From Filthy Streets to the First Flush: A Brief History of Toilets | History Hit

From Filthy Streets to the First Flush: A Brief History of Toilets

A latrine found in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome and an ultra-modern Japanese toilet at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
Image Credit: Riccardo Bianchini / Alamy Stock Photo

The humble toilet is an invention several millennia in the making. In ancient Egypt some 5,000 years ago, for example, rudimentary indoor toilet facilities were made available to citizens. Then the world’s first public sewage system appeared around 2,500 years ago in the ancient Pakistani city of Mohenjo-daro. But it wasn’t until 1449 that England’s first flushing toilet was installed.

Over the years, people have apparently done some of their best thinking while answering the call of nature. Martin Luther, the 16th-century father of the Protestant Reformation, once wrote that he had been on the toilet when the idea of ‘salvation by faith alone’ came to him. Whether it’s complex metaphysical dilemmas or scrolling social media, what we think about while we go is probably not the origins of the device we are sitting on.

So, here is a potted history of an essential convenience.

Ancient facilities

Around 5,000 years ago, ancient Egypt was already using toilet facilities to differentiate between the wealthy and the poor. Indoor toilets with limestone tops which sat over a pit of sand were a sign of high status. Poorer Egyptians used a wooden stool with a hole cut in the top.

The oldest known example of a sewage system is believed to be the one found at the city of Mohenjo-daro (Mound of the Dead Men) in Pakistan. Around 2500 BC, Mohenjo-daro had brick toilets over a sewage system that took waste away to a cesspit outside the city. The drains were brick-lined, and archaeologists have even suggested there were sets of public toilets there. The city was destroyed suddenly around 1700 BC, and its innovations lost.

A row of ancient stone toilets in Rome

A row of ancient communal toilets in Ostia, Rome

Image Credit: Fubar Obfusco via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

On the island of Crete, Minoans had toilets that used water to wash away waste, and in the 9th century BC, the Roman Empire began to develop both public toilets and sewer systems, spreading them across the empire. There were communal toilets, with a dozen or more holes in benches, where officials might conduct their business as they, well, conducted their business. There was still no such thing as toilet paper for the Romans though. They used a xylospongium, a sponge on the end of a stick that was rinsed and reused. Yuck.

Medieval conveniences

Perhaps the most famous medieval toilet is the garderobe that can be seen in castles. Garderobes are so named because they were originally also used to store clothes and linen, since the ammonia helped to keep moths and pests away. Usually a narrow space built to jut into the outer wall of the castle, it was covered by a wooden plank with a circular hole cut into it (which might lead to embarrassing splinters).

The waste dropped down the wall, or into a moat, or to a purpose-dug hole beneath that was emptied regularly by the gong farmers, also known as the nightmen (which sounds like a band of vigilante heroes, but was far less exciting). The gong farmer was responsible for digging out and taking away the waste that gathered in cesspits in towns, cities and castles. Porchester Castle has garderobes built out over the sea so that the tide acted as a huge, natural flushing system.

The exterior view of a garderobe on a castle wall

A garderobe chute in the exterior wall of Peveril Castle, Derbyshire

Image Credit: By Dave.Dunford - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Jalo using CommonsHelper., Public Domain,

You might think these would be an unappealing method of entry into a castle, but for a strong-stomached attacker, they were a weak point. At Château Gaillard on the Norman border in 1204, the castle was breached by French soldiers who climbed up through garderobes. Guildford Castle was equipped with metal grates over the chutes later that century, perhaps in response to the events at Château Gaillard.

Whittington’s Longhouse

Although they were not new, public toilets became increasingly important as populations grew, particularly in large cities. Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of London and inspiration behind the pantomime story of Dick Whittington and his cat, wasn’t concerned in real life with London’s streets being paved with gold, but something else. Whittington paid (either during his lifetime or by bequest in his will) for the creation of Whittington’s Longhouse, the first public toilet in London with separate provision for men and women, which opened on 1 May 1421.

An engraving of Richard Whittington with a cat before him

A 19th-century engraving of Richard Whittington, Lord Mayor of London, the inspiration for the Dick Whittington of Pantomimes.

Image Credit: Public Domain

An almshouse was also founded, and Whittington was concerned to improve access to clean water in the city too. The Longhouse (which became a byword for the toilet) had 128 seats, half for men and half for women. It was located on Walbrook Street, which then had a brook that took the waste to a gully at the edge of the Thames where the tide washed it away twice a day. The Longhouse was still in use when the Great Fire of London destroyed it, though a new building was put in its place which remained in use until the early 20th century.

The Great Stink

Problems with sanitation continued. The first flush toilet in England seems to have been installed by Thomas Brightfield in 1449. It consisted of a stone privy with a cistern fed by rainwater, and an overflow pipe.

The first detailed plan of a flushing toilet appeared in John Harrington’s 1596 Metamorphosis of Ajax. It was similar to Brightfield’s design, with a handle that could be turned to wash away the waste with water from a cistern. Harrington installed one for Elizabeth I at Richmond Palace, but the lack of a sewer network to complement the device meant it remained a novelty.

Problems with a lack of facilities continued for centuries. Even in royal circles, things were problematic. In Versailles Palace, for example, there were not enough toilets and courtiers would do their business in corridors and corners of rooms. Charles II’s court was renowned for leaving mess behind wherever they stayed: in corners, chimneys, coalhouses and cellars.

In 1851, the Great Exhibition in London saw the first public flushing toilets that required a fee. Over 650,000 literally spent a penny during the exhibition, for which you could use the facilities, a towel, a comb and even get a shoe shine. Presumably not all at the same time.

Death in a boat on the dirty River Thames

Death rows the Thames claiming the lives of those who refuse to pay to clean up the river

Image Credit: Punch Magazine, City and Water Blog via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The most famous event that led to a wholesale overhaul of London’s sewer system and toilet facilities was the ‘Great Stink’ of summer 1858. The hot weather and vast amounts of human waste clogging the Thames created a foul smell and serious health fears. When MPs almost abandoned Westminster, the government decided to act and added 1,100 miles (1,800km) of additional brick-lined sewers to increase the city’s capacity to deal with the waste it generated.

For the most part, outside toilets remained the norm for a long time, and only in the second half of the 20th century did most houses begin to have inside toilets. So, next time you’re spending a penny and thinking, consider how the thing beneath you arrived there through the long, smelly history of the toilet.

Tristan chats to Dr Dominic Perring about what archaeology tells us about the first Londoners.
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Matt Lewis