Today Bill Gates has launched a campaign to “Reinvent the Toilet Fair”. The toilet has in fact seen very little advancement in the last 200 years, since Thomas Crapper popularised the flushable variation. So Gates has set up the challenge to develop a new type of lavatory that does not need to be plumbed into a complex system of water and waste pipes. The invention is to be applied to the developing world to combat water wastage and sanitisation. The winning entry came from the California Institute of Technology which demonstrated a solar powered toilet that breaks down waste and turns it into hydrogen for fuel.
This advancement in technology is one of the first milestones in toilet history and with this in mind we take a look at York’s relationship with the toilet.
Organised and run by Yorkwalk, The Historic Toilet Tour of York is an entertaining and enlightening walk around the city, pointing out various points of ‘personal plumbing’ related interest. The walk visits sites all around York, and is just as interesting as a tour of notable historic places as it is an informative toilet-themed trudge.
Lendal Bridge is where, if you look downstream, you will be able to see the site of the first recorded public convenience, which was built in an arch in Ouse Bridge in 1367. This practice led to the coining of the phrase, “Bridges are built for wise men to go over and fools to go under”. It only took two hundred years for the City Council to become concerned with the state of the river, and in 1579 it ordered citizens to cease relieving themselves into the Ouse. Rather hypocritically, it was the councillors that continued to use the river as a toilet. It was at this point that privacy came into play, and the council erected a ‘wainscot around the pissing place’, to shield all parties from the deed. The Guildhall toilets are to this day in the same place, although fortunately indoors.
In the Tudor period, there was a public toilet at Monk Bar, Ouse Bridge and Bootham Bar, and during this time there was a large degree of ‘public nuisance’ at these areas, not unlike the nefarious characters that used to hang out at the recently demolished Splash Palace public toilets on Parliament Street. As a result, the mid-nineteenth century council issued a ‘cordon sanitaire’, which decreed that all bars and posterns contained urinals so that men could not enter or leave the city with ‘passing a pissing place’, which was an inspired idea, and some excellent alliteration.
The Jorvik Viking Centre is the place where the Coppergate dig unearthed Viking toilet pits, and the infamous ‘Coppergate turd’. This Viking artefact was actually incredibly useful to the archaeologists involved in the excavations, as it told them what they ate, and what parasites they had fallen victim to.
Down at the end of Castlegate, on the riverbank, was where the rich would parade around in the mid-eighteenth century away from the filth and nastiness of the city streets. It was here that the New Walk Davy Tower was converted into a convenience for the more privileged members of society. This toilet was known as The Sugar House, which, it appears, is a rather delicate euphemism!
Phew! We got through The Historic Toilet Tour of York clean. Yorkwalk have many more toilet facts for you if you choose to take the tour, which leaves from Museum Street. Good luck, and happy hunting!