5. The chamber pot and other unsavoury things

Indoor plumbing has always existed in any house I have lived in, but the Victorian house I live in now still has the buildings at the back where an outdoor toilet once was. As far as I can gather without too much research, is that before mains-sewerage was common, the toilet/lav(atory)/netty was a small building with a container in which fire ash was placed and a wooden seat fixed above. Legends still exist of people getting their nether regions singed because the ash was still burning. A low door (many of which can still be seen in the back-lanes of towns) was accessed by the night-soil men to empty the ash and its contents. Because of this and the inconvenience (sorry) of going to ‘the bottom of the garden’ in cold or rainy weather, the chamber-pot came into being. These were glazed pottery (often decorated with flowers) or enamelled-metal containers, kept under the bed, on which one could ‘perch’ during the night. Children have always used them, the potty, for toilet training until tall enough to use the real thing.

Stories abound of accidents to passers-by in medieval times when the piss-pots were emptied into the street from upstairs windows without them hearing the cry of “gardyloo” (gardez l’eau – beware of the water) which might, or might not, have been shouted as a warning.

Chamber pots have always featured as a source of amusement and have many names among which ‘pot’, ‘potty’, ‘gazunder’ (get it?), ‘jerry’ (German helmet?) feature.

This theme leads naturally on to the subject of ‘toilet-paper’. You will note that I did not use the term toilet ‘tissue’ as that has been invented in my lifetime. The use of paper or ‘arse-wipe’ dates well back in time, but as I was born during WW2 when such paper was in short supply. Then, any paper including newsprint, was cut up, threaded on string and hung often out of reach on the toilet door. When things improved then rolls of rather stiff thin paper appeared which was shiny on one side and rough on the other – a dilemma for anyone. At about this time holders appeared to hold the roll in place and this was accompanied by special square dispensers which issued individual pieces through a kind of letterbox necessitating a special wall fixing.

Of course we are now all familiar with soft, perforated, multi-layered tissue, designed to do the job without tearing, yet with fibres so short that it quickly comes apart when wet and does not block our drains. Ain’t science wonderful?

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One thought on “5. The chamber pot and other unsavoury things

  1. Ah Jim, I was obviously not as well off as you. We lived in felling in the top half of a two up two down with a backyard and a cobbl;ed lane behind. We were lucky though as we had fields and allotments out the front. The houses have all gone now and there is a housing estate there.
    We had a lavvie down the end of our yard and I hated it. Yes I remember the torn newsprint at home and shiny paper at school. Our school toilet was across the school yard, separate ones for boys and girls of course.
    We had no proper kitchen either, just a scullery with a boiler or copper and a sink and cooker. Goodness knows where stuff was kept in those days because I don’t remember cupboards in the scullery. What would todays young people think now they have everything fitted, tiled and miles of worktops?
    Happy days though.

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