Langport and District History Society

THE Society’s February meeting heard Rob Curtis speak on ‘Inner Sanctums’. He tantalised his audience by not revealing immediately the subject of his intriguingly titled talk, and by warning that it had caused consternation in previous audiences. Then he showed an illustration of a toilet.

The oldest recognisable toilet facility has been found in ancient India, around 2,500BC, with sophisticated features such as pipes, drains, manhole covers and inspection chambers.

The next major step forward came with the Romans, who introduced extensive public and private sanitation systems, not just in Rome itself, but around the Empire. He emphasised the social nature of such necessary functions and facilities, when Romans would meet at communal facilities.

Following the Romans, technology stalled for many centuries, with resort to more primitive systems, especially among the general rural and urban populace.

An exception was in medieval monasteries, where the monks appreciated the importance of good sanitation. For the rest, the best instances of domestic sanitation would be, as expected, in the homes of the higher classes, especially the garderobes of medieval castles; the intricate and lavishly padded and decorated toilets designed for the use of monarchs from Henry VIII onwards, and the later chamber pots and similar facilities, many examples of which Rob displayed.

Development of the modern WC was slow, and John Harrington’s inventions at the end of the 16th century were not taken up for almost 200 years. Progress came in the late 1700s, with technical improvements making flush WCs more efficient and acceptable.

During the 1800s, famous names such as Thomas Crapper and Thomas Twyford developed the type of facilities we use today.

By the 19th century, appreciation of public health led to the creation of decent public lavatory systems, initially private, but increasingly through municipal provision. The charge became a standard 1d – at least until decimalisation in 1971.

Rob also described provision in other places, from trains and ships even to the International Space Station, and concluded by speculating on facilities of the future, perhaps focussing more on priorities such as recyclability, and showing examples of complex hi-tech Japanese toilets.

The next meeting will be on Monday, March 6, when John Smith will give a talk on Roman arms and armour. It is free to members (annual membership is £12): non-members are welcome, admission £2; refreshments available.

Anyone interested in joining the society should contact Sue Standen on 01458 273471, Follow the History Society at @langporthistory, and on its website: