the garden until the 1960s.

Modern Britain Toilets today come in a huge range of different styles and colours. Some people spend a lot of money on ‘designer’ toilets so they have somewhere trendy to go! They are all roughly the same size though – which makes sense. After all, a small one would be uncomfortable and you might fall into a really big one! Very young children can have an extra seat put on top of the toilet seat to help them get used to sitting on the toilet.