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The Scrivener: Easing Oneself In 1660

Brian Barratt tells how folk coped with pressing matters 350 years ago.

In keeping with his times, Samuel Pepys was frank about bodily functions. In his diary for 30 January 1660 he records:

'So homewards again, having great need to do my business, and so pretending to meet Mr. Shott the wood monger of Whitehall I went and eased myself at the Harp and Ball, and thence home where I sat writing till bed-time and so to bed.'

There were a few public lavatories in London but Mr Pepys was able to make use of the facilities at the pub, which were probably in an outhouse. They were sometimes known as gongs, this being an adaptation of the word gang in the sense of a gangway, a walkway, which led to the outside loo. Cess pits had to be cleaned out by 'gong farmers'.

Underground pipes made of wood, and overflowing cess pits, created problems. Mr Pepys recorded on October 23, 1660:

'...going down into my cellar..., I put my foot into a great heap of turds, by which I find Mr Turner's house of office is full and comes into my cellar.'

The flushing lavatory with a cistern had been invented in 1596 by Sir John Harrington but, for some unknown reason, did not become popular. It might have been because plumbing was primitive and supply of running water to most houses was either crude or non-existent. Improved models were patented in the late 1700s. (Thomas Crapper, by the way, did not invent the flushing toilet.)

There was no toilet paper in Britain, though it had been used in ancient times in China. Through history, many other materials were used, depending on availability and one's social status: wood shavings, leaves, grass, hay, moss, ferns, fruit skins, rags, wool, lace, or some other cloth material.

In Britain, ordinary people sometimes used the soft textured leaves of a plant called woolly mullein. It was fairly readily available. In his 'Historie of Plants' (1597) John Gerard writes:

'These plants grow of themselves neere the borders of pastures, plowed fields, or causies & dry sandy ditch banks, and in other untilled places. They grow in great plenty neere unto a lyme-kiln upon the end of Blacke heath next to London, as also about the Queenes house at Eltham neere to Dartford in Kent; in the highways about Highgate neere London, and in most counties of England that are of a sandy soile.'

(The Queen's house at Eltham was Eltham Palace which by that time had become a private residence.)

Mr Pepys might have had the privilege of using paper when he went to the loo at the Harp and Ball. At that time, there was a proliferation of small, cheaply printed books political manifestos, religious tracts, rhymes and poems, popular songs and probably bawdy songs. Costing only about one penny each, there were probably used in the lavatory after patrons of the pub had passed them round and read them.

It is just as well that on this occasion he needed merely to do his business. Remedies for more serious problems are listed in the wondrous tome 'Eighteen Books of the Secrets of Art & Nature, being The Summe and Substance of Naturall Philosophy, Methodically Digested. First designed by John Wecker Dr in Physick, and now much Augmented and Inlarged by Dr R. Read', published in 1660. They are drawn from the writings of others in bygone times. Here are some intriguing examples:

'To provoke Urine:

A Hedg Toad cut in twaine and applyed to the Reins will vehemently provoke Urine, that sometimes people that have the Dropsie have been cured by it.

For the Collick:

The heart of a Larke bound to the thigh is excellent against the Collick, and some have eat it raw, with very good success.

Any Bone of a Man hanged so that it may touch the flesh, is thought to cure pains of the Belly that come at certain times.

This is certain that Wolfs dung, guts or skin eaten, will cure the Collick; of if you do but carry them about you, for they strengthen the Colon.

They report, that when the Belly is pained, if you apply a living Duck to your Belly, the disease will pass into the Duck, and she will dye, but you shall be cured.'

Even if Mr Pepys had a pain in his belly when he needed to do his business, I doubt that he would want to get involved with magical remedies such as a lark's heart, wolf's dung, or the bone of a hanged man.

Copyright Brian Barratt 2012


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