Keep it clean – Anne Barnes

Anne gave a well-researched, informative and thoroughly entertaining talk that covered 4000 years of history. She started by getting us to think about how we would use water if we had to walk to the source and then carry it back: washing the body would not be a priority as water for food and drink was a more immediate need. The first known bath was found in Crete and dates to about 2000BC, we know that the Egyptians had baths and latrines and that the Romans were famous for their plumbing for communal, public baths and latrines.
As an aside Anne told us about several early Christian saints for whom washing was anathema: St Jerome and St Agnes never washed and St Catherine tried never to wash. Monks in the early Christian church washed four times a year but washed their feet weekly on Saturdays. Mediaeval monasteries in this country were built with communal latrines (the rere dorter).
The Vikings were known to be much cleaner than their contemporaries, they combed their hair and bathed weekly as well as changing their clothes weekly.
In the later middle ages privacy was an unknown luxury and baths, when available, would be shared and, indeed beds were often shared as well. It is known that there were public latrines in this country until the mid-fourteenth century and after the Black Death there were rules about cess pits being constructed but public latrines seem to have stopped being provided. There was some idea that immoral behaviour had been encouraged by communal bathing and that the Black Death was a punishment for this immorality. It is known that chamber pots were in use and were commonly made of earthenware although some were made of base or even precious metals, the disposal of the contents of the pots was not regulated, of course.
The first water closet was designed by a godson of Elizabeth 1, Sir John Harrington in 1596. It is known that he bathed daily but the Queen bathed once a month, whether or not she needed it! James 1 notoriously only ever washed his fingers.
The next significant development comes in the late 17th century when spas began to become popular. Places like Bath, Buxton, Cheltenham and Harrogate began to attract visitors who would drink the waters or bathe in them for health reasons. In the eighteenth century John Wesley preached the virtue of cold baths.
There was no indoor sanitation although wealthy people were beginning to install bathrooms and lavatories. Queen Victoria had a lavatory installed in her GWR carriage. Apparently the convenience in her Great Eastern train carriage was disguised in a sofa! Prince Albert oversaw the installation of plumbing at various royal residences.
During the 19th century it became more common to construct cess pits with a water closet for a group of houses and as the link between hygiene and health was recognised schemes for the construction of sewers and sewage farms were drawn up. Various Acts of Parliament such as the 1846 Public Baths and Washhouses Act. enabled improvements. In 1851 Public Conveniences were installed at the Great Exhibition and these proved very popular.
Anne’s talk was very well received by the meeting and it elicited lots of response; after the talk members chatted about unusual “facilities” and particular public conveniences in the area (the underground one on Wisbech Market Place; the double seater at the Haigh Assembly rooms in King Street, Wisbech). This was a thoroughly enjoyable and informative talk.

[Margaret Lake ]

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