It is strange for us to consider a time when we could not call out a plumber via phone, text or email. It’s almost unthinkable to consider a time when the entire population had to ‘make do’ when it came to matters of hygiene. Before we look at the many advances made by our industry, Australian Plumbing Industry magazine’s new guest history writer Paul G Yunnie examines first ‘from whence we came’.


The Romans taught the known Western World a great many things, particularly in engineering. They built vast water courses, treadmill pumps and aqueducts to bring fresh water to their settlements; they built bath houses and villas with splendid hypocausts that heated floors and walls, and even gave hot water for bathing, as well as latrines. The latrines were often communal with an attendant carrying a sponge attached to a stick to clean the clients. But, as the Roman Empire contracted, the population of their conquered lands seem to have turned their backs on all this technology and allowed it to gradually disappear.

It was the Romans who first used lead for piping water because it was easy to bend and didn’t rust. It was easier to work than wood or baked clay. No thought was given to the noxious property of lead. The word for lead, plumbing, stuck to those engaged in piping water around their towns, cities and forts. There is evidence that many women were involved in plumbing enterprise at this time.

Bathing came in and out of fashion. It was once thought that disease and infections could be caught by bathing and it was therefore felt to be unhealthy. As towns grew and trees were felled for building material, wood for fires to heat water became expensive. Medieval times
would be to our noses a time of ‘great stink’. Hygiene for the masses was non-existent, toileting was primitive and drainage was often down the main streets and into streams or rivers. Often rubbish, including chamber pots, were discharged from upper windows into the street. At night a gentleman might employ a guide who would call out ‘hold your hand’ to prevent an unwelcome dousing. In the countryside, it was the custom to relieve oneself in the garden – often referred to as ‘plucking a rose’.

So how did one relieve oneself when out and about? Well, you looked for a guy with a large cloak. This was large enough to cover a yoke from which hung two pails that acted as portable loos as well as concealing their customers. The exception to all this were royalty, the
gentry and the ‘upper classes’ who could afford some sort of cologne tolessen the smell of the less fortunate. The king or queen’s nose, of course, could not be offended and all efforts were made to prevent them smelling their domains, particularly when they were on a Royal Progress around their kingdom. Picture the scene – King John announces he wishes to visit a certain area, a noble is selected at a suitable travelling distance and his stately home or castle makes ready. The king’s retinue may consist of anything up to 1,000 supporters, or ‘hangers-on’. They had to be watered, fed and ‘relieved’. It must have been a nightmare for the ‘chosen’ household. Our interest is in how they may have ‘relieved’ themselves.

Medieval houses and castles did not have toilets. The king might have his ‘thunder box’ that was actually taken to the table in order that he could relieve himself. Others might use a ‘garderobe’ – a protuberance that extended outside the walls and allowed waste to fall, often into a moat. So, next time you see a film of Robin Hood, and he is jumping off the castle rampart into the moat to escape the evil Sherriff of Nottingham, consider what he will smell like when he is reunited with the Lady Marion!

Let us hope that when you next finish a call-out, new installation or refurbishment that unlike Robin Hood, you come out smelling of roses.

Look forward to the next instalment of Paul Yunnie's fantastic history series, where Paul in the December Health & Wellbeing themed issue of Australian Plumbing Industry magzine.   

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