Down the Garden Path

Speaker: David Bell

15 November 2022

After the formal business of the AGM we needed some light relief.  This was amply provided by David Bell, a local author and born storyteller, who led us “Down the Garden Path” to discover the hidden world of the privy!

Outdoor lavatories were a common feature of rural life until comparatively recently: several of our members recalled the disused buildings from their childhood and when David wrote his book on the subject in 1999, he found examples that were still in use near Southwell (Nottinghamshire).  He put out appeals on local radio and in newspapers, which led him to photograph surviving privies and collect a fund of stories about them.  There were tales of visiting “townies” unable to find their way to and from the privy on a dark night, as well as alarming encounters with bats, wasps and nesting chickens.

Privies would originally have been built above a pit, which would need to be dug out once or twice a year by night-soil men, also known as “dilly men”.   In settings such as farms there could be up to four seats side-by-side.  Later it became more usual to place a bucket below the seat, which would be emptied each week – often through a small door at the back of the privy.  That could lead to embarrassment if the night-soil men arrived unexpectedly while you were seated there.  David also heard of pranks involving mischievous children, the back door and a stinging nettle…

The unpleasant job of emptying the buckets was sometimes given to children (hopefully the same ones!)  A more common task for them was to cut up last week’s newspaper into squares and thread it onto a string for use in the privy.  Rolls of toilet paper would only be purchased if guests were expected.

David was delighted to find a rare example of a privy with a handle that could be used to “flush” it with ash from a hopper.  However, indoor water-closets had been common for many decades and they eventually replaced privies completely.  This was despite opposition from a few traditionalists who considered it unhealthy to carry on such business indoors – but on a cold, wet, November evening, I think we all felt glad that the privy has been consigned to history!