PHYSICAL FABRIC Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval King's Lynn Leicester Coventry Winchester latrine communal property maintenance ditches water supply bequests sanitation public health drains cleaning waste disposal London
Subject: Conveniences and easements
Original source: 1. Norfolk Record Office, King's Lynn archives, KL/C10/1, f.7; 2. Leicestershire Record Office, Leicester archives, charter; 3. Coventry City Record Office, Leet Book; 4. British Library, Add. Ms. 6036; Corporation of London Records Office, Letter Books I, f.152
Transcription in: 1. Holcombe Ingleby, ed., The Red Register of King's Lynn, vol.1, (1922), p.15; 2. Mary Bateson, ed. Records of the Borough of Leicester, (London, 1901), vol.2, 61-62; 3. Mary Dormer Harris, ed. The Coventry Leet Book or Mayor's Register, London: Early English Text Society, old series, vol.134 (1907), 194, 201-02; 4. W.H.B. Bird, ed. The Black Book of Winchester. Winchester: Warren & Son, 1925, 72-73, 103; 5. Henry Thomas Riley, ed. Memorials of London Life in the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth Centuries, London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1868, 614-15.
Original language: 1, 4, 5. Latin (5 translated by Riley); 2. French; 3. Middle English, Latin
Location: King's Lynn, Leicester, Coventry, Winchester
Date: 14th and 15th centuries


[1. Permission to erect a public privy at Lynn]

Memorandum that on 29 January 1309, during the mayoralty of Thomas de Sechford, the commune of Lynn by unanimous agreement granted and gave licence to John de Waltone to make a common chamber furnished for the convenience of the town, to stand forever in a certain common lane between the land that once belonged to Deodatus de Herdwyke, on either side, and its east end abutting on the king's highway next to the churchyard of St. Margaret's, and the west end on the Great [Ouse] River of Lynn. On condition that neither John nor anyone else may claim ownership of that chamber ever again.

[2. Grant of a site in Leicester on which to put up a privy]

Let this be known to all people, that we Henry, Earl of Lancaster and of Leicester, Steward of England, have given and granted to the mayor, burgesses and community of the town of Leicester a plot of wasteland in the town on [the bank of] the Soar, next to the messuage that William Sharp holds by the same river. Which [plot] measures sixty feet in length and along the edge of the river thirty feet. For erecting there a privy for the convenience of the whole community. The mayor and community are to have and to hold forever. In compensation for another plot of wasteland which we have given to the Friars Preacher of Leicester for [...] their place, where the community used to relieve themselves. In testimony to which, we have set our seal to ths document; these being witnesses: Sir Robert de Hungerford, Sir Esman Trussel, John de Blount, John de Waltham, William de Hastinges, and others. Drawn up in our castle at Leicester, on 28 March 1344.

[3. Authorized and unauthorized latrines at Coventry]

At this same leet [held on 1 October 1440] at the special request of one William Pere, the privies in the West Orchard were leased to him for the term of 99 years, paying to the town 12d. [per year?]; and he is to renovate them and the bridge there, and to keep them in satisfactory repair during that term, as is specified in the petition put forward at that leet.


[At the view of frankpledge held on 27 April 1443] they wish and ordain that a good iron grating be made for Little Park Street at the cost of the wardens, of a suitable length and width, viz. only 4 inches of width between each bar; and furthermore that anyone who holds lands or tenements next to the Red Ditch [shall contribute towards] the cleaning of that ditch adjacent to his land.

And that anyone who has a latrine over that ditch shall remove it before next Whitsun, on penalty of 6s.8d; and the same applies to all the others between Attilburgh's place and the tenement called Gower's place, and wherever else this is necessary in the town.

[4. Public and private conveniences at Winchester]

At the assembly held at Winchester on 22 August 1436 [...] There was further granted to John Grenefelde by the mayor, bailiffs, citizens and community a certain watercourse, flowing from the stream called Kingsbrook into the tenement within which he now lives, and from that tenement flowing back into the stream out of which it first flowed. To have in perpetuity within that tenement, for his convenience. This condition being attached to the watercourse: that in times to come neither John Grenefelde during his lifetime nor anyone else living in the tenement after his death place or construct over it any new outbuildings for large animals, or a pigsty or latrine, or any building, to the detriment in any way of the said stream. Should it happen that John Grenefelde during his lifetime or anyone else after his death erect or construct any such new outbuilding, latrine, or pigsty contrary to [the terms of] this grant, and this is commonly known to be the case, then it shall be perfectly legal for the mayor of the city then in office and the community of the city to block the water and withold it from the property forever.


In the name of God, Amen. I Nicholas Hanyton, citizen of the city of Winchester, on 20 July 1369, have set out my testament in the following manner etc. I bequeath in perpetuity to the mayor and community of the city of Winchester who then are [i.e. at the time of his death] 6s. in annual rent due from the tenement of Richard le Drapere in Shulworth Street, which at one time belonged to John Dolites and now Thomas Dunster, to roof, support, repair, and maintain the long public privy of the city, situated on the east side of the wall and cemetery of St. Swithun's.

At the court session held and convened on 7 December 1369, the testament of Nicholas Hanyton received probate before Hugh Cran then mayor of the city of Winchester, Richard Beuithe and Raymond Leche then bailiffs there, etc.

[5. Offensive London latrines are dealt with, 2 July 1415]

Because that from default of provision for the proper safety and due management and charge of a certain watery and vacant piece of land, called "The Moor", situate beneath the walls of the City, and lying to the North thereof, as also, of a certain common latrine there situate, on the Moor aforesaid; by reason thereof, as well very many cellars and dwelling-houses were overflowed, in divers streets and lanes to the said moor near and adjoining, and many sicknesses and other intolerable maladies, arising from the horrible, corrupt, and infected atmosphere proceeding from the latrine aforesaid, from time to time were often prominent. [Therefore the city authorities considered remedy.]


And to the end that the horrible, infected, and corrupt atmosphere, arising from the latrine aforesaid, for the saving of the human body, as people go, return, and pass along that way, might be wholly got rid of, and excluded therefrom, it was ordered by the said Mayor, Aldermen, and Common Council that such latrine, together with the entrance to the same, should be removed, and that another latrine should be built, or made anew, on the other side, within the walls of the said city, and upon the Foss of Walbrooke; it being understood that all laystalls and other kinds of filth whatsoever, usually discharged into the said Foss, so often as it should be necessary to be done, should, by means of the interception of a watergate, called a "scluys" or a "speye", and the flow of the waters from the Fosses without the walls of the City, which discharge into the Foss of Walbrooke aforesaid, be carried off and got rid of. And further, by the said Mayor, Aldermen, and Common Council, it was ordered and agreed, that all inhabitants upon the margin of the Foss of Walbrooke, near to the water of Thames, should pile the banks of the same, and cause it to be piled, or else walled with walls; taking due care that by the breaking or sinking of such walls there should be no impediment to the water, so running into the Foss as aforesaid, having its free course and protection until it reaches the Thames.

Also, by the said Mayor, Aldermen, and Common Council. ot was there mooted and discussed, and also, order was given thereon, that a certain other latrine, situate in the Wall of the said city, between the Church of All Hallows the Less and the Gate of Bysshopesgate, in London, which was so choked up by means of dung, laystalls, and other filth, that persons resorting thereto, and going, returning, and passing along that way, by reason of the foulness and infectious nature of the odious and horrible atmosphere arising therefrom, suffered no small inconvenience thereby, and manifest perils to human life frequently thence ensued, should be removed and done away with for the future; seeing that the new latrine that was to be made, as before stated, would be sufficiently near to that spot for the convenience of the commonalty of the City.


One of the challenges in efforts to improve sanitary conditions in towns was the disposal of human and animal waste. One reason authorities were concerned about allowing cattle, pigs, horses, and other animals to roam loose in the vicinity of city ditches and rivers was because their droppings might be washed into the water. Despite indications that medieval men (and perhaps women) could also sometimes be undiscriminating as to where they relieved themselves – in the middle of the street (in 1339 a beggar-boy was run over by a London watercart while squatting to relieve himself), out of the bedroom window into the street, against the wall of a church, or even by the entrance to the cathedral – such behaviour met with public disapproval.

Archaeology has shown that some houses in London were already equipped with their own privies, with timber-lined pits, by the beginning of the twelfth century. In the next century greater attention to and expenditure on privies is indicated by the growing use of stone to line pits and drains, and more skilful construction techniques; London's building regulations encouraged the use of stone:

Concerning 'necessary chambers' which are in the houses of citizens, it is enacted and ordained as to a pit made for such a chamber that, if it is lined with a stone wall, the opening of the pit should be placed at a [minimum] distance of two and a half feet from the neighbouring property [...] But if not so walled, it should be placed three and a half feet from the neighbouring property.
[H.T. Riley, ed., Liber Albus, vol.1 (1859), 323-24]
The same trends towards domestic privies and the use of stone have been identified through archaeology at Southampton.

In the fifteenth century privies are evidenced at Southampton lower down the social scale: within houses of artisans and even labourers. But this was not the case everywhere. Vanessa Parker [The Making of King's Lynn, Chichester, 1971, 91] found no evidence – documentary, archaeological or architectural – that individual residences at Lynn had private internal privies during the Middle Ages, and suspected that any private privies would have been outside the houses. She was aware, however, that some houses may have shared privies. One bequest in the will of Simon de Biteringe (1349) was of

my tenement with buildings and appurtenances in the town of Lynn, with a half-share of a privy belonging to that tenement, with free entrance and exit; which tenement is situated in St. James' Street, between the tenements of Robert de Prioratu and John Gigge on the east side, and the tenement that once belonged to Richer de Byteringe, my son, on the west side, while its north end abuts on the highway and the south end abuts on a certain fleet.
[Red Register, vol.1, 196]

Similar sharing is evidenced in London. In 1452 the lessee of a tenement in the parish of St. Benet Fink had the obligation to shoulder half the cost of cleaning a privy situated next to an adjacent tenement. And in 1466 one householder, John Butler, sued his neighbours, the Smyths, for bricking up his drain into a privy that was shared between their two houses; the court reaffirmed the sharing arrangement and ordered the Smyths to remove the drain they had blocked, but (showing sympathy for their poverty and the fact that Butler's household had a larger number of residents) required Butler to pay for a replacement drain, and ordered that he, out of charity, on this occasion only, pay 3d for the privy to be cleaned while the Smyths were to contribute only 1d.

Sharing of privies was not always kosher, however, for investigation of an alderman's complaint, also in 1466, confirmed that a cesspool beside the wall in one corner of his property, over which a privy had been built, was also being surreptitiously used by his neighbours, who had bored a hole through the wall so they too could take advantage of the pit. Either they had no cesspool of their own, or wanted to save on the expense of having them cleaned out periodically. When properties were leased out, cleaning of the privies was sometimes explicitly specified as an obligation of the lessee. Doubtless this might lead to arguments in cases of shared privies. In a settlement of a dispute between neighbours in 1478, part of the arbitration award was that the shared privy, the next time it was cleaned, be partitioned into separate facilities by means of a brick wall, at the cost of both parties.

Cesspools had their drawbacks. They could leak and contaminate the groundwater – the same water called upon by domestic wells. Cesspools incurred the expense of periodic cleaning-out; the cost in London was determined by the volume of what was to be cleared out (citizens often using these pits to dump general refuse). For instance, ca.1478 it cost the churchwardens of St. Mary at Hill 5s.4d to have cleaned out one privy in a property rented out by the church; costs paid earlier in the century for privies in tenements part of the London Bridge Estate ranged from about the same price to as much as 46s.8d. The former case involved removing 16 barrels of muck, the latter case – presumably representing several years of accumulation – about 100 barrels! The muck was either carted off to dumps outside the city, or taken to the river where special barges again carried it beyond city limits.

The cleaning jobs, often conducted at night to avoid offending the neighbourhood, were probably usually assigned to labourers or specialists: in May 1339 we hear of the drowning of one William Wombe, latrine cleaner, after he had waded into the Thames to wash himself off (one imagines after a mucky job was completed). In 1466 John Lovegold persuaded the London authorities to give him a ten-year monopoly on the privy-cleaning trade, at the much cheaper rate of 3½d. per barrel; possibly, Caroline Barron suggests [London in the Middle Ages, Oxford University Press, 2004, 259], Lovegold was able to undercut others by reselling what he extracted from the latrines, as manure. Even when cleaned regularly, the cesspools must have become noxious at times; occasionally they posed even greater dangers: in 1326 Richard le Rakiere was seated on the privy in his home when the rotten planks of the seats gave way and Richard fell into the cesspool, where he drowned.

But it is when they created an offence to others that we more often hear of privies. For example, in 1314/15 Alice Wade of London was brought before the authorities on the complaint that the privy on the upper floor of her house was emptying through a wooden pipe which passed beneath other houses before running into the gutter of the street; the pipe stunk and the gutter became blocked periodically. Alice was given the usual 40 days to remove the offending pipe. Again, in 1347/48 the residents of a solar extended their privy pipe so that it output into the cellar beneath them, which was owned by someone else. Both these cases illustrate privies unsupported either by cesspools or reliable sources of running water to carry away the excrement. A much later example comes from Chelmsford in 1474, when William Breton, a householder in the high street, was accused of letting his privy leak out into the public drain that ran down the street, occasionally resulting in it overflowing and causing a worse stench. A fine did not discourage him; on the contrary, within the next few years he built an extension onto his house containing a new privy sitting directly over the drain, which his widow maintained in the face of civic orders to remove it. Others living beside the drain followed suit.

Other efforts, with mixed success, were made elsewhere to control the proliferation of privies. The Coventry 1443 order to remove all latrines using the Red Ditch was evidently of limited effect, since it had to be repeated in 1446. The same order had been issued in 1421, as part of a set of instructions related to keeping the ditch and city waterways from getting blocked and being more susceptible to flooding; flooding in the rainy season was bad enough, but that much worse if the water was polluted. At Henley in 1473, in the context of cleaning out a stream running through the town, it was prohibited that anyone build a privy emptying out into the stream. For those living beside it, London's Walbrook presented an obvious cheap solution for waste disposal; in 1313/14 and again in 1344/45 citizens were ordered to remove privies they had built over it. But in 1383 the authorities surrendered to the inevitable and licensed privies there, so long as no other refuse was disposed of through them at the risk of blocking the stream; privy-owners were required to pay 2s. towards costs of cleaning out the stream. However, the growing demand on the Walbrook led to a ban (1463) on privies there, as well as on the Fleet River, and in 1477 this was extended to the city ditches.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries we find increasing references to communal latrines. They may have been intended in part to meet the needs of poorer townspeople who had no access to such facilities where they lived. While we could interpret this as paternalism, it was more likely an attempt to ensure such people would relieve themselves only in designated places. In 1421 a London wardmoot jury reported that one building containing a number of rented-out apartments had not even a shared privy, with the consequence that tenants were throwing their urine and faeces out into the street. However, in most towns latrine locations tend more to suggest that they were to serve those out and about. Many were located close to places of high activity or public gathering: markets and quaysides. The latrine built at Lynn by John de Walton was at the edge of the Saturday Market, although also within striking distance of the riverside, suggesting that it may have relied on a drain rather than a cesspool.

Proximity to water was a factor in the choice of quaysides for the location of latrines, just as it explains their locations at Leicester and Coventry in the documents above, as well as the Exeter authorities building latrines (by 1467) over a mill-leat on an island in the river Exe. But quaysides were an appropriate location also because of their heavy use not only by residents but also visitors; perhaps particularly the crews of visiting ships, who often slept aboard. Southampton's West Quay is known to have been equipped with a public latrine. At Lynn two wharves at the Common Staithe (itself not far from the Tuesday Market) are known to have had latrines, and others were built by bridges over the Purfleet. A survey of 1557 listed nine public latrines in Lynn.

London was of course well supplied with public latrines by the close of the Middle Ages. The best-known, probably because they were among the largest, all emptied into the Thames: one on London Bridge, another at Queenhithe (when enlarged in 1237, it was claimed that the original had been constructed at the orders of Queen Matilda), and a third just west of the city at a jetty near the Temple. That on London Bridge, heard of in 1306, was already large enough to have at least two entrances not within line of sight of each other; by the 1380s there were several latrines on the bridge. These served not only the many houses and shops built atop the bridge, but other Londoners around the waterfront and those using the bridge while travelling. Many of the wealthier residents along the Thames bank doubtless had private privies emptying into the Thames, or into one of the lanes that sloped down to the Thames: there were repeated complaints from mid-fourteenth to early fifteenth centuries that lanes, down which poor Londoners were accustomed to pass to do their washing in the Thames, or collect water from it, were being blocked or made hazardous by the number of privies overhanging.

Perhaps the largest latrine constructed in medieval London, although at a late date, was that funded through a general bequest of Richard Whittington for his executors to spend on charitable and civic works. Those many and varied works included providing water-supply outlets at various points in the city, and constructing the "Longhouse" in Vintry ward, over a gully leading out into the Thames. It incorporated, as the lower floor of a building accommodating almshouses above, two rows of 64 seats each, with separate sections for men and women.

Other latrines were built within the city wall, so as to empty into the water-filled ditch outside the wall, or over the Walbrook; some of these are indicated in the ordinances of 1415 translated above. The wardmoots held in December and January 1421, from which one complaint was already mentioned above, refer to two other public privies, in poor shape and representing a hazard. Ernest Sabine ["Latrines and Cesspools of Mediaeval London," Speculum, vol.9, no.3 (July 1934), 308-09] has identified from documentary sources at least 13 public privies, not including the Longhouse or the multiples on London Bridge.

The importance of public latrines is indicated by the amount of money the authorities were prepared to spend in constructing them. That for which the townspeople of Leicester were granted land in 1344 is also documented in the borough financial accounts for that year. A total of £7.4s.7½d was spent on building the privy by the Soar, or possibly repurposing an existing building there, no mean sum at that time. This was, however, offset by a "gift" of 20s. from the Friars Preacher (perhaps part of the negotiation terms), 4s. contributed by various residents, £2.5s. from the sale of rocks removed during excavations, and 12s. from the sale of surplus construction materials.

Borough records evidence growing concern for matters of public hygiene, and growing determination on the part of the authorities to exercise influence in that sphere. This included reactive strategies, such as prosecuting offenders and prohibiting offensive behaviours, and proactive ones, such as providing services like muck collection by carters, and facilities such as public latrines. Their success depended on the authorities' persistence in policing and enforcing, which was unreliable, and on the cooperation and responsible behaviour of the citizenry, which was probably widespread but not universal. Nonetheless, the solutions available were limited and it was more a matter of settling for what appeared to be the lesser of evils, which usually meant using the rivers to carry away waste. As Roberta Magnusson notes:

The quality of river water was compromised not because medieval civic officials were insensitive to hygiene but because watercourses were irreplaceable components in sanitation systems that aimed, above all else, at keeping the streets reasonably clean.
[Water Technology in the Middle Ages, Baltimore, 2001, 28]



In the original, une Longayne.

In the original, sege houses (i.e. sitting-down houses).

"West Orchard"
This street led westwards out of town, crossing the Sherbourne en route; it must have been by the bridge over the Sherbourne that these privies were situated.

"Little Park Street"
The street ran northwards into the town, crossing the Red Ditch en route. The grating must have been for where the ditch ran under the street.

"Red Ditch"
The name given to parts of the defensive ditch surrounding the town.

"further granted"
Immediately before, Grenefelde had been granted (for £4) exemption from all civic offices, although he did not use it to prevent him having to serve as a town councillor in 1442.

"tenement within which he now lives"
Perhaps that in Parchment Street, where in 1439 Grenefelde was given permission by the authorities to erect a fence on either side of his hall porch.

"Nicholas Hanyton"
Mayor 1361/62.

"Shulworth Street"
Currently known as Upper Brook Street.

"long public privy"
In the original communem et longam garderopam.

"St. Swithun's"
The cathedral priory. The privy was perhaps located at the end of Colebrook Street, near the present-day civic offices.

"The Moor"
This area immediately beyond the northern stretch of city wall had been meadowland in Roman times, but thereafter became boggier. Keeping the Walbrook flowing without obstruction was the key to draining the moor. The existence of the moor is remembered in the name Moorgate – a gate built in consequence of the decisions taken by the city authorities in 1415, to provide a better connection to the moor, which was to be turned into allotments.

I.e. sluice

On the other hand, public latrines also had their shared of unexpected dangers: in 1322, in a public urinal somewhere near the site of the present-day Goldsmiths Hall, the aim of one young Londoner went astray and his urine fell on the foot of another young man using the facility; a quarrel broke out that escalated, leaving the latter dead.

An endorsement on the grant of the Earl indicates that the land received was close to the West Bridge.

There is reference in John Burghard's will to a public privy on a quay on the north bank of the Purfleet, adjacent to the testator's property, which he and his heirs had the obligation to keep in good repair.

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Created: August 27, 2004. Last update: January 8, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2004-2019