Episode 64: Medieval Toilets in London

Join host Hazel Baker and award-winning buildings archaeologist Dr James Wright as they discuss Medieval toilets in London.

We discuss:

  • Medieval names used for toilet
  • Public toilets in Medieval London
  • Signage Used
  • Public toilets on old London Bridge
  • Dick Whittington’s Whittington’s longhouse




Medieval Toilets in London


Recommended Reading:

Show Notes:

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike.

Joining me in the studio today is James Wright from Triskele Heritage. And he is the perfect guest to talk about today’s subject, which are medieval toilets in London. 



James WrightJames Wright

James Wright (Triskele Heritage), is an award winning buildings archaeologist. He has two decades professional experience of ferreting around in people’s cellars, hunting through their attics and digging up their gardens. He hopes to find meaningful truths about how ordinary and extraordinary folk lived their lives in the mediaeval period.



Hazel Baker: So James, what did we call toilets back in the Medieval times? 

James Wright: Okay, so there’s lots and lots and lots of terms for toilets. I suppose, as there is today, we tend to approach the subject of toilets in a quite euphemistic fashion. There’s a slight embarrassment about it, isn’t it? We refer to it as a water closet or the bathroom. And of course that’s not really facing head on what is going on within that particular space, namely going to the toilet. 

So in the Medieval period and stretching into the 16th, 17th century, which is also in my period as well, we can find phrases such as the very polite camera privitae, which obviously means private chamber in Latin. So, allowing for the fact that this is a secretive private space, we might find necessarium being used for monks’ toilets in a monastery. The necessary. Because as we all know, it is entirely necessary. Literally everybody has to go to the toilet. 

And then you’ve got other words which are maybe more colloquial. So things such as the foreign as in you’re going somewhere, which is foreign, maybe a distant place. And that sort of plays in as well with this idea that toilets are at a removed from the house quite often. So they’re not right there in the heart the house. And there’s the French term long game. Which literally means a far off place. So we can imagine the trudge to the bottom of the garden, to the foreign far off place. And then when you get in there, there’s all sorts of other phrases as well. So a very popular one, particularly in the 16th century, and Shakespeare picks up on this, is the Jakes. And that seems to mean, well, Jake at that time is an ordinary person’s name. And it’s the equivalent of going to the John, which is quite an American phrase. So Jake at that period in time was an ordinary person’s name. So you’re going to the Jakes to do something very ordinary because of course, as you say, everybody is doing that kind of thing.

And then there are also these euphemistic words, such as the garderobe, which is French for wardrobe. And there is the connection between wardrobes, a place to store valuables to store clothes. And the toilet as well. So you might often have a private chamber where you would actually receive your guests. Off that would be your wardrobe where you’ve got your valuables and off that would be your toilet. So quite often, the word toilet is used euphemistically. The garderobe, the wardrobe, is a euphemism for the toilet because you pass through the wardrobe to get to the toilet. So there’s all sorts of different phrases, which we might expect to need to know. If we were asking where to go to the bog in the Medieval period. 

Hazel Baker: What signs do you think they used for public toilets? 

James Wright: I think that’s difficult to know. I don’t quite know how they would have known where the public toilet was. So that’s that one’s blindsided me slightly. In the medieval period, if we think about signs, the most commonly known signs are of course for pubs. And they’re not literal signs. They are going to be a pictorial signs. So we have pubs now called The Red Lion, The White Heart, The Bunch of Grapes, and those signs would have shown a white heart, of red lion, a bunch of grapes. That would be how you would advertise what’s going on in there. So maybe they have a toilet seat hanging off the wall. We could imagine something like that may have alerted people to where to go. But good question. And one that has slightly blindsided me, and I’m quite happy to admit that. 

Hazel Baker: Even now, like for public toilets now, you’re sort of searching around for a sign desperately if you get caught short. And I’m just thinking, especially when so many people visiting London and are out and about, you know, not necessarily familiar with the streets. And also not being able to read, then a pictorial sign definitely makes the most sense of it all. 

James Wright: We do know that they have public toilets though, because they do enter the historical record. So quite famously, there was two on London bridge. Which was of course the only river crossing, right the way up until, gosh, what was it? The 18th century, I think? Before we got another bridge over the river. And so there was one at each end of London bridge one at the Southwark end and one at the city of London end. 

And I’m not sure which one of them it is, because it’s not made explicit and the record, but it is known that there was a debtor who wished to avoid his creditors, this is Medieval periods, and he says, oh yeah, I’ll come and pay you that in a moment, I’m just going to nip to the toilet in here. And then he runs out of the back door. So we get a little bit of information about this public toilet, because it appears in a court record. And that’s kind of how we know about these things. But also when we’re digging into that information, all of a sudden we might be surprised to know that there’s two entrances into this because he’s able to go into one entrance and run out the back door. So maybe we’ve got, one’s an entrance, one’s an exit. I don’t quite know how it works, but you know, we know about public toilets as a direct result of court records quite often. Or maybe records to do with maintenance of the sites. 

So we hear, for example, in 1237 of the necessary house, which was built at Queenhithe by Matilda, formerly queen of England. And the quote is for the common use of the citizens. So that would be quite an old toilet by this period in time, because Mat is queen. This is Matilda, Matilda and Stephen, going back maybe a hundred years. And we’re still finding records of this toilet in the 1230s. So, you know, these are buildings which need to be maintained. They need to be upgraded. You know, a hundred year old public latrine in Queenhithe, which is just off the north bank of the Thames, you can probably imagine that that would need a bit of upgrading after that long in time. 

Hazel Baker: I think so. Yeah, Queenhithe now, they’ve got this beautiful mosaics telling you the history of London on the Thames and that toilet is nowhere to be found on the mosaic. And I think that’s just a missing piece of interesting history, you know? 

James Wright: Well there is Hagwark is a building’s archaeologist. Some might call me an architectural historian, basically I do both. And that does seem to be a general embarrassment in my trade about going to the toilet. And I say this in the talks that I do on, not just the talk I do on garderobes, but also more generally when approaching the subject of historic buildings that quite often you can flick through wonderfully presented books and still be non the wiser as to where people were going to the toilet in these amazing buildings. And it’s not always made obvious. You can go round castle sites to this day and you’ll find out where the great hall was, the private chamber, where was the chapel, where were the kitchens. And you come to, what I personally know is a garderobe. There isn’t a sign on the wall to tell you.

And again, it’s this embarrassment. It’s something that we don’t want to talk about. But I think moving into a much more open society that we live in, in the 21st century, people are more interested for one thing and less embarrassed. So we can have conversations over the internet about going to the toilet in the medieval period with perfect ease. But you know, there has been this embarrassment and that’s probably why we don’t find it on our interpretation panels at places like Queenhithe. And we need to have that changed. 

Looking for Old London Bridge Blog Header
Part of Old London Bridge, England, 1600. Photo by Photos.com from Photo Images

Hazel Baker: We do, we need to tell that story. So, yeah, so absolutely. We’ve got the two on London bridge and that’s interesting about having the two doors, you know, maybe an in and out, cause I thought you were going to say that maybe lift the toilet seat and then jumped into the river.

James Wright: Well, I mean, there are stories about people shimmying up and down the train shoots, not from London that I necessarily know of, but there was a castle in Normandy called Chateau Gaillard where a soldier snuck up the literary shoots to actually enter into the middle ward of the castle. This was a French soldier. And as a result of that, the English lost control of the castle. You know, there was an English castle and they were essentially defeated by a guy shimmying up a toilet shoot. So things like that do happen, but not necessarily in London, but I’m sure it did. 

Hazel Baker: Oh, brilliant. I know we both know about Dick Whittington’s longhouse on the Thames. I think it’s rather phenomenal, really, when you’re thinking about the size of this, which had, they believe 128 seats. 

James Wright: This is one of those vast public toilets, which is part of what you might call civic philanthropy. Dick Whittington, of course, famously Lord mayor of London. Around the time when he was busy being Lord mayor of London, that the facilities are actually also upgraded London Guildhall as well. So again, civic toilets, Whittington and the people in his timeframe, the early 15th century, do seem to have been quite interested in providing amenities for people to go to the toilet. Can you imagine just how many seats that would have been. We don’t necessarily know if there were stalls between them.

So it might have been quite a public environment. There is also some internal evidence for that, that they were actually segregated as well. So there was actually male and female access. So we’re getting an idea of the direction that public toilets later went in, where you get very separate spaces, technically, I suppose, separate buildings or rooms within buildings. And that seems to have been the case in the early 15th century with Whittington’s longhouse as well. 

Hazel Baker: Yeah, I have read on several different sources that that was split 50/50 for men and women, which even nowadays isn’t. When you think of your rhinos and cubicles for men, we don’t get the same output opportunities on our side. So maybe the medieval people we’re doing it a little bit better than we are. 

James Wright: Yeah, all good Welton Whittington. He was a man ahead of his time it would seem. 

Hazel Baker: He was indeed. I don’t know if you’ve been to the museum of London, James, but they did a Lost Rivers exhibition back in 2019 and they had there a three seater, communal toilet seats.

James Wright: Yeah. So I did used to work for the museum of London. I worked for their archaeology department until the, what became Molar museum termed and archaeology separated from the museum. And then I carried on working for Molar and of course the toilet seat, which was discovered, I think on the banks of the fleet in an excavated context is on display. And when it was in the stores for a very long period of time, and it was eventually brought out, it was discovered in the late 70s, 80s, something like that and was eventually brought out. And it is this wonderful long, rectangular piece of timber where you can very clearly see where certainly two of the holes survive in this toilet. And then there’s a third one, which is quite fragmentary. It’s been stabilised, that the timber has, but it is in quite a fragmentary condition. But yeah, it gives you this feeling, this idea for what it must’ve been like to sit in Whittington’s longhouse because the seats are quite close together. Whether or not, the most of an etiquette there, you go and sit at the end of the row rather than immediately adjacent. Yeah. The idea of 120 odd London is all sitting down at the same time is frankly appalling. Maybe after some enormous events, you could imagine that they might have had that knees, but you know, it would have been a particularly large scale gathering of people for that requirement. One would hope that it was so big essentially to give people an element of privacy, because you could sit far away from anybody else who’d come in. 

But yeah, there is that wonderful three holer as the terminology would have it. The terminology for those seats is quite often the word siege, which is deriving from the French word, the medieval French word for seat as well. So that’s another word for going to the toilet. You’re going to the seat or the siege as it would be in the time. Sometimes they call it the gong, that comes from a Saxum word and it ultimately derives the word for going. So gong, going. So as in going to the periphery, I’m going, I’m going to sit on the going place. So those are some of the words, again that we use for the physical manifestation of the seats, which also go on to become euphemisms for the toilet as well. 

Hazel Baker: And then gong farmers as well, then? You see that same gong. 

James Wright: So the gong farmer or the gong farmer is a job. It’s a legit job that you can get in the Medieval period. And your job is to clean out the toilets. So many of these latrines, you have a shaft and you sit above the shaft and the excavator and the affluent drops down the shaft. And there’s lots of different ways that they deal with that. Sometimes it goes into the river. Presumably those at London bridge, sometimes they’re overhangs may be a conduit, a water channel, something like that. In some places, it goes directly into the moat, if you’re in a castle. But in many places, it’s going to go into a sus pit. And that suspect will have an arch, and the gong firmer, the gong farmer can actually go in there with a shovel in his book and actually clear that out. That’s a job that you get in the Medieval periods and it’s well paid.

Just to give you an example of how well-paid being a gong farmer is, we know that in the 14th century, 13th and 14th century, if you were a stonemason, which is a very worthy craft, you’d be paid about four pints a day, we know that from Royal building accounts. However, we’ve got a record for cleaning out the latrines’ new gate in London, and they’re being paid six pints a day to do that job. So you’re essentially being paid for it, being an awful job, a really smelly, unpleasant job. You’re getting 50% more wage than a stonemason or a carpenter who were on four pints a day. 

And we get lots of references to sometimes them being paid by the day. So six pints a day, but elsewhere, we get a reference in the 15th century to Thomas Watergate, he was given 40 shillings, which is a fairly eye watering amount of cash in 1406. And Thomas Watergate is described as the mandatory latrinarum, which means purifier of latrines, which I think is a much nicer word than gong farmer. And he is paid and I quote for cleaning out and cleaning a latrine under the chamber of the keeper of the King’s privy seal. That’s the chap who’s responsible for carrying around the dirty great big seal, which the king has to apply to all of his Royal rates. And he has his own chamber at Westminster palace. And clearly he’d filled up his latrine and poral Thomas Watergate came down and cleaned it out, but he was paid 40 shillings for the privilege. So sometimes they’re paid by task. Sometimes they’re being paid by day. But it’s a legit job and it’s a well paid job. 

Hazel Baker: They’re cleaning out the middens, then where did it all go? 

James Wright: Well, I mean, there are uses for it. We know from, again, accounts that some of it is being taken out into the fields beyond towns and cities, because it has a use as a fertiliser. We also hear of some secondary uses for it as well, because it’s being used in the manufacturer of gunpowder saltpetre. A part of the manufacturer of saltpetre, which is an ingredient in gunpowder, requires faeces. So again, there are secondary uses for it. You’re in, of course, famously is used in the tanning industry, which is why tanneries were generally outside of the towns because of the smell, basically. So, you know, they’re using these things and there is a requirement for affluence in your, in to be used elsewhere so that there are secondary uses. 

Hazel Baker: Do you think that gong farmers were actually then paid to provide the material? Do you think that was an extra bit, so they’re getting paid an extra 50% for doing the work and then they’ve got the problem or the challenge to get rid of it and then they can make money from that as well.

James Wright: Yeah. Yeah. I think there is probably a follow on fee there again. But you know, if you can hold your nose, there’s probably quite a good living to be made as a gong farmer. During the research for the talk that I recently gave on this subject, I was surprised to find that what’s called the olfactory response, which is your sensation when you smell something for the first time, obviously it’s so strong and it’s your first smell of a flower or some food cooking. The first time you smell it, it’s such a deeply sensitive response, but over time, you’ll actually get so used to it that after about 20 minutes, you’ll no longer smell it or you’ll have to really deeply inhale.

So if you’re working in this unpleasant environment for a long period of time, it could be that, to be honest with you, you get used to it and you probably wouldn’t notice it. Although maybe, maybe your friends and family certainly might notice it when you traipse in after a hard day of digging poo. 

Hazel Baker: Yeah. But then again, if you’re bringing home the money, then it all helps, doesn’t it? 

James Wright: It certainly does.

Old style toilet. Credit: Ivonne Wierink, canva pro images

Hazel Baker: Toilet paper. What would they be using then? 

James Wright: So we’ve got pretty good archaeological evidence of this from various excavations, which have been done throughout the city of London by all sorts of archaeological specialists, because occasionally we do get latrine pits being excavated. And usually you’re seeing the last usage of the latrine pit. So you stand a pretty good chance if the archaeological preservation is good. Which it is in a lot of London because you get a lot of waterlogged deposits. You might start finding things such as straw. We certainly get references to that in the documentary account, but also it is sometimes found in the archaeological record from latrine pits.

They seem to use a lot of moss as well. So moss gathering is another industry, which we don’t hear a lot about, but there are people who are bringing mosses in there also used medicinally as well, but there are mosses such as the red stemmed feather moss, the glittering wood moss and then, yeah, and the knackered crisper varieties, which have all been excavated from latrine pits, and they seem to be there, not because they’re growing down there, but because they’ve been thrown down there. 

We also get cloths very thin woollen cloths as well. Now that’s a relatively more expensive material and we suspect that they are probably down there as a result of feminine hygiene. So the equivalent of the sanitary pads, which are eventually being tossed into the latrine pits as well. So they’re probably not wiping their bums on the cloths. They’re probably using straw and moss for that. But then women are using cloths, very thin cloths, and then discarding those at the time of the month. 

Hazel Baker: Oh, fantastic. It’s all so interesting, isn’t it? And there’s so much that we don’t know. 

City of London Guildhall - Medieval Architecture
City of London Guildhall

James Wright: The more excavation work that’s done, we have to confront these realities and many archaeologists. It’s a rare archaeologist who hasn’t dug assess, but also there’s plenty in the, in the archival record as well. And of course we do have these things surviving physically. So I mentioned before, the early 15th century latrines at the London Guildhall, which is of course a building that’s open to the public. And if you go to the end of the banqueting suite, which is the part basement chamber at one end, which has got lovely checkerboard, flint and stone all down there, if you go to one end of it, there’s a couple of the latrines contained within the thickness of the wall there. There were access up some steps. And then around the back, the Guild hall actually have a display where some archaeologists have excavated one of the latrine pits and you can actually see the arch of the pit. And that’s an old museum of London, archaeology excavation, which has been preserved in situ. So you can actually go and look at a medieval latrine in the city of London.

Hazel Baker: That’s fantastic. Well, on that note James, I’ll say thank you very much. How everybody find you and join any further talks that you’re doing? 

Okay. So I run a company called Triskele Heritage. Obviously you can find my web presence on there. It has lots of information about the services that we offer, but also we put lots of our reports and lots of our outreach on there. I occasionally appear on TV programs, so keep your eye out for things like the great British dig, which I sometimes act as a consultant. And I’m doing quite a lot of online talks, we’ve kind of missed the lockdown lectures, but I still will be drip feeding talks out. I’ve got a few plans coming up and they can be found by looking on our website, but also I’m a pretty avid Twitter user as well, and can be found on @JPWarcheology.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode and learned a few things, I know I did. And we’ll see you next time.

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