The Privy – Euan West


Figure 1: Work in Progress on the excavation of the 5 closet toilet block found within the block E excavation area in Hungate, York.

Described by Seebohm Rowntree as ‘one of the main slum districts in York’, it is perhaps unsurprising that Hungate is home to toilet facilities as seemingly revolting as the ones pictured above.[1] This type of toilet block however, was a fairly typical style that would be seen throughout the country due to the introduction of the Metropolitan Building Act in 1844.[2] The location of the cubicles, as can be seen in the picture, shows that despite the toilets being communal, which would imply a disregard for any privacy, they were located between what would have been two high walls to protect them from being in view. This shows an awareness for privacy that would perhaps not be expected from exposure to modern day perceptions of the Victorian slum. It is easy to see, simply just through reading novels based in the Victorian period, that the idea of privacy was particularly prized in middle-class households. This is illustrated in particular by Elizabeth Langland who referred to middle-class houses in novels as the ‘haven’ and ‘private domain’.[3] As  Peter Connelly’s article alludes to, despite the middle-class journalist Gilbert Thomson declaring these toilets ‘a direct violation of every principle of sanitary construction’, in 1920, they were still being used in 1930.[4] This clearly illustrates the gap in perceptions of the labouring classes and the upper classes, due to the labouring classes still being prepared to use these 10 years after they were condemned.

Despite block E being an example of a poor standard of toilet, the residents of the properties that shared this toilet could have still been considered as far from the worst off. When C.Bowles-Fripp surveyed the working-classes of Bristol, he found that only 80.9% of people that he surveyed had a suitable privy, with a similar number having drainage or sewers.[5] The staggering fact of the matter is that, as can be seen by Rowntree’s report, even sixty years later 20% of the population were forced to share a toilet, in a similar situation to Block E. In this respect, Block E was in a better condition that some privy blocks that could be found in York, with an acknowledgement by Rowntree of 228 houses sharing 33 toilets.[6] This itself shows the magnitude of the problem. One of the predominant reasons behind Rowntree choosing York to survey was to try and differentiate from the studies done of London, and to show that there were issues in smaller, less industrial places. Bowley confirmed in a later survey that York was a typical town in respect to poverty; this suggests that if in York sharing a toilet which ‘violated every principal of sanitary construction’ was common, poverty amongst the working classes was a real issue in Britain around the turn of the century.[7] There is evidence, from the excavation, however, that the Landlord of Block E did improve the toilet block in order to improve the sanitation for the tenants.

Nigel Jeffries states in his article that the archaeology of sanitary reformation is crucial to ‘providing comparative data to help our understanding of the modern city’.[8] This statement highlights the importance of excavating blocks such as Block E in Hungate as it allows for greater understanding of slum life. As the act of going to the toilet is universal among all classes, the differences in sanitation are an obvious hallmark of class divides. Another way in which the toilet facilities can be used when analysing middle-class perceptions of the slum is by looking at the diseases that were spread. This was recognised in 1873 by Dr John Liddle who was a medical health advisor in London. Liddle was concerned with the state of the courts that the poorest of society were living in. He emphasised the necessity for a free-flowing current of air and for greater exposure to sunlight, as both of these factors were causing illness. Liddle urged people that by supporting an initiative to give these greater conditions to the slums then they would eventually be able to pay less taxes on healthcare due to ‘diminished sickness and a lower rate of mortality’. [9] It is impossible to tell just by looking at this statement from Dr John Liddle whether he was being truthful. However, looking at the positioning of the toilets, and bearing in mind that each of the holes would be surrounded by a cubicle, it is clear to see that the lack of air flow was a real issue. However, this was not taken seriously by Parliament, and the outcries from Dr Liddle were not taken to a national level. This allowed toilet blocks to remain in the state that can be seen in Block E. The stigma of the poor also remained, with middle class journalists ignoring the condition that the poor were left in and also ignoring the fact that poor sanitary conditions were a very likely reason for the spread of disease. Despite all of this, articles were still published in The Times blaming places such as public slaughter houses for the spread of disease, referring to them as the “enemy of the poor.”[10] This blatant ignoring of the poor condition of the toilet facilities clearly shows the extent to which the majority of the middle classes were oblivious to the state of the privy rooms in the slums.

Euan West


[1] Rowntree, B.S., Poverty:  A Study of Town Life (London: Macmillan and Co., 1908), p.5

[2] Connelly. P., ‘Flush with the Past: An Insight into Late Nineteenth-Century Hungate and its Role in Providing a Better Understanding of Urban Development’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 15 (2011), pp.607-616.

[3] Langland. E., ‘Nobody’s Angels: Domestic Ideology and Middle-Class Women in the Victorian Novel’, PMLA, 107:2 (1992), pp. 290-304.

[4] Connelly, ‘Flush with the Past’, p.607-616.

[5] Bowles-Fripp, C., ‘Report of an Inquiry into the Condition of the Working Classes of the City of Bristol’, Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 2:5 (1839), pp. 368-375.

[6] Rowntree, Poverty, p.185.

[7] Hennock, E., ‘The Measurement of Urban Poverty: From the Metropolis to the Nation, 1880-1920’, Economic History Review, 40:2 (1987), p.208-227.

[8] Jeffries, N., ‘The Metropolis Management Act and the Archaeology of Sanitary Reform in the London Borough of Lambeth 1856–86’, Post Medieval Archaeology, 40:2 (2006),  pp.272–290.

[9] Unknown Author, “LONDON COURTS.-Dr. John Liddle, medical.” The Times [London, England], 4 Sept. 1873. Times Digital Archive. Accessed online: 7 Dec. 2015

[10] Unknown Author, “The Sanitary Condition Of Islington.-Dr.” The Times [London, England], 7 Oct. 1873: Times Digital Archive. Accessed online: 10 Dec. 2015.

[11] Connelly, ‘Flush with the Past’, pp.607-616.