- Gong farmers
- Pope Julius II, 1512
- France, 1519
- Hampton Court, 1540
- Toilet, 1540
- Catherine Parr’s toilet
- Personal privacy, 1545-63
- Mary Queen of Scots, 1561
- Death by latrine, 1570s
- Pale skin, 1580
- Aqua Felice aqueduct, 1586
- Sir John Harrington, 1590s
In this century social reformers routinely advised people where to defecate, the need for privacy when defecating and therefore the need to control themselves when in company. In their turn, children were taught not to touch human waste.
In 16th century Europe, urban populations grew and street gutters became blocked with the increasing volume of human waste. Rain was no longer sufficient to wash away the waste. Cesspits and cesspools were therefore dug into the ground close to houses so that these would contain the waste. A pipe connected the latrine to the cesspool, and often a small amount of water was necessary to wash waste through the pipe and into the cesspool.
Lack of understanding of hygiene abounded, for example 16th century church members condemned the use of table forks to eat as going against the will of god. One minister remarked, ‘God would not have given us fingers if He had wanted us to use forks’. An English proverb from this time said, ‘Wash your hands often, your feet seldom, your head never.’
Though finer soaps began to be produced in Europe, later in the 16th century onwards, these used vegetable oils like olive oil rather then the prior use of animal fats.
Yet the Tudors did care about their appearance. People began to carry mirrors of glass or steel. They also carried combs and used tweezers, ear scoops and manicure sets made of bone.
Many people of the time were afraid to get into water on a regular basis, However, in the Summer some would take a bath in a local river. Others heated a cauldron of water and strip washed, or had a ‘dry wash’ by rubbing themselves with clean linen. It was believed that wearing linen attracted sweat and drew it from the body, as a result men wore linen drawers, however the women of the time did not follow suitem they wore no knickers.
Entertainingly to the modern ear, Queen Elizabeth I was said to have ‘bathed once a month, ‘whether she needs it or not’.
In the 1570s, Bath and Buxton began to make bathing popular, but not for hygiene, instead it was for their claimed medicinal benefits. Members of the richer classes when sick, or suffering from arthritis or if they appeared to be infertile or had some other condition, the doctor would advise a visit to places like Baden in Switzerland or Bath in England. There they would take the treatments, which of course involved getting into water.
The hot mineral waters in Bath derive from rainwater filtered through an underground layer of limestone of the Mendip Hills. They travel down some 14,000 feet, and are then pushed back up through the earth along fissures and cracks in the rock formations where it flows out into three springs, with a temperatures of about 45C, but in the baths cool down to 34C. Some 250,000 gallons flow from these every day, the bath houses are built over these outlets. The waters earthy taste is a result of the minerals that it gathers from the rocks as it passes through the limestone.
Some sources suggest that many marriages of the time were in June, and that this was because of the practice of taking an annual bath in May, catching the happy couple at a clean phase of their year. And yet, brides began to carry a bouquet of flowers to mask any odious smells. Both practices are still prevalent today, when wedding parties are rather more aromatic.
Gong farmers and scavengers
The Tudors created a name for a new occupation, that of gong farmer or gong scourer. The word gong derived from Old English gangan that meant ‘to go’ and is still used in a shortened form in Scottish, gang or to go. The privy by some process became a gong because it was where you went to go, the word gong was also applied to the outcome of going.
Toilets have always had euphemisms, for example some Tudor towns built public latrines to stop people relieving themselves in the streets – these were called a ‘houses of easement’.
The gong farmer was employed to clear out privies and cesspits, they were only permitted to work at night, as a result they were ‘night men’ and the material they removed delicately termed as ‘night soil’ – clearly this was the original ‘shit job’! The potential for disease wading in excrement was of course high and the gases emitted could be fatal too.
When tobacco reached England it was not surprising that the Night Men were early adopters, heavy smokers.
For digging up the ordure and transferring it to sites outside the town or city they were well paid. By the late 15th century they charged two shillings per ton, Queen Elizabeth I’s Hampton Court paid her operatives at 6d per day, then a week’s wage for a labourer. Another of her operatives was paid half in cash and half in rum.
The waste was either dumped at a laystall or used for fertiliser. Laystalls were originally places where cattle being heralded to a market could be held along their journey and thus accumulated animal waste, but became applied to places where cesspit material was dumped. In London it was usually dumped on the banks of the Thames, one popular place was Dung Wharf, today the location of the Mermaid Theatre.
As private houses added a privy they tended to be built at the rear so that the gong scourer did not need to transport the material through the house. Wading through the material they would often find other discarded items like unwanted babies!
Some chose to do the disposal for themselves. An individual named Richard the Baker was one who refused to pay the night men to do his dirty work. But their charges seem insignificant when you learn that he was victim of rotten planks in his privy falling through them into his cesspool and drowning, not a way to shrug off this mortal coil.
In the 17th century the rubbish and ordure in the streets became a real problem and so larger communities employed ‘scavengers’ to remove the waste material. In 1615 Manchester had two scavengers and nineteen under-scavengers.
In some cultures these people became outcasts, the lowest of the low in a caste system, the Untouchables of India, the Burakumin in Japan…
In Britain, the gong farmer had been around from the 14th century and would survive through to the 18th.
In India, those cleaning out latrines or sewers or clearing away dead animals or being a leatherworker were considered ‘unclean’ and these individuals were ‘Untouchables’. It was believed that they were paying for the sins of previous lives. Considered the dregs of society, they were not permitted to pollute members of the castes by contact and had to try to stay out of sight. When a man of caste chanced to glance at an Untouchable, he was obliged to carry out rites of purification.” This attitude toward Untouchables, or, as they now prefer to be called, Dalits, continues to this day. (Source: Daily Life In Ancient India, Jeannine Auboyer, 30-1)
In Japanese towns and villages of pre-modern Japan the disposal of excrement and the burial of bodies was the role of the Japanese equivalent of Untouchables, the ‘Hinin’ or ‘Eta’, meaning non-human. The burakumin were another outsider group, but merely because they lived in hamelts and villages and unworthy therefore of note.
Pope Julius II, 1512
The Pope was sick in 1512 and continued his business lying in a daybed surrounded by personal attendants, visitors and courtiers. He was one of the first to create a separate bathroom and toilet to which he could retire when required, prior to this most kings, princes and clerics would merely call for a chamberpot and the ablutions were performed before their guests.
One reason the lack of privacy had been endured was that it allowed personal physicians to view the output and the ‘humores’ contained therein and draw conclusions on the user’s state of health. Privacy meant they might present others’ excrement and fool their subjects as to their wellbeing.
In a forward-thinking decision the French government of Francis I made a pronouncement that all houses should have a cesspit. In Normandy they went further and required the provision of a toilet in each house.
Hampton Court, 1540
During Henry VIII’s rule Hampton Court was a significant palace. It was Cardinal Wolsey who turned it in to a grand bishop’s palace, even providing three rooms for the King, Queen and Princess. Through the 1520s it was regularly hosting European delegations. By 1528 Wolsey fell out of favour and the Palace was taken by Henry. In 1546 Henry VIII was able to receive the French ambassador with an entourage of two-hundred for six days, Henry’s own court numbered 1,300!
In 1540 the ‘Great House of Easement’ was constructed, a multiple garderobe that provided a place where twenty-eight people could simultaneously evacuate, clearly he could waste no time from his politicking! Water was run to the palace by lead pipes but it is unclear if any of that supply provided a flushing process.
It was around this time that the word ‘toilet’ began to be used. The term derived from a diminutive term for the cloth toile, a linen-cloth – thus toilette. At that time toile was used to cover a dressing table, at which the individual performed their ‘toilet’. It was later that it came to involve washing and the device itself.
Catherine Parr’s toilet, 1530s-40s
Linda Porter’s biography of Catherine Parr, Henry VIIIs last and surviving wife, used primary sources to describe her toilet thus:
‘The Queen’s lavatory must have been one of the most opulent privies in the whole of Tudor England at the time. It had a crimson velvet canopy, cushions covered in cloth of gold and a seat of crimson velvet for the royal posterior. A removable commode was covered with red silk and ribbons attached with gilt nails’
Personal privacy, 1545-63
As a reaction to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church held the Council of Trent for some eighteen years at Trento and Bologna in Italy. It concluded a series of new decrees and condemned what it saw as heresies. It ruled on the Biblical Canon and declared the Vulgate Bible as official, it made pronouncements on Original Sin, ordination, the Mass, veneration of Saints, and provided a list of forbidden books…
Unexpectedly its comments related to the human body led to a demand for greater personal privacy, though these changes were slow in coming.
Mary Queen of Scots, 1561
When Mary Queen of Scots returned to her native Scotland from France she was astounded and not a little put out that the men continued to wear their hats while sitting down to eat at her banquets. It was then pointed out to the young Queen that this was not a sign of disrespect to her but necessity. The men kept their hats on in order to prevent not only their long hair from touching the food but head lice from falling into their plates.
King James VI of Scotland, and James I of England, son of Mary Queen of Scots, wore the same clothes for months on end, even sleeping in them on occasion. He also kept the same hat on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, until it basically fell apart. James point-blank refused to wash or bath as he was convinced it was bad for your health.
Death by latrine, 1570s
In 1574 the French King, Henri III, would regularly receive courtiers and guests while seated on his toilet. On one such occasion a friar called Clement pulled out a dagger and thrust it in the king’s abdomen before his guards could despatch the friar. The Friar had perhaps been inspired by the assassination of the Moabite king Eglon (Judges 3: 15-25)
On the other side of the world, in 1578, Uesugi Kenshin was a powerful daimyo, or Japanese warlord, and by all accounts an accomplished warrior and administrator. Just prior to his death he was locked in a power struggle. Some accounts suggest his heavy-drinking lifestyle led to a stomach cancer and his death. Another account says that a ninja hid in the cesspool beneath Kenshin’s camp latrine and killed him with a spear.
Pale skin, 1580
Poor women had to work outdoors so became suntanned. Pale skin was a sign of wealth so it was desirable – white lead is used to get a pale complexion. Women curled their hair with hot tongs and dyed their hair. They used vegetable dyes to colour their faces and nails.
Aqua Felice aqueduct, 1586
When Pope Sixtus V was appointed in 1585, only one of the ancient Roman aqueducts was still working and was being regularly maintained. For clean drinking water, the city residents had to travel to the one fountain it served, close to the location of today’s Trevi fountain.
Sixtus helped to restore the Acqua Felice and the Fontana was designed to resemble a triumphal arch of antiquity. The development helped to revive the then somewhat rustic Quirinal neighbourhood, and illustrated that the Catholic church was alive to and provided for the needs of the people of Rome.
The designer was Domenico Fontana, surely he adopted the surname?
The central figure of Moses was criticised for being disproportionate with the other statuary, though its presence appears to commemorate the event in Exodus when he struck the rock to make the water flow. The left figure is usually claimed as Aaron. The right hand one is argued to be Joshua or Gideon, or might even be the emperor Septimius Severus. There is no confusion about the inscription that honours Sixtus as its builder, with angels holding the papal coat of arms.
Sir John Harrington, 1590s
1596 might just have been a turning point in sanitation, though it proved to be a singular moment that was not subsequently pursued.
Sir John Harrington was a godson of Queen Elizabeth I and High Sheriff of Somerset. Staying at Old Wardour Castle, near Salisbury in Wiltshire in 1592, The castle was used much later as the setting for the 1991 movie, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. The sanitation in the 14th century castle was less than ideal, which led to Harrington outlining his ideas with five friends. Temporarily driven away from the court of his godmother he used his nom de plume of ‘Misacmos’, to finalise and publish in 1596, A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called The Metamorphosis of Ajax. This was a ‘cloacinean’ satire that often wandered from its point, for example to take an unsavoury cheap-shot at well-known Court favourites like Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester.
In one of his diversions Harrington quotes an individual he assumes to be a ‘prince of the blood of France’ who had written ‘a beastly treatise only to examine what is the fittest thing to wipe withal; alleging that white paper is too smooth, brown paper too rough, woollen cloth too stiff, linen cloth too hollow, satin too slippery, taffeta too thin, velvet too thick, or perhaps too costly; but he concludes, that gooseneck, to be drawn between the legs against the feathers, is the most delicate and cleanly thing that may be.’
Poorer folk of the time used a handful of straw or hay which was termed a torche-culs literally meaning wipe-ass or a curved stick called a gomphus or gomph stick literally meaning a nail or peg.
Harrington invented his Ajax and installed it in his family manor house at Kelston, Somerset. In the publication he explains ‘how unsavoury places may be made sweet, noisome places made wholesome, filthy places made cleanly’ and suggested the cost would be thirty shillings and eight pence. Ajax was a play on words, the then vogue appellation for a privy was ‘A jakes’. Though his parodies of courtiers was censured by the Queen she forgave him and arranged for him to install his water closet at Richmond Place.
In the Third Section he outlined the principles of a flushing water closet, essentially with the same basic principles still in use today. A raised cistern has a valve to release water through a pipe to wash down the ‘business’ area. It even used the scallop-shell approach for a lid to the toilet seat. But he filling of the cistern and the emptying of the device were not yet served with running water and adequate drains.
He provided the following key to this illustration
A – the cistern
b – the little washer
c – the waste pipe
D – the seat board
e – the pipe that comes from the cistern
f – the screw
g – the scallop shell, to cover when shut down
H – the stool pot
i – the stopple (or valve)
k – the current
l – the sluice
m, N – the vault into which it falls; always remember that […] at noon and at night empty it, and leave it half a foot deep in fair water. […] orderly kept, your worst privy may be as sweet as you best chamber.
Harrington provided a budget for the construction:
A 6s 8d
B, D, e 3s 6d
c 1s 0d
f, g 1s 6d
H,m 8s 0d
N 10s 0d
Total 30s 8d
(literal translation to decimal currency = £1.53)
The Ajax was not without its problems, Harrington wrote an apology to the Queen when she found fault with the privy. He also wrote an address,
To the Ladies of the Queen’s Privy Chamber, at the making of their perfumed Privy at Richmond. The book hanged in chains saith thus:
Fair dames, if any took in scorn and spite.
Me, that Misacmos’ muse in mirth did write,
To satisfy the sin, lo, here in chains
For aye is hang my master he ordains;
Yet deem the deed to him no derogation,
But doom to this device new commendation;
But here you see, feel, smell, that his conveyance
Hath free this noisome place from ll annoyance;
Now judge you, that the work mock, envy, taunt.
Whose service in this place may make most vaunt;
If us, or you to praise it were most meet,
You that made sour, or us that made it sweet?
A better illustration that shows his principles:
Though his device sold as the Angrez in France, it did not take off in England. Progress was slow, The Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth had installed ten or more water closets by the end of the 17th century. But the chamber pot and cesspits remained the approach in Britain.