New Mills, c. 1895
When I first moved to Norwich in the early 1960’s there were still blocks of terraced houses that had outside lavatories. Many in fact, that shared one privy between several properties.The home I live in now, built as recently as1938 has subsequently had an indoor bathroom added and the former outside toilet is now a gardening cupboard. Which all leads me on to the subject of bog-houses...
In the past, low-lying parts of Norwich were stinking places where the slow-flowing rivers were fouled by discharge from countless bog-houses or outside privies. Sanitation beyond the privileged in society was so scant as to be almost non-existent. Taverns, for instance, had primitive indoor sanitation, (if that’s what it can be called), by way of a chamber-pot in each room. To quote a visitor who had moved to Norwich in the 1740’s, there it stands stinking till it is full, and often till it run about the Room in a very Nasty manner.
This state of affairs was tolerated simply because many folk endured similar conditions at home, as shown in A Report of Visits to Handloom Weavers, 29 Jan 1850.
Immediately facing the entrance to the house, and joining the little fence, was the privy, used
by the whole of the inhabitants of the court; by the side of it was an open bin, into which all
the refuse matter was thrown, and into the bottom of which the soil from the adjoining privy
drained. Some rain had fallen on the night previous to my visit, and the contents of this open cesspool, oozing through the walls, were streaming sluggishly down the path to the house. A
part of this filthy fluid was absorbed by the ground, but some parts of it not unfrequently found
their way into the house, the floor of which, as if to invite its entrance, was nearly a foot lower
than the ground outside.
While Norwich Castle high on its hill boasted a four-berth Norman toilet tucked within its walls, (whose contents dropped conveniently into the ditch below), things had not improved much since, as it was also reported that women would run across Fye Bridge with raps over their noses to avoid the stench.
This part of the River Wensum is not far from New Mills Yard, so called since in1430, when land was cleared at the highest navigable part and a new corn mill built. Mills of all sorts from tanning to sawing concentrated and flourished around the basin, much to the detriment of water quality.
New Mills Yard has always been the site of the city’s waterworks and between 1790 – 1800 was rebuilt again to transport cleaner water drawn from a canal a quarter a mile above the turgid basin. A water wheel l5’ broad by 18’ in diameter raised the water to a reservoir in Chapel Field. Three hundred yards in circumference, it was banked with its excavated earth to a height of 120’ while water was forced up into a pipe tower 145’ above its source.
By 1850 however, matters had deteriorated and a Government Inspector reported bubbles of gas seen rising in the reservoir, and the water became a dark colour when a supply was let in by the pipes. Elsewhere, ...slugs were drawn in the water.
Once the second wealthiest City outside London, Norwich’s population had grown fast and by 1893 a population of 104,000, living in 23,111 houses, shared only 4,100 water closets between them. The City Engineer reported disgustedly - thus the remainder were provided with that filthy abomination known as a midden closet or with privy pans. Clearly it was time for another rebuilding programme!
So, in 1897 New Mills became part of the City Corporation’s new sewerage scheme. Five air compressors, three powered by electric motors, two driven by steam turbines worked by the river. Totalling 100 bhp, these pumped effluent out beyond the city limits to Trowse, finally closing in 1972 with the opening of new works at Whitlingham.
Perhaps now is the time for us all to rethink our casual acceptance of clean running water and flushing toilets in houses which often sport multiple outlets. Time to question the relevance of using pure water for flushing purposes, particularly in this drier side of England. Why not install storage tanks for 'grey' bath/shower water instead? Earth closets and purifying reed beds could be introduced in camping sites and outdoor recreation areas. And surely there must be an alternative to every Briton flushing 17.6 kilos of loo roll down the lavatory every year...?