Travels with William Porden: Regency era toilets abroad

It’s been a long while since I’ve blogged from Mr Porden’s diary, but we catch up with him now, at the English Hotel in Dieppe where he, his daughter Eleanor, and their fellow passengers on the Eliza arrived after their long channel crossing in 1816.   The town is unpleasantly smelly owing to a lack of sewers, and a French toilet is also described, not the kind of detail you usually find in letters and diaries, even now, so this particularly intrigued me…

With regard to another Accommodation, that was not quite so bad as what I found in Scotland.  I visited two of the Repositories which were in the very roof of a lofty House.  I must not say they were like poor Winifreds Tub with a pair of tongs across but  they were truly nothing more than a wooden tub in the shape of a Yorkshire Horsing block upon which you mounted and sat in trepidation lest any violent motion should overset you and blend you and the contents of the vessel on the floor.

I’m not entirely sure what makes a Yorkshire horsing block special, but generally horsing, or mounting blocks look like a short run of stone steps. You can still see them around these parts, like this one in Church Street, Matlock: 

 

 

 

 

Given the somewhat euphemistic description, I couldn’t be absolutely certain that Mr Porden was describing a toilet without tracing the mention of Winifred’s Tub.  That might not have been much to go on but as he had previously written ‘Sister Tabitha’s tub’ and then crossed it out, an internet search led me to Tobias Smollet’s 1771 novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.

The principal reason it’s taken me so long to write this blog was that I felt compelled to read my way through Humphry Clinker to check the reference, and it’s taken me a while!  It’s a picaresque, rambling, epistolary novel about a family journeying around England and Scotland, and as such it’s a very suitable book for our much-travelled architect.  I suspect it was one of Mr Porden’s favourites (perhaps he had taken it with him for holiday reading) as I picked up another reference to an episode from it elsewhere in his diary.

I finally found the right passage on page 257 of my edition, in which maidservant Winifred Jenkins writes in a misspelled letter to her friend about her experiences in Edinborough:

… there is nurro geaks [privies] in the whole kingdom nor any thing for sarvants but a barrel with a pair of tongs thrown a-cross; and all the chairs [commodes] in the family are emptied into this here barrel once a day; and at ten o’clock at night the whole cargo is flung out of a back windore [window] that looks into some street or lane.

I imagine the pair of tongs formed a kind of rudimentary toilet seat, which seems to be missing from the ones in Dieppe.  Given the lack of sewers and overall bad smell, one assumes that the wooden tub in Dieppe was also emptied out of the window – yuck!

I still shudder when I remember the old squat toilets that were still common in French campsites when I was a child.  It sounds, however, like they were an improvement on the ones that the British travellers in 1816 had to contend with.

If you enjoy reading about eighteenth century life in its more eccentric and earthy forms, then I very much recommend Humphry Clinker.  Smollett fills in the details on some of those more practical ‘accommodations’ that you don’t always find in other writers of the time!

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