Object of the month: a Victorian wedding gift

18 July 2012
 Earthenware chamber pot. Wellcome Images

Earthenware chamber pot. Wellcome Images

A humorous wedding present disguises an unspeakable function. Suzi Wright explains why her favourite object from Medicine Man was already on its way out by the mid-19th century.

The history of the toilet is an uninspiring story to some, but I have always been fascinated by the toilet’s evolution and, in particular, the role of the humble chamber pot. The chamber pot had an essential role in disposing of waste before the flushing toilet became common. The history of sanitation and waste was recently explored in Wellcome Collection’s Dirt exhibition, which examined our ambivalent relationship with dirt. The development of public health in Britain is a rich story and can be told through one of my favourite objects in our Medicine Man gallery, the Victorian chamber pot.

Victorian houses often did not have toilets; if they did, they were usually outside in the back yard. Chamber pots like this one were kept under the bed and were often more convenient to use, especially on cold nights. The pots could be made from china, creamware or enamel.

Victorian Britain was an era of industrialisation; the population was growing and cities were rapidly expanding. As people flocked to live in the cities, living conditions became increasingly cramped and unsanitary, particularly in the slums. Toilets were often cesspits, which were infrequently emptied and sometimes overflowed. In the slums, a toilet could be shared by as many as 25 families, so using a chamber pot would have been a preferable alternative to making small talk with your neighbours while you waited to spend a penny.

This earthenware chamber pot is a quirky wedding gift and displays a witty poem entitled Marriage:

This pot is a present sent.
Some mirth to make is only meant,
We hope the same you’ll not refuse.
But keep it safe and oft it use.
When in it you want to piss,
Remember them who sent you
this.

For the Victorians, chamber pots were very practical and popular wedding gifts and often provided the newlyweds with a dose of humour. The bottom of this chamber pot reveals a man’s face complete with a mischievous message that reads: ‘Keep me clean and use me well. And what I see I will not tell’.

 Earthenware chamber pot. Wellcome Images

Earthenware chamber pot. Wellcome Images

The Victorians loved to design amusing chamber pots, and some contained the face of Victorian politicians such as Gladstone and Disraeli. In a Tory household, you might find a chamber pot decorated with Gladstone’s face! Another novelty for the Victorians were musical chamber pots, which contained concealed music boxes. They played chamber music when used and would humiliate unsuspecting guests who could not turn off the music once they had been activated.

In 1848 the Public Health Act was passed in Britain, stating that all homes had to have some sort of toilet, whether it was a flushing toilet, a privy or an ash pit. A privy was a simple toilet, usually a wooden or brick-built hut in the back garden. The issue of waste disposal then became a problem for the Victorians, as the waste from the privy was collected in an open pit that had to be emptied and sewage continued to pose a threat to the nation’s health, particularly in London. In 1848, more than 14,000 Londoners succumbed to cholera.

Cholera deaths continued to rise and during the summer of 1858, London was known as the Great Stink, when during a stuffy summer sewage rotted in the Thames. Parliament was situated along the Thames and probably the first victim of the Great Stink – the horrendous smell was so overpowering that the drapes of the Houses of Parliament were soaked in chloride of lime to act as a barrier to it. There was even talk of moving parliament elsewhere. The problem could no longer be ignored, and the issue of London’s sewage problem was debated by MPs.

Fortunately for Londoners, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, created a sewer network for central London. Bazalgette’s engineered solution was a system that channelled the waste through miles of street sewers into a series of main intercepting sewers, which slowly transported the waste eastwards into the tidal Thames and then out to sea. By 1866, most of London was connected to a sewer network, which diverted the foul water to treatment works. Bazalgette’s sewers are still in use today: wide, egg-shaped, brick-walled sewer tunnels were constructed rather than the traditional narrow-bore pipes. This design has allowed the system to cope with subsequent increases in volume of sewage. It was built in just nine years and until Bazalgette created the sewers, houses could not have a bathroom.

Public toilets first appeared in Victorian Britain and it was during the Great Exhibition of 1851 that public toilets were used for the first time. George Jennings, an English engineer, installed them in the Crystal Palace for the exhibition. More than 827,000 people paid to use this “necessary convenience”. They paid a penny to use them and for this they got a clean seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine. In Victorian Britain, people spoke of ‘spending a penny’ as a polite way of saying they were going to the loo. Nearly all public conveniences were for men and very few were provided for women. In the era of separate spheres, men were seen as being away from home more than women. Women were also ashamed to be seen using a public toilet, and they weren’t expected to be out on the streets of the city. For Victorian women, in their layers of petticoats and with a crinoline to overcome, I imagine that using the loo or a chamber pot would have required a lot of coordination and effort.

By the end of the 19th century, using the loo became established as a strictly solitary activity and the chamber pot declined in its usage, although for many households a chamber pot was still used at night until the 1950s. This chamber pot is one of my favourite objects in Medicine Man as there is much more to it than meets the eye. Complete with witty poems and illustrations, it is a charming object that hints at the fascinating history of public health in Victorian Britain.

Suzi Wright is Visitor Services Assistant a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection. You can contact her at s.wright@wellcome.ac.uk.