Spending a penny in the old palace of Westminster

The human side of working in Parliament can often be forgotten, but in today’s blog Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our House of Lords 1715-1790 project, explores where parliamentarians went when in need of ‘relief’ in the old palace of Westminster…

It is easy to forget when studying Parliament, but members of both Houses and other visitors to the old palace of Westminster spent long hours there. They required refreshment: provided in a variety of shops, coffee houses and taverns; entertainment, courtesy of stalls and exhibits; and they needed to relieve themselves. Two types of receptacle were provided for parliamentarians to make use of: pewter chamber pots and close stools, which normally came with tin pans. The former were for liquid; the latter for more solid deposits.

The rooms dedicated to the members’ comfort were generally referred to as ‘bog-houses’ though another term current in the 17th and 18th-centuries was ‘Stool Room’. Both Lords and Commons had their own bog-houses, the latter located just off the lobby on the southern side. There is evidence that members of either House occasionally resorted to the others’ facilities. This was certainly true of Bishop Nicolson of Carlisle, who recorded having to make use of the lower House’s latrines at least once. Some of the palace officials had their own ‘private’ facilities and the monarch was also looked after. Other options for those in need included the Lords’ smoking room, which was kitted out with chamber pots. One must assume that for those frequenting the coffee houses and taverns, there would have been similar arrangements laid on there by the owners. These would likely have been a set of chamber pots positioned behind screens (or not).

18th century etching on yellowed paper. Image shows five figures stood around two cauldrons. Four of the men have grimaces on their faces and are pinching their noses, the fifth is being sick. The cauldrons are labelled Poll Book 1784. Two devil-like figures stand on either side of the men. The pedestal the cauldrons sit on reads Scrutiny or examination of the Filth.
The scrutiny, or examination of the filth
satirical etching, 1784
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Furnishing Parliament with a variety of different items was something that was repeated on a regular basis as many of the fabrics became worn out with heavy, frequent use. The same was true of movables like candlesticks, chairs, small tables and sanitary ware. Along with long lists providing a raft of different materials in advance of parliamentary sessions, palace officials always had to make sure that there were enough utensils for the use of members and their guests. Responsibility for providing such things fell to the Great Wardrobe and a series of orders were despatched to the department in advance of sessions to make sure that everything was in order.

Image of a 17th century close stool. It is a wooden stool with a lid being held open, displaying an empty interior.
Close Stool, c. 1660-1680, V&A

From the mid-17th century through to the 18th the chamber pots seem to have been replaced quite frequently. No doubt the soft metal wore out quickly, though it was also one of the perks of parliamentary officials that at the end of a session they were able to carry away the furnishings, so some may simply have been taken and either kept by the functionary or sold on. Others clearly lasted longer than a single session. An interesting inventory of furniture left in the Lords when the House rose in April 1700 noted close stools in the lord great chamberlain, lord treasurer, lord privy seal, and Black Rod’s rooms as well as in the bishops’ room. The ‘Inner Room’ also had six new chamber pots as well as four old ones and four old close stools with pans.

Close pans were rather more sturdy affairs than chamber pots: a wooden box with a seat and a detachable pan for receiving the waste. In May 1661, so a year after the Lords had been restored, an order had been made out for equipping the Lords with ‘six necessary close stools covered with black leather with twelve tin pans to them’. By the beginning of the next century, the Lords were being provided with slightly nicer articles. Thus, in August 1702, the Lords’ ‘Stool Room’ was to be provided with one close stool ‘with a velvet seat and two pans’. There was also to be a yellow floor carpet, which would have been part to do with fashion but, one suspects, also practicality for any unfortunate spills. Three years later all of these items were replaced (including the carpet), and the same process was repeated in 1710. In 1713 the Queen’s Stool Room was equipped similarly with a close stool with a velvet seat and two pans.

For those happy to relieve themselves without troubling to quit either of the debating chambers, there were both chamber pots and close stools on offer. In 1661 the Lords had been provided with six leather-covered close stools with twelve pans and six pewter chambers pots. In 1702, by which time the numbers of Lords had increased slightly, these were increased to eighteen chamber pots and in 1713 there were another eighteen (standard) chamber pots ordered, along with one large chamber pot. The situation was similar in the Commons, where the orders for 1690 also made reference to a dozen chamber pots for their use. This does not suggest very generous provision for the Commons. There were, after all, for much of the period around three times the numbers of Commons as Lords.

There seems to have been little change in the sanitary arrangements through the 18th century. In 1794, when planning alterations to the palace, John Soane marked the location of the stool rooms on his plans, which suggests that the same arrangements were in place. However, in 1824 when further work was being done to improve the state of the palace an order was made out for the construction of a urinal in one of the court yards, which would have given desperate visitors an alternative place to make use of. The destruction of much of the palace a decade later offered Barry and Pugin an opportunity to think again about providing those working in and visiting Westminster more up to date latrines. It is notable, though, that in the old palace in particular, with the exception of the room provided for Queen Anne as monarch, no particular consideration seems to have been given to women in need. One must assume that they had simply to make do with what was on offer. Attention ought to be paid also to the corps of servants required to deal with the waste created by generations of parliamentarians.


Further Reading:

Sir Thomas Duppa’s Commonplace Book, ed. Alasdair Hawkyard and J.C. Sainty (Parliamentary History: Texts & Studies 11)

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