Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ablutions - Privies and Baths in Country Houses By Maggi Andersen

Until the last half of the eighteenth century, sanitation in country houses was extremely elementary. In fact, it remained fairly unsatisfactory until the end of the nineteenth century. 
 18th Century Bath

Carshalton House, Surrey. The bathroom in the water tower (1719-20)

 (Above left) The cistern tower at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
(Above right) A conduit house at Bowden Hill, Wiltshire. Water was supplied from it to Lacock Abbey.

Lacock Abbey

 Rainwater was put to good use. In the alterations made by Lord Lumley to Lumley Castle around 1570, the roof drains were connected to cisterns which fed two lavatory basins in alcoves to either side of the hall porch.

 Hardwick Old Hall

At Hardwick Old Hall, a stone down-pipe ran from the flat roof of the Hill Great Chamber (built in 1588) and fed a stone trough in the kitchen. Rainwater was such an obvious source of supply that it would be surprising if more examples of its use at this and earlier periods did not come to light: it was usually the only, if highly variable, means by which water could be brought without inconvenience to upper floors. Houses supplied by conduit seldom had a head of water sufficient to carry the supply above the ground floor. A hand pump, such as seems to have been installed at Hardwick, could only raise water about fifteen feet, and in very limited amounts. It could supply the kitchen, but little else.  

A good many sixteenth-century houses acquired new water supplies, rather than taking over old ones. The most ambitious system was that which finally brought running water to Windsor Castle from Blackmore Park, five miles from the castle.  It took at least four years to construct, between about 1551 and 1555. The water was piped in a lead conduit and the head of water brought it up the castle hill to a great lead cistern in the upper court. From there, more conduits distributed it to other points in the castle.

Some first-hand accounts:

Longford Castle, Wilts: Nay, art here hath so well traced Nature in the most ignoble conveyances (which are no less needful than the most visible conveniences) as to furnish every story with private conduits for the suillage of the house, which are washed by every shower that falls from the gutters, and so hath vent from the very foundations to the top for the discharge of noisesome vapours, by a contrivance not enough followed elsewhere in England, tho’ recommended by architects.
Pelate, A Longford Manuscript, 1678


(Above left) A buffet of 1704 originally at Chatsworth but now at Thornbridge Hall, Derbyshire.
(Above right) The buffet of 1703 at Swangrove, Gloucestershire.  
 The grotto at Chatsworth
Chatsworth, Derbs: There is a fine grotto all stone pavement roof and sides, this is designed to supply all the house with water besides several fancyes to make diversion; within this is a batheing room, the walls all with blew and white marble the pavement mix’d one stone white another black another of the red rance marble; the bath is one entire marble all white finely veined with blew and is made smooth, but had it been as finely polished as some, it would have been the finest marble that could be seen; it was as deep as one’s middle on the outside and you went down steps into the bath big enough for two people; at the upper end are two cocks to let in one hott the other cold water to attemper it as persons please; the windows are all private glass.
Celia Fiennes, The Journeys of, 1697

Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorks: There is a little skittle ground for the youth to divert themselves, not to omit a beautiful temple to Cloacina with a portico round it, supported by columns made of the natural trunks of trees.
Richard Pococke, Journey into England, 1750

Woburn Abbey, Beds: Men’s time at day’s work for His Grace the Duke of Bedford from November 15th to the 22nd, 1760 To squaring and setting Dutch tiles in His Grace’s water closet in the garden.
Woburn Abbey Accounts, 1760

I breakfasted the day before yesterday at Aelia Laelia Chudleigh’s … of all curiosities, are the Conveniences in ever bedchamber; great mahogany projections, as big as her own bubbies, with the holes, with brass handles, and cocks, etc. I could not help saying it was the loosest family I ever saw! Never was such an intimate union of love and a closestool! Adieu!
Horace Walpole to George Montagu, 27.3.1760

Elizabeth, 1st Duchess of Northumberland was deliciously candid about the sanitary arrangements, or the lack of them, in the various grand country houses she visited during the age of elegance.
At Hopetoun House: The housekeeper sent me into the Closet to look for a Chamber pot but it being in a Box I could not find it.
Elizabeth, 1st Duchess of Northumberland, Travel Journals (unpubl.) 1771

But at Harewood she was only too easily directed to ‘a water closet which stinks all over the house’.

As for personal cleanliness before the days of hip baths and running water even Dukes were often grubby.

 Moccas Court  

The numerous visitors to Moccas included:
The old Duke of Norfolk (in his old coach and four black horses) who always drank like a fish, and it was said that he used to make a compromise with his coachman, saying ‘John, you must be sober tonight, I shall be drunk,” or vice versa. Sometimes he slept at Moccas, but never brought a clean shirt with him and came down to breakfast next morning with a portwine spotted shirt, generally himself unwashed. The servants considered him a dear man, as he never wanted any water in his bedroom.
Lady Duff Gordon to her niece, Mrs. A.C.Master (unpubl.) 20.11.1872

Research: The Country House Compiled by James Lees-Milne, Small Oxford Books
Life in the English Country House, Mark Girouard, Yale University Press

Maggi Andersen is an author of historical romance, mysteries, and young adult novels. Website:


  1. V. interesting! There's a bit about country-house plumbing in Life in the English Country House, but this really illuminates the subject and gives ideas on where to follow up. I'm glad, though, that I'm not writing anything earlier than 1920s these days!

  2. Whenever I read details about the past when it comes to plumbing and hygiene, I just thank my lucky star that I was born into this time of modern conveniences.

    I found the pictures interesting and helpful. I couldn't always visualize what people described in their writings.


  3. Very interesting. Loved the pictures and quotes.

  4. Terrific post, Thanks, Maggi. Lots of really useful stuff here. It's hard to find good resource material on the "unmentionables".

  5. Wonderful post! I found the collection and use of rainwater especially fascinating, and ingenious, of course, on the part of the Brits! Had never seen that mentioned anywhere before, although it's obvious really, and some recipes for mead specify that rain water be used.


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