Greenwich’s First Public Loo

Well – maybe. It’s just possible there was a groovy visitor centre behind the temple in the park where Roman tourists could take a pee, have a nice cup of fish sauce and buy a pencil rubber in the shape of a willy, but I’m guessing not. We have to fast-forward about a thousand years to get the first public bog (probably rather more literal than I would like to imagine) in Greenwich.

It wasn’t the first loo in London, of course – we have pantomime-principal boy Dick Whittington to thank for that one – in a part of his life that, inexplicably, doesn’t appear in most Christmas extravaganzas, the thrice (or more) Lord Mayor of London provided, in his 1423 will, for a 64-seater public convenience in the City that became known as Whittington’s Longhouse. But it was a bit of a dash for anyone caught short in Greenwich.

Greenwich was one of the great Tudor Royal palaces. The Tudors, far from being the chicken-leg-guzzling, bone-throwing, saucy-serving-wench cliches that most movies imply, were actually quite neat eaters and keen on personal hygiene, and they did know about the hazards of sewage and bad smells.

In private houses, things weren’t too bad at all – privies were generally kept clean – John Russell, in his Book of Nurture, written around 1460, recommended that privies have a ewer and basin for washing hands after a visit and small strips of “blanket, cotyn or lynyn to wipe the nether end,” and the clean bum-wipery does seem to be borne out in archaeological digs in London and Worcester, which have found examples of all three fabrics plus moss and wool scraps down old garderobes.

However, just because they had decent habits at home, it didn’t always follow that they did much – or indeed anything – about keeping their surroundings clean away from their own back yards – even in the highest circles. And apparently, according to Jane Huggett in a book I found over the weekend called Did They Wash In Those Days? (from the teen-tiny but fascinating Stuart Press) Greenwich courtiers were among the smelliest of all.

It wasn’t like they didn’t have instructions on the matter. Andrew Boorde, a medical writer of the day, was quite clear:

“Beware of pissing in draughts; and permit no common pissing place to be about the house or mansion,” he says. “and let the common house of easement (that’s ‘toilet’ to you and me) be over some water or else elongated from the house.”

He is also quite clear that “emptying of piss pots and pissing in chimneys” is A Bad Thing. Corrupt air can “infect the blood.” But did those filthy courtiers listen? What do you think…

In 1547 the Privy Council issued a proclamation. It outlawed ‘nuisance in court,’ saying “no person of what degree soever shall make water or cast any annoyance within the precinct of the court, within the gates of the porter’s lodge, whereby corruption may breed and tend to the prejudice of his royal person.”

Nothing doing. Those dirty courtiers just went wherever they wanted. Eventually (and sadly I can’t find a date for this) the authorities just gave up and installed lead-lined urinals around the courtyard. This gave the Deputy Keeper of Greenwich an extra task – “keeping and scowring the urin pottes of lede” – though at least he was paid for the job.

And, for the moment, that’s all the news that’s fit to print on the subject. It’s a pain in the proverbial to find out about fundamentals (ahem) of history – records of royal marriages and international treaties are always going to be more highy regarded than a list of plumbing requirements – and it’s hardly glamorous – let’s face it, I can’t see David Starkey’s next tome being about Tudor soap balls – but I can’t be the only Phantom around that finds this kind of thing infinitely curious…


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