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An earth closet as used in sheds and outhouses
An Earth Closet


At first glance, you may think this arrangement belongs to the far distant past. Not so, here in Devon. As recently as 1998, such a device was operating in an outside shed at the end of a garden in a Devon village, the house having no inside bathroom facilities - its great attraction to the owners of the property being that no sewerage charges were payable to the Council. There are many websites  recording the memories of older people - here are just a few which mention this subject in connection with the 20th century:



George Gard writing down his memories for the Witheridge Village website:

"Drayford is a Hamlet on the banks of the Little Dart River and the Adworthy Brook, and there were Twelve House's including Drayford Mill. The Mill had a slate roof, and all the other eleven properties had thatched roofs. All had outside toilets, eleven with buckets, one with an earth closet. as well.  Eleven had open fire places, one an iron cooking range. All of the houses had ovens built into the side of the fire places for cooking purposes."


Deeds of  a Devon Rectory exchanged in  1930

"THE Vicar shall from the date hereof discontinue the use of the privy at the paint B on plan Number 2, as an earth closet and the Donor undertakes forthwith to wall up the privy outlet to the back wall against the waste adjoining the farm roadway."


Living history recorded by an evacuee writing about life in Branscombe in the the 1940s

"The three of us lived in the vicarage for a short time before we were housed in No.8 The Village where we lived until 1946. As we recall, the rent was 4/- per week, the cottage had no running water, there was a stand pipe on the corner of the end cottage. There was an outside privy with an earth closet .The old man at the farm used to cut my hair. We had to take the earth closet to the farm to empty — horrible." 


From an article about a village school  on their website

As the twentieth century got under way, the school toilets, called "offices" became an embarrassment and, eventually, a health hazard. The Education Act of 1944 demanded upgrading of the facilities, as a result of which the school managers decided to give up their independence and apply for grant-controlled status, under the local education authority. Consequently, the school became a government one from October 1952. In 1956 electric lighting was installed, and in 1957 the old earth closets were finally filled in, and the water buckets hung up for good, when the school was connected to the main sewerage and water systems.


Old privvies at New Buildings
These former school privies had been on this site for well over one hundred years when we photographed them in 2003. They were in use until the late 1950s. There was no division between boys and girls and, when in use, very little privacy between them. However, there was no problem emptying or cleaning this particular "convenience" The lower part of the rear wall was left open to the elements and gravity did the rest. Notice that the bucket of dry soil still remains in situ, complete with a plant pot used as a baler!


Edward Appleton by profession  was an architect but he had many interests and was not averse to standing up and talking about them to anyone who would listen.  What follows is an extract from a talk he gave at Teignmouth to the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science during the July of 1874. His choice of subject was very topical - Prince Albert had died of typhoid just a few months earlier - said to have been caused by the notorious drainage system of Windsor Castle. and 1873 was the year in which Henry Moule took out the patents for the earth closet of his design.  The talk consisted of Mr. Appleton's ideas for a cheaper alternative to the Moule's system. 


Everyone in the audience knew what caused typhoid and everyone wanted to find a cheap fix for an intractable problem. It was not until the 1880s, that King Edward VII contracted the firm of Thomas Crapper to install flush toilets at Sandringham - in the remoter places of Devon, this luxury was, in the main, not available indoors for nearly another century. By the way, the following extract from his talk will be surprisingly familiar to anyone who has knowledge of the composting toilet of today.


Edward Appleton was also keenly interested in the Volunteer Movement and  in 1861 was appointed as a Lieutenant to the 1st Devon Engineer Volunteers - a position which he took very seriously.


An Extract from the talk:

"As far as villages and small places are concerned, the author  is of opinion that the drainage difficulty may be solved by the adoption of the EARTH SYSTEM, but in using this name it is not meant that the comparatively costly contrivances, valuable and perfect as they are, now adopted in connection with the system are necessary.


The practical difficulty in applying the earth system in large towns where the deodorizing medium has to be take from the houses and the medium removed by costly team labour, does not apply in the villages; for in the generality of  instances every house has its vegetable garden or flower plot, and all that is necessary is the purchase of two good-sized galvanised pails and a scoop, the cost of which need not exceed ten shillings at the most. One of the pails has to be filled with dry sifted earth (common garden mould), the other placed under the seat of the closet and the earth supplied by the scoop from the other pail. When filled, it has only to be emptied into the garden and the pail refilled with earth. The former pail will replace that removed, and so on, in rotation.


But it may very properly be asked: How is dry earth to be obtained in winter or in wet seasons? Simply thus. For practical purposes earth will  be sufficiently dry if kept under cover for a short time, and there is little difficulty in keeping a small store in the closet or house. But the better place is to place the daily quantity in the ash-pan or hearth of the kitchen and sift it with the ashes (as all careful people will do) each morning. Where wood or peat is burnt, nothing can be better as a deodorizer that the ashes arising from them.


It may  be said "But all this requires constant attention". Very true; but time and experience will remedy this. It is not, however, proposed to leave the working of the system to the inhabitants only. It must be the duty of the the Inspector of Nuisances to visit periodically each house, and see that the proper means are adopted, and to bring to punishment such person who are too indolent or too dirty to look after their own health and comfort, in the same way that persons neglecting to have their children vaccinated  have to be lock up and punished."


Mr Appleton then outlined some of his other ideas which included rain-water catchment from roofs  to provide a water supply for each house and the digging of a large pit in each village for the reception of wet waste which would be carried there instead of being tipped out in the vicinity of each house. He calculated the cost as being not more than £1 per house, to be funded, not by tenants, but  by each owner.


His final word was as follows:


"In conclusion, the writer begs to say that he has used the earth system for many years past, and at the present time has three of Moule's Apparatus daily in use in his own  premises, that original prejudices to the system has died out and former objectors have become ardent supporters of that plan."

Moule's apparatus - shown with the bucket removed

Moule's apparatus

The bucket has been removed in this diagram for clarity. Pulling the lever, (left) would release a quantity of dry earth from the hopper at  the back. Some unfortunate servant would have had the daily task of removing and dealing with the contents of the bucket. In towns, this often meant that the bucket was  tipped out in the back yard if there was no garden available.  For a fee, this would have been collected at intervalls by the "night soil men"


Last word on the subject:

From Lark Rise by Flora Thompson:

The only sanitary arrangement known in the hamlet was housed either in a little beehive-shaped building at the bottom of the garden or in a corner of the wood and tool shed known as 'the hovel'. It was not even an earth closet; but merely a deep pit with a seat set over it, the half-yearly emptying of which caused every door and window in the vicinity to be sealed. Unfortunately, there was no means of sealing the chimneys!


These 'privies' were as good an index as any to the characters of their owners. Some were horrible holes; others were fairly decent, while some, and these not a few, were kept well cleared, with the seat scrubbed to snow-whiteness and the brick floor raddled. One old woman even went so far as to nail up a text as a finishing touch, 'Thou God sees't me'—most embarrassing to a Victorian child who had been taught that no one must even see her approach the door.


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