Barking and District Historical Society

Go to content

Main menu

Convenient or not convenient

Articles > Reminiscences

Convenient or not convenient, that is the question!

Katie Avagah

On re-reading through my brother’s experiences while he was evacuated I was prompted to put pen to paper again to recall my own experiences with receptacles for bodily waste!  Growing up in Dagenham, even as early as the 1930’s, I was used  to water closets that had flush toilets; you pulled the chain and Hey Presto! Similarly, when I was evacuated, it was to a house with modern amenities.  Though I can remember whenever water was used, for whatever need, loud rumbling noises filled the  house; rather worrying to a small child alone in bed at night.

My first introduction to toilets that were ‘different’ shall we say, was on holiday in 1957, staying with family on the Isle of Jersey.  There is a photo somewhere, a fashionable me, yes I know that’s hard to visualise, in a slim  black and white dress, elegant, high heeled shoes, hugging a rather large jug.  This jug one filled with water and took with one whenever one wished to relieve oneself; no chance of being discreet here.  The toilet was situated outside, around the side  of the house, and you needed to tip the water in with some force in order to flush the toilet; practice made perfect.

In Oxfordshire we had relatives whose toilet had flushing facilities, but the waste emptied into a ‘cess-pit’, which needed to be removed at regular intervals; this was apparently then used on the garden. Having a flushing system one didn't really notice the difference, and the home grown vegetables dished up for dinner were great.  Memories of brother Bobby!

I had experienced boating holidays before, on the Norfolk Broads.  There it was acceptable for waste to be flushed into the water; no doubt the local fish enjoyed the extra protein.  My honeymoon, however, was aboard a boat on the River Thames, here they  were a little more fussy.  At certain ‘Locks’ there were facilities to empty ones bucket, but they failed to put up notices to this effect.  At each Lock, once the correct water level was achieved, one grabbed up ones bucket, hared to the  Lock-shed and if one was lucky emptied it out.  If not, back into the boat and on to the next lock, and try again.  As one progressed down the River ones bucket could become quite full – not good for jumping on and off boats!
Then in 1983 I visited Holland as guest to the African Missionary Society.  My first evening I stayed in a flat in Amsterdam with two Catholic Priests and a male acquaintance, none of whom I knew really well.  The toilet at first sight appeared to be  quite ‘normal’; it had a cistern high on the wall with a pipe leading down to the bowl; but hold on where is the ‘chain’? After some minutes exploring all possible hiding places I crept out and rather meekly asked mine hosts,  ‘How does one flush the toilet?’ ‘Well really!’ they must have thought, ‘these stupid English’.  It was then demonstrated to me – the middle part of the pipe could be moved up and down – by doing  this the toilet flushed – I never did work out how the water arrived from the cistern to the bowl!  However, I was happy, now I knew how to flush Dutch toilets!  I had very little sleep that night; throughout the dark hours the door-bell chimed  to admit illegal immigrants from Africa.  By morning the flat was full of a collection of young men seeking assistance.  It was an interesting breakfast!

The next day we travelled to Nijmegen by an ingenious bus which could become a tram when it entered a town – I was beginning to appreciate how clever these Dutch were.  I would now be staying at the Mission House, with many, more Catholics Priests.   I was shown to my room, left to unpack with an invite to join them downstairs when I was ready.  Leaving my room I saw some stairs to my right and looking forward to a cuppa, I quickly descended, expecting to find the dining room and mine hosts; instead  I was confronted by an office and a prayer room.  Trying other doors I was quickly becoming rather confused and lost and not a little worried; I didn’t really know these people, I was the only female in the house, and I wasn’t even a Catholic!   My only course of action was to return to my room and start again.  Then I spotted similar stairs to the left of my room – descending these I was extremely relieved to find mine hosts awaiting me with smiles, tea and biscuits at the ready! It  was explained to me that the Mission House was in fact two identical houses, side by side, with the central walls removed.  This Brit is not making a very good impression! Though they did prefer my strong tea and this became my job for the rest of my  stay. Here I was more than pleased to discover they had normal toilets.
A few days later I was taken out into the countryside and spent that night at a farm.  By now we had in tow a collection of young men from the Mission; some in training to become missionaries, others training to become Catholic priests.  These were all  housed for the night in a large room on bunk-beds; I was to sleep in the attic, the ladder of which ascended from the centre of this room.  It was an extremely cold night, thick frost lay across the fields; the attic was very large; extremely draughty  from the gaps between the eves and the walls; the only light came from the full moon showing through the gaps in the roof.  The small camp bed was placed centrally in this large attic, surrounded by unwanted debris.  I lay there, frozen and not a little  dejected, quite unable to sleep.  As you will know, faced with a long, cold, protracted wait one tends to need the toilet! Finally in desperation, in that dark one only experiences in the country, I started down the ladder. Half way down I missed my footing,  slid down the remaining steps to land on the bed of one of the young men.  It is not often that a young man has a woman drop from the skies onto his bed in the middle of the night!  It was some time before we could all compose ourselves and I was able  to escape to the toilet, which was fortunately normal!

Later we were to visit an elderly couple, who lived in a charming, very modern bungalow.  The toilet was up to date, with low cistern; but hold on, how to turn on the taps to wash ones hands?  Completely flummoxed I again seek out mine hosts –  there in the floor was a small ‘button’....!  I was to come across the same system in the Civic Centre years later, but by then I had experienced far stranger toilets. On leaving Holland they assured me they had enjoyed my visit –  said they hadn’t laughed so much in a long time!

Ghana, Africa.  At the Mission House in Accra the toilets appeared normal, but of course they were of the cess-pit variety – if not attended correctly they will soon overflow!  The same system was used in the more ‘modern’ villages;  you soon realised their African system might at first appear primitive, but was in fact more hygienic and reliable – but it took some getting used to.

I was taken to visit a village, small one room huts, a curtain shut off the sleeping area.  As night fell one slept outside, moving inside as it became colder.  The communal toilet was built on a mound some small distance from the village.  From the outside  it appeared to be a very large and elegant barn, built of upright timbers and roofed over.   Inside was just one very large area, the ‘floor’ which consisted of these same timber planks laid crosswise, with gaps in between?  One placed ones  feet on two adjacent planks and cooped down. Around me were both men and women, boys and girls; all relieving themselves without any feelings of embarrassment or self-consciousness.  I took a deep breath, thought of England, and ...  I should not have  looked down!  Below was a seething mass, or mess! from which arose a feeling of warmth accompanied by a loud buzzing noise – the surface was a moving mass.  I was in ‘Fly Paradise’!  To my Western eyes this was a horrific sight - only later when I began to think rationally did I become convinced that it was really a more efficient and hygienic system suited to the circumstances. Of course when one went shopping in the markets one met their fly ‘cousins’. The Market  Mammas sat behind their stalls gently waiving their hands over their ware as customers approached. The flies would fly upwards and hover a few feet above the dried fish while you made your choice; settling back with a contented buzzing as you moved away.   When you reached home you boiled everything and you survive.

Then more recently off to New Zealand and the ‘big-drop’, though apparently we invented the big-drops here in times past.  The toilet appeared quite normal, a white basin with a white plastic seat and lid.  It was a little disconcerting  because seated one faced a low window overlooking the bush; and you always expected some person or animal to suddenly pop out in front and peer through the window at you.  After usage one had to throw in a small amount of what looked like dried grass;  and every so often a chemical.  Dennis needed to regularly crawl under the house and clear out the cess-pit; this he then deposited down into the bush; his house being at the top of a steep hill.  Fortunately no one lives below!  I am pleased to say that  in many parts of New Zealand they do have normal toilet arrangements; though some can be housed in tiny sheds some way from the house.

It is at times like this that you fully appreciate our wonderful sewerage system and Mr Thomas Crapper.

Back to content | Back to main menu