A private corner

LOOKING back through the telescope of my mind I recall how our children, the six of them, were astonished when told that their parents once lived without telephone, television or media networking.

The very thought of living with such ‘hardship’ was difficult for them to imagine, but to this day what they have never really accepted was that many in those times had to do without rolls of toilet paper.

When asked what was used the standard reply was; squares of the Cork Examiner pierced onto a length of stiff wire hung from the water cistern overhead. And in rural settings, you sometimes had to use whatever came to hand.

Their father, who spent much of his youth on a very small farm in East Cork, remembers having to nightly trudge outside to use the privy before retiring to bed. In those days, whether in town or country, in gardens modest or grandiose, a privy was common to all, and many were extraordinarily decorative, as well as functional.

But on frosty nights the cold which was usually content to remain outside the timber and brick structure, crept inside as if to shelter from itself. And through the small porthole cut into the door, came wind, rain, and farmyard dust and odours.

In the depths of winter the wooden seat would be caked with frost while freezing draughts would blow up from beneath. It was, I have to admit, all very character forming.

Situated deep among the varied outhouses and beside a large ash, the view through that porthole was away from the house and out towards the golf links. Although simple in construction and whitewashed inside and out, it was to all who used it, a romantic chamber.

Above all, it was exclusively yours for the duration providing not alone brain-freezing, skin-tingling solitude, but a privacy one fiercely guarded.

Improvements in plumbing and the advent of indoor water closets eventually meant that, in large houses at least, the garden privy soon became the sole preserve of the gardener and his staff. Those who worked outdoors found the privy to be places of quiet mesmeric potency and nowhere was this more evident than in the ‘thunder-boxes’ at the Lost Gardens of Heligan.

There, the gardeners — using the same pencils they used to write plant labels — wrote their names and graffiti on the wall of the privy. When one went away to fight in the First World War a cross was put next to his name. When officially declared missing or dead, a second cross was added. All this came to light during the garden’s restoration, when a fluid used to uncover the names on faded plant labels was applied to the faint markings on the toilet wall.

Do many outdoor garden privies remain today? Who knows, but very few, I suspect. It would be reasonable to assume that most of these once essential domestic outbuildings have been stripped of their distinctive character and are now used as just another garden shed to house the lawn mower and tools.

If, as I continually suggest, a garden is a place of refuge, then those privies must surely have been a haven of peace and quiet. Have we unknowingly destroyed a period of garden history?


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