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When nature calls

The Victorians seem to have laid claim to the invention of modern Sanitary Fixtures. It is a widely-held belief that Thomas Crapper designed the first flush toilet in the 1860s, but it was actually 300 years earlier during the 16th century. The credit for inventing the flush toilet goes to Sir John Harrington, godson of Elizabeth I, who invented a water closet with a raised cistern and a small downpipe through which water ran to flush the waste in 1592. He built one for himself and very considerately one for his godmother.

Obviously these were only for the people who could afford to have them installed and most couldn’t, or didn’t see the need as it was probably easier just to sling all the waste out of the window into the street below. The description of medieval and Tudor streets sounds appalling and given some of the references you would imagine that a journey back then would have been undertaken with one eye on the upper floors of the buildings and the other looking out for what you might be stepping in.

As with all things concerning the Victorian era there’s always a hint of double standards. Yes they brought a clean and efficient method of dealing with waste into many homes, but the instances of people, mostly, but not always men openly urinating in the street is commonplace and we’re not talking just about the poorer classes. There are still reminders in areas like the Strand and Fleet Street of the lengths that householders and businesses had to go to in order to deter the opportunist needing to relieve themselves. Towards the end of the Victorian era they had started to get their act together and maps of the City show a large number of urinals handily placed, but apparently these were not the first to offer privacy to those with a full bladder.

I came across an incident that happened in 1322 in Cheapside, the market area of the City during the research for one of my guided walking tours of London called Shop ’till you drop. The incident was played out in what was described in the text as a communal urinal. I found this surprising as I imagined that it would be another thirty to forty years before anything communal would be in operation, there being a large public latrine on London Bridge and a very large shed on stilts near Blackfriars, both dropping the waste into the Thames. Now it could be that this urinal was no more than a small shed or screened off area and that the waste just ran into the gutter, but it does show some sort of feeling for modesty and privacy.

Just where the coffee shop stands today in Foster Lane was a public urinal. On the 1st of January 1322 William Rowe, the son of a wealthy Goldsmith took his place at the urinal. As the text describes He made water, but either he was distracted, drunk or just spoiling for a fight and filled the shoe of the man stood next to him. His neighbour obviously complained and words were exchanged with Rowe striking the man with a couple of blows knocking him to the ground. As he fell a small axe fell from his belt and landed on the floor beside him. Another user of the urinal Phillip Ashdown admonished Rowe and the mood became violent. Rowe stooped down, picked up the axe and struck Ashdown a fatal blow to the head from which he died the following day. Two other men on the scene wrestled Rowe to the floor and later took him to Newgate Prison. There is no record as to what punishment Rowe received.

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