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Topic: Water, ins and outs

Benjamin Leader cottages

Worcestershire Cottages
by Benjamin Leader

A house provides security, warmth and shelter from the elements, but Man also needs water, and, having drunk (and eaten) he needs to dispose of what comes naturally thereafter.

Neither need was a problem for an isolated cottage in the countryside.  It would be sited near a water source, and waste was added to the midden or dungheap with other waste, to be spread, eventually, on the fields.  When settlements grew into towns and tightly packed cities, the provision of water and disposal of waste became a major problem, requiring concerted action.

Water collected from rivers or pools was frequently polluted, especially when downstream from another cottage or settlement.  The cause of disease was not understood but the danger of drinking river water was appreciated, which is why the usual drink up until the 18th Century was ale, as the brewing process killed off many germs.

Tea, when it arrived from the Far East, was seen as a healthy tee-total alternative for the whole family, since it was made with boiled water.

tea drinking

family at tea 1727
by Richard Collins

water from the well

Wells were the best source of water.  Unless your enemy dumped a dead dog down your well to poison you, it could generally be relied upon for clean water, fresh from the ground.

For a castle facing seige, a reliable well was essential to survival. Some wells were built at ground level to collect water rising from a spring.  Others were dug down to a reliable aquifer, perhaps several hundred feet down.  A shallow well could be accessed by steps.  Others required a bucket lowered on a windlass.

Hauling water from exceptionally deep wells was made easier by Donkey wheels, such as this one at Carisbrooke Castle. The well is 161 feet deep.

donkey wheel


Great Conduit

The Great Conduit (right) near to Charing Cross on Cheapside in London

Properties might have their own wells, especially on farms and in castles, but villages and town streets might have a single well that everyone used. 
Large towns, such as London, with thousands of tenements packed into a small area, required more elaborate means of water provision.  Conduits – pipes of lead or wood – were laid from reliable springs outside the town to a cistern for public access.  The Great Conduit, in London, was laid in 1247 from springs at Tyburn to a cistern in East Cheap, powered purely by gravity.  Wealthy houses along the route were allowed to tap into the pipe, while lesser mortals (unless they were able to dig down to breach the pipe illegally when no one was looking) relied on collecting water from the public conduit or on deliveries by professional water carriers.  It survived as the principal water supply for London until the Great Fire in 1666, when such damage was done to the lead and wooden pipes that it was abandoned.

Rain water had to be removed from buildings to preserve the structure. Gargoyles were decorative water spouts that directed water away from the walls


Aternatively rain water could be collected in butts or cisterns filled from guttering, frequently made from malleable lead sheeting (also used for roofing).

lead guttering

Men who worked with lead (latin: plumbus) were termed plumbers, and provided all domestic drainage arrangements.  Lead plumbing might not be as precise or non-lethal as modern piping, but it could be highly decorative.


From the 17th century, pumps were invented (or reinvented, since the Greeks and Mesopotamians had developed them long before), and began to be installed in wells, to provide an easier means of raising the water and of preserving its purity.  Even so, contamination from the surrounding ground was possible.  In 1854, by removing the handle from the Broad Street Pump in Soho, Dr.John Snow ended an outbreak of cholera caused by sewage contaminating the water.

Communal Pump

Personal hygiene was not as intense in the Middle Ages and Tudor times as it is today, but neither was it quite so dire as myth suggests.  The Roman obsession with cleanliness and bathing was replaced by a lamentable Christian doctrine that virtuous self-denial involved not washing (St. Benedict pronounced that "to those that are well, and especially for the young, bathing shall seldom be permitted).

laver or piscina

Nevertheless, people did wash.  As fingers rather than forks were used for eating, usually from shared dishes, it was essential hygiene and good manner to wash hands before meals.  Many grander houses had built-in lavers – niches with a drainpipe, where scented water was available for those entering the hall to dine.


Bathing involved large quantities of heated water, which had to be carried to the bath, usually in buckets.  But royalty could expect better.  Edward III had a tiled bathroom with hot and cold running water delivered by lead pipes with keys (early taps or faucets). Lesser gentry bathed in large tubs canopied by tapestry for privacy and warmth. 

Mediaeval bath house

Communal bathing for both sexes was also a favorite practice, in houses known as stews or little bath houses (bordellos).  Judging from their depiction in manuscripts, communal baths were usually accompanied by communal beds, so it is not surprising that ‘stew’ and ‘bordello’ became alternative terms for ‘brothel.’

Waste disposal was no trouble in the country.  People would generally relieve themselves outside, on the heap where household refuse was also dumped.  Useful manure, eventually.  Outdoor privies with earth closets remained common in rural areas, and were the forerunners of eco-fashionable composting toilets today.

chamber pot

For people who did not want to venture outside, at night or in inclement weather, the chamber pot provided the simplest solution.  For comfort, and to contain the smell, it might be placed in a close stool, or commode.  Henry VIII’s close stools were covered with embroidered velvet, gilding and fringing. 
Straw was the usual toilet paper, although Henry VIII had a human alternative, the groom of the stool, who had the high honour of wiping the king’s posterior.

close stool

Another indoor sanitary arrangement was the garderobe, a seat with a hole in a small chamber built into thick exterior masonry, voiding through chutes in the walls (often seen on castle ruins) Wooden projections over an exterior pit were another common form of garderobe.  Such projections needed to be sturdy, of course.  Boccaccio described one collapsing under its occupant.


Garderobe at PlasMawr, Conway

Conway Castle

Garderobe outlets at Conway Castle

Bayleaf interior

Projecting Garderobe at Bayleaf, Down and Wealden Museum

picture by Oast House Archives

interior at Bayleaf - picture by Oast Houes Pictures

Interior view of the Bayleaf garderobe.

picture by Oast House Archives

Garderobes were often ‘flushed’ clean by pouring a bucket of water down them, but although flushing toilets had been in use in the ancient world, they were not rediscovered until Elizabeth I’s godson, Sir John Harington, created the Ajax.  Unfortunately the Queen considered it too noisy, and the idea was dropped until a series of inventions in the 18th and 19th century produced the flushing toilets used today

Decorated Victorian flushing toilet

Victorian toilet
emptying chamber pots

Whether people used a chamber pot, garderobe or flushing water closet, the output still needed to be disposed of.  This was a major problem in towns. Traditionally, pots were emptied into the streets from upper windows, to the peril of people passing below.  Rivers which were expected to carry effluent away, also supplied drinking water.  In London, streams like the Fleet and the Walbrook were soon merely open sewers (until they were built over and became closed sewers).   The city was in danger of turning into one large sewer, so efforts were made to regulate the sewage situations.  Houses were built with deep cesspits, where sewage was stored until it was collected by the night soil men, or Dung Farmers, who carted it away to be spread on fields or put to other use.  By Tudor times it was considered a valuable source of saltpetre for making gunpowder.

Emptying the deep cesspits under houses was not only an offensive job, commanding high wages, but dangerous too. In 1326, Richard the Raker fell in and drowned in excrement.

The consequences of not emptying the pits was also unpleasant, especially as houses crowded one upon another.  In 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary how, when he went down to his cellar “I stepped into a great heap of turds by which I found that Mr. Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which do trouble me.”  Well it would.


Country areas may have been relatively pleasant, but the air in towns must have been nauseating.   Diseases were thought to be spread by evil smells, so it was common to carry pomanders, filled with perfumes and spices to sweeten the air.  They did nothing to prevent disease, but they may have helped some people to keep breathing.

Pomander found on the Mary Rose wreck

There was the additional smell of urine, which had a great many uses in laundry, dyeing, tanning, medicine and so forth, and was collected separately. This at least helped to keep the contents of the cesspits under control, but the arrival of flushing water closets meant that the pits were quickly filled to overflowing long before they could be emptied.  By the 19th century, London’s population topped a million, well over two million by the middle of the century and the city reached crisis point.  Sewage emptied into the Thames was constantly washed back towards the city by incoming tides, and in the summer of 1858 the Great Stink was so great that Parliament, choking on the stench, was prompted to action.  A proper sewage system, still functioning today, was installed by Joseph Bazalgette, which resulted in effective sewage clearance and an uncontaminated water supply.


London in 1713

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