8 June 2001

Hazards and humour of trip to the outdoor privy

REMEMBER the "Good Old Days" when answering a call of nature meant a trek to the outdoor privy in the dark and freezing cold, lifes only comforts a guttering candle and the little squares of newspaper hung on a string behind the door?

If you have forgotten or are blissfully ignorant of this Spartan episode in our social history, Dulcie Lewis, flushed with nostalgia, lifts the veil on the bath and lavatory habits of yesterdays country folk in the Dales in her humorous book*.

As she says: "Anyone who has ever bathed in front of the fire or used an outside privy never forgets the experience." Those who answered her appeal for stories and anecdotes, from local newspapers to the WI, appear to have the episode seared on their memories.

Going to a privy "was avoided if possible on cold winter nights," said one. No wonder Dulcie devotes a whole chapter to cures for constipation!

"It required dressing as for a visit to the Arctic," said another. She remembers sitting by icicles hanging from the tap. Spiders and flies were a constant problem and in the case of one woman from Grass-ington, pigs! On a visit to a Swaledale privy in the 1930s she reached for the paper and grabbed a pigs snout in the sty next door.

There were other hazards as a schoolmaster at West Witton could testify. Pupils delighted in pushing stinging nettles on to his unsuspecting bottom through the clearing hole in the back!

You were not always alone in these temples of inconvenience as the pictures of two, three and even four-holers in Dulcies book illustrate. A Wensleydale teachers solitude in the privy was broken by a young face appearing in the wide gap under the door and inquiring: "Please Miss, should I give out the pencils now?"

Some actively sought companionship like the two old Nidderdale ladies who had adjacent privies. For 40 years they went together and had a chat through the wall.

A member of Burton Leonard Yorkshire Countrywomens Asso-ciation was in the family privy, separated from the fuel store only by a shoulder high partition, when the coalman arrived!

There were almost as many names for privies (netty, petty, nessy) as there were different kinds of toilet paper. The farmers weekly was a regular on the back of the door, so was the Beano and the Daily Mail, because the print didnt come off. Some just hung an old telephone directory and tore off a sheet as required.

When the privies were full they had to be emptied and the "muck", or the more euphemistic "night soil", disposed of, a familiar ritual in the country. The secret behind the caretakers prizewinning cabbages and leeks at Great Smeaton was that he used the contents of his schools privies on his veg patch. The leftover was traded – a bucketful for a pint of beer.

&#42 Contents refused

Farmland was a popular area for disposal (though Dulcie records one case where a privys contents were refused because the quality was suspect) or, as at Arkengarthdale, the local stream which ran underneath. Whoever cleared the privies at Nappa Hall in Wensleydale got a whisky afterwards!

No lavatorial tale is safe from Dulcies searching gaze or witty pen. If shed tried to tiptoe round the subject she would have ended up putting her foot in it. But without a blush she lifts the toilet lid on a hilarious slice of life that until now has been largely hidden.

Tin baths, hanging from a hook outside the back door, were also commonplace in country homes well within living memory. Water, which had to be carried from a pump, was so precious some never bothered using it. A Swaledale woman recalled a fellow inhabitant who only washed the foot the doctor was going to look at. The father of a family on Blea Moor never saw the inside of a tub. He thought "bathing weakens".

Bath water was a shared experience. The pecking order in one home was young daughter first, then mother, youngest son, young uncles, granddad and finally father, if he didnt wash in the stable yard.

&#42 Bath by the fire

If solitude could be broken in a privy the same went for a bath by the fire. "Come in", said a farmers wife near Semerwater thinking it was her husband knocking on the door. The butcher entered and found her starkers.

Carbolic soap was well used on these occasions and farmings own "toothpaste". You dipped your brush into a mixture of salt and soot in a jam jar.

Dulcie, a retired college lecturer, who lives at Carperby, near Askrigg, is well-known locally for her talks on amusing topics to organisations like the WI. With this book she has found a niche because it is not only a funny read it factually chronicles a chapter of everyday country life.

The people of North Yorkshire have nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to hygiene habits, she says. That will be a relief. Happily she will have another book out in September entitled Curious Cures of Old Yorkshire. I bet her readers cant wait.

Tom Montgomery

*Down the Yorkshire Pan by Dulcie Lewis is published by Countryside Books, of Newbury, Berkshire, at £7.95.