Monday, 25 January 2010

De haut en bas (Revised September 2011)

When I was looking through the photographs I had taken within Kew Palace I was struck by the prominence given to the royal water closet. It was not original to the house but it was the kind of design that would have been used by the family of George III. Water closet is something of a misnomer because although the bowl could be flushed with water by pulling a handle in the seat, it did not use piped water. Therefore, some poor servant had to manually refill the cistern with fresh water and remove the contents caught in the receptacle below after every use. Fortunately there was more than one water closet available to use at any time.

In a closet underneath the great staircase at Ham House is a 19th century blue and white porcelain toilet bowl encased in wood with a brass and ivory handle to open the chute and flush away the contents of the bowl. The three brass taps of the marble washbasin bore the legend: hot, cold, soft. I am not sure if these facilities are still plumbed in and so would not counsel anyone  to use them.

At Hampton Court, King William III’s own, more primitive, close stool is also on display. A close stool was simply a padded box with a hole cut out of the top and a chamber pot within to collect the royal outpourings. In the King's Closet at  Knole was a similar close stool which once creaked under the weight of William's Stuart predecessors.

The White Tower at the Tower of London has garderobe shafts built into the stone walls, allowing the inhabitants to void their bowels into the moat below. At Sutton House, the remains of Ralph Sadlier’s own garderobe shaft can be seen in the closet adjacent to his first floor bed chamber, the sixteenth century equivalent of luxurious en-suite facilities.

Eastbury Manor House also has an extant garderobe as does Chenies Manor. At the latter one garde robe was designed to hide a priest hole. There is a debate as to whether the alcove in the Wolsey Closet at Hampton Court Palace, once served as a garderobe. Co-incidentally both the closet and the alcove are said to be haunted, not by Wolsey but by a dog and a “strange atmosphere”.  

At Hampton Court Henry VIII had a two storey House of Ease built at the front of the palace in 1534. It could comfortably seat 28 men at a time. With their more robust attitudes to such matters, there was no need for separate cubicles. Well into the 20th century, what is now the garage of a friend’s 18th century cottage was used as a two seat earth closet. As her own concession to the rather lax hygiene standards of the time, the 17th century French courtesan, Ninon de Lenclos installed tubs at her chateau for visitors to relieve themselves in and suggested that gentlemen play the gallant and help ladies to mount and use them.
Ninon de Lenclos

Human urine played such an important role in the manufacture of gunpowder during the 17th century that laws were passed in England allowing officers of the state to force their way into houses and dig up the earthen floors for the precious deposits left there by the occupants. At one point a law was passed by King Charles I requiring householders to "carefully keep in proper vessels all human urine throughout the year, and as much of that of beasts as can be saved." The laws relating to the activities of the salt-petre collection proved highly unpopular, the more so since they did not apply to “persons of quality.”

What are not on display in Kew Palace are bathrooms. Apparently George III preferred to take his bath in a room adjacent to the kitchens, located in a separate building to the palace and thereby sparing his servants from having to carry heavy jugs of water to and from the royal quarters.
The Bathroom at Ham House

I was somewhat disappointed the second time I visited the Duchess of Lauderdale's 17th century bathroom at Ham House. On the first occasion, I was not impressed with the bath itself, bearing as it did an uncanny resemblance to a mid-Victorian semi-enclosed bath and shower. The resemblance was not surprising as on my second visit I discovered that the bath and shower were indeed Victorian in origin. In the interim, the curators had decided to give visitors an idea of what the bathroom might have looked liked in the Duchess’s era. Instead of the marble plunge bath of my imagination, the Duchess would step into a wooden bath tub, the sides draped with muslin to protect her skin. Although her own bedroom on the floor above could be readily accessed by her private staircase, the Duchess had a special daybed set up in the bathroom, so that she could recline for some while after a bath, swaddled in warm towels, the better to recover from such rigorous  activity. Bathing it seems was a necessary but potentially hazardous undertaking.  During the Duchess's own lifetime, one of the mistresses of King Charles II would bathe in asses’ milk and afterwards, being of a charitable disposition, would have the contents of her bath poured into pitchers and given to the poor to drink.

The 18th century denizens of Kenwood were made of sterner stuff than the Duchess of Lauderdale. Being more hardy souls, they plunged into the cold waters of the marble clad bathhouse. The austere bathhouse was restored in the latter part of the 20th century. The plunge pool is fed from local springs, rendering its water a brackish and rather unprepossessing reddish colour.

Henry VIII was known to be a fastidious man in terms of his personal hygiene. His daily ablutions were greatly helped by the fact that the original owner of Hampton Court, Cardinal Wolsey, had arranged for spring water to be piped into the palace from a distance of several miles. When I used to regularly take the bus to Kingston upon Thames, I would catch sight of one of the Cardinal’s remaining red brick Conduit Houses at Coombe Hill. A documentary a number of years proved that the water in the semi-ruined Conduit house was still as sweet as ever.

The Ancient Romans would have been appalled to think that more than a thousand years after they had withdrawn from Britain, even the wealthiest and highest in the land lacked the kind of bathing and latrine facilities and enclosed sewers to take away human waste that the Romans would have taken for granted.

Ring a ring a poesy.

"There is something my partner and I have wanted to ask you for several years now,” said the Eagle after we had finished the chocolate and Cointreau mousse I had made her for supper.
“You don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to. If you feel we’re being too intrusive for example.”
By now I was intrigued to know precisely what the question would be.
“Is that a wedding ring on your hand.?” enquired the Eagle
I looked at the simple gold band on the ring finger of my left hand. It might at first glance resemble a simple wedding band, but it is in fact a love token or poesy ring dating from the 1660s. Inside are inscribed the words: “The Love is all” and the goldsmith’s mark.
“Where did it come from?” asked the Eagle in tones of genuine curiosity.
“I bought it at an antique’s fair in Covent Garden and before that it was probably  ripped from off the hand of a plague victim,” I replied solemnly.

The Eagle’s remarks brought back memories of the film “Poltergeist” which I had watched at a friend’s house. The plot concerns the unsettling consequences for a family, who have inadvertently bought a house atop a former Indian burial site. Only after we had watched the film did my friend explain that her house had been built on top of a 17th century plague pit. I slept rather badly that night as I imagined the shades of 17th century plague victims, still dressed in their rotting shrouds, trying to get in. Thank Heavens, I did not own my antique ring at the time. It would have been my misfortune to have the original owner tap the glass of the bedroom window, whilst exclaiming indignantly: ”You do realise that’s my ring you’re wearing!”
My poesy ring has rescued me from potentially awkward romantic situations on more than one occasion. One night I was on my way home from the gym when a young man stopped me in the street.
“Do you know Sarah? he asked. “I am sure I saw you at a party with Sarah.”
“I don’t know anybody called Sarah,” I replied in genuine puzzlement.
“Really? I was sure I had seen you before. So,” he hesitated before continuing,” would you like to go out with me?”
It dawned on me that Sarah didn’t exist. Well if the young man had made use of an imaginary woman to strike up a conversation, I would make use of an imaginary man to end it.
“That’s very kind of you, “ I simpered. “But,” I said raising my be-ringed left hand to my neck, “I don’t think my husband would approve.”
“He is a very lucky man,” came the reply.
“Thank-you”, I said. I silently agreed that my imaginary husband was lucky to have me for a wife, just as the imaginary Sarah was extremely lucky to have me as a friend.