Don’t get hold of the wrong end of the stick!

I love old sayings and those that relate to everyday life are often the best. Together with my fascination of the history of the toilet, this saying is one of my favourites.

Recently, with the rush on stock-piling toilet paper, it has made me think about our ancestors and the ways they performed the same job. My mind went back to my earliest memories and the product which resembled greaseproof paper which our school provided for our tender little bottoms. Why such stuff was ever considered suitable, I’ll never know.

Looking back to the Romans though, they were very organised. Their toilets were designed so that you could sit on the seat and, as there was a long vertical hole extending from the seat, you could clean up without getting up. The way those clever Romans did this was by dipping a piece of cloth or sponge tied onto a stick, into a little stream of running water and then cleaning the offending area. After cleaning, the cloth or sponge on the stick was rinsed in the water and the stick was put back into a large receptacle, ready for the next user. He would have to be careful not to get hold of the wrong end of the stick though, as it wasn’t always very clean!

Leaves or moss?

After the Romans left, things deteriorated and by the time the Normans arrived, we were still simply digging holes in the ground and using leaves or moss if we wanted to feel fresh and clean.

The Normans reintroduced some form of organised waste disposal system for those lucky enough to live in Castles, but for the majority of us, we were still digging pits in the ground or just going behind the bushes. The rich Castle dwellers had bench toilets, similar to the Romans and chutes which emptied either into the moat or onto the dung hill, ready for the peasants to cart away.

By the time of the Tudors there was comfort indeed. 

At Hampton Court Palace, King Henry VIII had a padded close stool, covered in sheepskin, black velvet and ribbons but his staff used either the communal toilet block, standing beside the river, or the “piss-pot”. Not only did Henry have his own, private, padded toilet, he also had his own private “Groom of the Stool”. The actual duties of this lucky worker have been lost in time, but the job did include looking after the King during his most private and personal times. Although it wasn’t the most pleasant post to hold, it was a very prestigious one, as the Groom of the Stool had the King’s ear and was privy to his innermost thoughts. The post also entitled the man access to the Royal Chambers, right to lodge in the Royal Palaces, was often given old clothes, no longer used by the King as well as bedchamber furnishings which were surplus to requirements.   

Queen Elizabeth I had an early flush toilet, but they weren’t commonly used till the C19th and then seldom for the lower classes.

William III had a padded close stool too and that one is still at Hampton Court. (Below.)


Nothing much changed till the middle of the C19th, when mass overcrowding in cities and the regular occurrence of epidemics, sparked many enquiries into why there was so much disease and how was it being caused. 

At first, it was thought that, as disease was rife where the smells were at their worse and that it was the “miasma” which was causing the Cholera and other such problems, but, after the investigations of the late 1840’s and 1850’s, it was found that the supply of clean water and the disposal of effluent was the main way to keep such diseases at bay.

The enquiries showed that, in many cases, just one back-yard privy was being shared by over 100 people. Water-courses were being used to dispose of effluent and, the same water courses were being used as a source of drinking water. 

What was needed, was a supply of clean drinking water and a system to dispose of the waste.

By the end of the C19th, most towns and cities had a clean water supply and a sewerage system, but many of the poorer areas were still using outside privies and, if there was fresh water, it was through a communal standpipe. It was to be the same for country dwellers, in some cases, up till the 1970’s.

This is a cut-away drawing of a toilet, which was being used just outside King’s Lynn, up to the middle of the 1970’s. There was another one behind this one, (back to back)  and they shared a  pit which was emptied through a little door at ground level, on the outside wall. The contents were then spread on the garden. 

As natural drainage was happening and these toilets were often to be found not too far from the well, this would be another source of disease. 

A typical type of garden toilet for common folk.

Don’t kick the bucket…….

Other similar toilets, instead of having a pit beneath the seat, had a large bucket, which was emptied onto the garden when full. Sometimes, householders would empty the ash-pans into the pit toilets, as well as the bucket ones. This reduced the smell and also made the contents less unpleasant to empty. 

The early buckets were just the usual wooden ones. Let’s hope they didn’t get them mixed up with the ones they used to carry the vegetables in from the garden or the water from the well.

A maid adding ash. This would either be released by a lever or a small shovel would be provided, to add to the contents of the pail.

The later buckets were made specifically for the job. They were large, oval in shape, with a long carrying handle and another smaller handle on the side, to enable easy tipping.

Radio Times

The use of the flush toilet for common folk in the countryside, only really came into everyday life after WWI, when more local authorities were building houses. These homes, often built on small estates in villages, or the outskirts of towns, often had a bathroom, as well as a toilet. Absolute luxury for people who had always washed in cold water, in the scullery or bathed in front of the fire in a tin bath. 

By the 1960’s most people had modern facilities but, by no means were all able to have hot and cold running water and a flush toilet. For some, as I have said earlier, it wasn’t till the middle of the 1970’s that these luxuries were to arrive in their dwellings. 

“What about toilet paper?” I hear you ask. Well, toilet paper is not new, as it was in use over a thousand years ago in China, but the use of mass-produced toilet paper is a very modern thing. 

In the past, as we have already heard, the Romans had a “sponge on a stick”, but from then, most people used leaves, moss or their left hand. Yes, the left hand and water, (which is still used in many Asian countries), was the accepted method of cleaning up.  

When the population of the country began to be able to read and write and newspapers became popular, they were often torn up into squares and hung on a nail to be used and by the 1930’s, the Radio Times was a favourite, if slightly shiny alternative. 

Although commercially produced toilet paper was available by the 1860‘s, it wasn’t common for people till the nineteen twenties and by 1935, there was even “splinter-free” paper available. It’s bad enough getting a splinter in your finger!

In the 1960’s most households were using luxurious toilet paper, but public buildings and schools etc were using a very shiny paper, similar to greaseproof paper, called Izal. The wierdest invention known to man! 

When you go to stock-pile toilet rolls, please spare a thought for the poor 1960’s school children using Izal, the farm workers who only had dock leaves and those who still use their left hands!

About Glynn

I have been researching local & family history since 1977 and I'm passionate about this beautiful county and the people who have made it what it is. All of my own ancestors, discovered up to today, lived within fifty miles of where I live today and that means I am, as far as I know, a real Norfolk Dumpling, with a tiny bit of me from North Suffolk. :) My early origins were obviously from Scandinavia but I suspect that I have a bit of Roman blood in there too, as there was a very large Roman presence in the area.

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