Toilets with a story to tell

George II chamber pot at Dunham Massey, Cheshire

Throughout history our ancestors found ingenious ways to answer nature’s call. At our places we’ve got all kinds of loos, from communal Roman bathrooms, to silver chamber pots and the elaborate ‘thrones’ of the rich and famous.

Apparently we spend three years of our lives sitting on the loo, let’s celebrate some of the best.

Roman affairs

In the communal latrines at Housesteads Fort on the Hadrian’s Wall Estate, Northumberland you can see the oldest toilets in our care. Romans used to discuss the news and gossip whilst sitting on these. And since toilet paper had yet to be invented, a piece of sponge fixed to a wooden handle was used - and shared by everyone.

Into the moat

In the Middle Ages the wealthy built ‘garderobes’, which were also used to ‘guard’ the ‘robes’ as the smell kept moths away. These were little rooms jutting out from the walls of their homes. The one in Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk was used by King Henry VII in 1487. It now houses the secret hatch to the priests’ hole that would have hidden Catholics escaping religious persecution. At Little Moreton Hall, Cheshire, the garderobe tower contained closets where the waste fell to a cess chamber which was flushed out by water from the moat.

Garderobe at Little Moreton Hall
Garderobe at Little Moreton Hall

Going to the ‘John’

In 1596 Sir John Harrington invented the first water closet with a proper flush. Queen Elizabeth I was so impressed that she had a ‘John' built at her palace.  The close stool at Knole, Kent, upholstered in crimson velvet and with a removable pan for emptying, is believed to have been used by either Charles II or James II.

One for the ladies

It looks like a gravy boat but the ‘Bourdaloue’ at Coughton Court, Warwickshire, is shaped to fit the female anatomy.  It is allegedly named after a Jesuit preacher called Louis Bourdaloue whose sermons were so long the ladies needed a way to relieve themselves without leaving church.

One of a pair of blue and white bourdaloue at Dunham Massey
One of a pair of blue and white bourdaloue at Dunham Massey

Going in style

There’s a lavish George II chamber pot at Dunham Massey, Cheshire. This kind of pot would have been used only by a select few and is part of the finest collection of Huguenot silver in Britain.

A privy for all

By the 19th century many neighbouring families shared an outside privy. At Peckover House, Cambridgeshire, the outdoor privy was used by the gardeners and servants rather than family members. It was painted blue to keep the flies away. The outside lavatory in the courtyard of the Back to Backs, Birmingham is an early 20th century flushing toilet connected to the mains drainage system.

Outside lavatory in the Courtyard of Court 15, Birmingham Back to Backs
Outside lavatory in the Courtyard of Court 15, Birmingham Back to Backs

Thunderstruck

The ‘thunderboxes’ (portable toilets) at Llanerchaeron, Ceredigion, are a simple affair of wooden stalls with circular holes cut in the lid. Earth had to be shoveled in after it had been used. Castle Drogo, Devon, has over a dozen 'thunderboxes' designed by leading British architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Yesterday's lavatories, today's eco-loos

We're giving some of these historical loos a modern twist and providing toilets that work in harmony with nature at our places. We have a Natsol composting loo at Craflwyn and a Twin-Vault at Holme Wood Bothy in the Lake District. There’s an Aquatron – which even has a flush – at at Gibson Mill in the South Pennines and four Thunderboxes at Standen in Sussex.

The Thunderbox privies at Llanerchaeron, an C18th estate near Aberaeron.
The Thunderbox privies at Llanerchaeron, an C18th estate near Aberaeron.