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The Outdoor Privy: A Convenience or an Inconvenience?

Sally has been a prolific writer of wet felting tutorials for several years with the occasional foray into literature and much more...

Billycans and Chains

The walk to school was sometimes accompanied by the sound of heavy boots walking on the hard path. Bottle green billycans could be heard clattering against thick heavy chains as a group of convicts, wearing matching green overalls walked out to a day’s manual labor in the community. A prison warder guarded from the rear. Their pace was brisk and steady as opposed to mine which I deliberately slowed in order to let them pass me.

I breathed an inward sigh of relief as they went on their way. It was with a mixture of feelings that I watched them go. I felt a sense of shame without really understanding the reason why. It was both unnerving and uncomfortable.

A seaside cottage

On several occasions, our family was loaned a seaside cottage for the holidays. It was owned by my Mother’s employer. It had no mod cons to speak of, not even a fridge or an indoor Loo but they were the happiest of times

A butter crock and a food safe

I recall the cottage having a food safe which was an antique vintage original rustic cedar pine timber meat safe or pantry cupboard. It was a tall affair with walls of fine wire mesh which kept the flies out. Inside it was a terracotta butter crock which used a method of keeping butter fresh without refrigeration using an airtight seal of water. Thank goodness for the 16th-century French foodies who helped us keep our butter from melting underneath that blazing African sun.

Teddy Boys and Mad Men!

Our days were spent fishing, swimming and having fun on the beach. It was just a short walk through the forest which bordered the property. We burned our bodies to a crisp under the blazing African sun and sometimes we even applied Brylcreem to our skin in order to acquire an even better sun tan!

Brylcreem has come in and out of fashion over the years. It was made famous by the Teddy Boys and the Mad Men and even more recently by Kevin Pietersen of cricket fame for their advertising campaigns. Who would have thought that this humble pomade made in Bradford Street, Birmingham, England, would be used across the Continents?

It is made from an emulsion of water and mineral oil which are stabilized with beeswax.

We might just as well have gone and fried our skin using hot wax. I would later pay the price when I developed a Melanoma which had to be removed..

Fried Fish!

We recorded our daily fish catch each day. It was written on a calendar so that each family member had a daily record of their personal catch during the whole of the holiday.

No fish in those days was ever considered too small for the frying pan, especially if it were caught by a child. We ate fresh fish daily.

The Privy or Outhouse!

The Privy was situated a few hundred yards from the house, at the end of a narrow path which overlooked a canopy of trees. It had a sloping roof with a large wooden door which hung from heavy hinges.

There were no windows but inserted high up in the door was a diamond shaped hole in which some glass was inserted. It allowed one just a glimmer of light in the dark space within.

Queen Victoria!

The privy seat was a throne like affair and perhaps this explained why my father would sometimes tell my Mother that he was off to visit Queen Victoria - though I must say, I never had occasion to meet her there myself

It was a one- holer!

Our privy was a one-holer - with well worn smooth wood, which could be felt just under your bottom and also on both sides of the hole, just where one was required to place your hands, in order to support the upper part of your body while you sat there.

Balanced precariously over the hole, a small child like me, with naked legs and panties drawn down right over my knees, could barely reach the ground with my toes stretched out.

Once sat there, it required one’s full concentration to hold on and not let go your grip, lest you fall right through the hole.

Blue flies a buzzing down under.

Blue flies a buzzing down under.

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Timing it's Arrival

Sitting there on the smooth worn wood, one could hear the sound of large bottle blue flies buzzing way down under.

Even the sound of a turd making its way to the bottom down to the bottom of the hole was met by an angry response from the flies below - with an increased sound of buzzing.

It was sometimes difficult for me to resist the urge to throw something down into the hole so that I could time its arrival to the bottom of the hole.

A Time of Quiet Contemplation!

It was somehow comforting to be able to sit there all alone on the throne. For one thing, it afforded one private time away from the hustle and bustle of a large family. Ideally, one needed to sit on the throne with one leg held out, propping the door open, to help lessen the whiff which emanated from down below.

The door opened inwards rather than outwards which was pretty handy if you wanted to know if someone were approaching on the cobbled path outside. A quick shove with your foot would send the door flying shut – leaving you in darkness but it would at least give one just enough time to prevent the person from catching you with your drawers caught right down.

Pride Of India Tree

Pride Of India Tree

The Pride of India

The view from the throne, with the door, held open was spectacular. There is no doubt that whoever erected this Privy must have read The Specialist by John Sale - from cover to cover in order to come up with this little gem.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see the vision of the not only beautiful but perfectly formed Pride of India Tree which grew just a short distance from the Privy. In full blossom, it was a wondrous sight to behold.

I loved looking across the canopy of trees. I loved listening to the chatter of monkeys as they troupe swung through the trees.

A Red Chested Cookoo’s would call (Piet my Vrou) from high above the trees.

Thomas Crapper

It seemed that not everyone shared my view of the Privy for I discovered much to my surprise that the wife of my Mother’s employer had refused to visit the cottage for many years because she so disliked having to attend the Privy..

With this in mind, my father hatched a surprise for her. He had in mind, an idea, to convert a very large disused concrete reservoir situated near the house, into an outside toilet. He hoped to encourage her to take a holiday there.

With was with some difficulty that he managed to cut a small window and door in the concrete reservoir and once completed, he painted the walls snow white and added a toilet and a wash basin.

The privy outback, was replaced with a flushing toilet which an Englishman with the most unfortunate name of Thomas Crapper is reputed to have invented - though truth is told he should only have been credited with improving the functionality of the early flush toilet.

The Chain Gang

Then imagine my surprise when a group of convicts arrived early one morning with their minder. My father I learned had hired them to help him dig a deep hole which would become the septic tank for the brand new flushing toilet.

My siblings and I played nearby, pretending indifference to the group of convicts but at the same time we kept a fearful eye on the proceedings.

The men sweated profusely in the humidity. Once, they came across a large rock which required moving before they could continue digging. They tied a rope around it and pulled it out together, singing an old African work song which was meant to make their joint effort easier. It was an unforgettable sight and sound.

Every now and then one of them would stop to wipe his face on the back of a hand or on a dirty rag.

Lunchtime came and they were given a well-deserved break. They washed their hands and poured water down their faces, then settled down on the ground near the hole to eat their meager meal which had been brought with them in their billycans. The food was a type of meat and vegetable stew served with mielie pap. It was eaten with metal spoons.

We kids drew closer to see what progress had been made with the hole. Emboldened we sat with legs dangling over the edges of the hole, legs swung backwards and forwards. As they swung - we watched small rivers of beach sand trickling back down into the hole.

Then our father began casually talking to the convicts. We pricked up our ears in to listen in on their conversation. It was amazing how quickly we children had adjusted to the idea of having this group of black convicts in our garden.

Then our father casually asked one of the men what are you inside for mate? Without even pausing for breath, the man looked up at my father and replied in a deep voice ‘murder Baas’

Our little feet froze in mid air and our legs stopped swinging.

An Outhouse or Privy

© 2014 Sally Gulbrandsen


Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on June 27, 2020:

Hi Doris,

I have such happy memories of this time. I feel so fortunate to have had these wonderful memories. I can definitely recommend the book 'The Specialist' if you can find it. If you enjoyed this little tale, you will enjoy that one even more. I can see it's white cover from where I am sitting now:)

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on June 26, 2020:

Sally, how in the world did I ever miss this story? You brought back such memories of growing up in the Ozarks with outhouses. I was nine years old when we got indoor plumbing, and that was when we were annexed to the city and water was piped into our area. I was born on my grandparents' farm just outside of town. When I was four years old, my dad came home from the army and bought us a home. It was also on the outskirts of town and didn't have indoor plumbing either.

Our mode of cleanliness was the Sears Roebuck catalog, or Montgomery Ward, whichever was handier. A roll of toilet paper was temporarily placed into the outhouse when we had guests. Our outhouse door always opened to the outside, and an inside "latch" made of a piece of wood kept the door closed for privacy. The boards on the walls ran vertically with small cracks between them for ventilation. Checking for snakes when one entered was top priority.

The farm had three houses, thus three outhouses, and were all one-holers. But as a small child, we visited somebody's farm, and little me came home telling the family that those people were rich because they could afford a two holer!

Love your story about the convicts. I'll bet that man's statement got your immediate attention. I wonder how fast you and your siblings cleared out.

Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on April 16, 2020:

They are perhaps not as common as they used to be:) I still think of them fondly as it was rare to find anywhere as private as the outhouse, especially one which had a view.

Carrie Lee Night from Northeast United States on April 16, 2020:

Very informative :) Never seen a privey or outhouse. Corn on the cob anyone ? That was a suprise. Thank you for sharing :)

Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on February 24, 2015:


Hello Gus.

How nice to have you gracing one of my pages again, especially one which dares display such an outrageous pest - the fly.

Poor Lass, people can be so cruel, imagine having a surname like that one.

Thanks for stopping by.


Gustave Kilthau from USA on February 24, 2015:

Sally (sallybea on HubPages) -

If someone wants to get my attention in a big hurry, hit me with a great photograph, particularly your picture of an outrageous pest - a fly. Good one.

As to privies. I was reminded of my mother telling me about one of her schoolmates at the little academy she attended in her youth. The girl had a last name that translated from the German language into English as "outhouse" (or privy, if you like). Most of the children knew what the girl's name meant, and they all teased her about it.

Gus :-)))

Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on December 07, 2014:


You surprise me! A man or a woman can wax lyrical about a privy, especially if one puts their experience behind them - porcelain or wood! I appreciate the comment, thank you very much.


poetryman6969 on December 07, 2014:

I think my lucky stars for the porcelain convenience!

Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on November 23, 2014:

Stacie L

Thank for the comment Stacey - tongue in cheek but still a little fun remembering time spent in the long drop. Fancy, those two words came flooding back as if it were yesterday and I have not thought about them as a description for years!

Your visit is appreciated as always,

Best wishes,


Stacie L on November 23, 2014:

Sallybea; a lovely story and descriptive narratives about a not so lovely subject.

I grew up in New York suburbs and never came into contact with outhouses until I move to Kentucky Appalachia to teach.

Oh, I had many occasions to use them but for sure,I'd rather not....LOL


Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on November 03, 2014:


I think that sounds like a great idea - going green and keeping it simple - imagine how much water you will save over the years. I don't think this is unusual in the states as the fact is, not everyone lives in cities. The cob house sounds intriguing and I hope you will be writing a hub about it as you build the house. Your comment is valued, thank you.

Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on November 03, 2014:


Glad you enjoyed the hub - seems the old privy still brings back quite a few memories - good ones too - even the celery:)

Thanks for the comment, it is appreciated.

Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on November 03, 2014:

I hope to have a composting toilet when I build a cob house in two or three years. Loved all the descriptiveness of your hub.

Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on November 03, 2014:

Wonderful.Enjoyed the story of the criminals moving the rock for the tank, great images. My grandmother worked and lived on a farm for over 50 years, I remember the outside loo with the earth toilet, a bucket of earth and wood ash to cover the country packages!

Grandad grew lovely celery with the aid've guessed...well composted country packages.

Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on November 03, 2014:

grand old lady

What a nice thing to say - I am glad I was able to personalize my take on the good old fashioned privy. Your comment made me smile. Thanks for the share. It is appreciated.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on November 03, 2014:

That Thomas Crapper was a hero! This is the most interesting story I have ever read about a privy. Amazing how so much personalization can make a privy story into a wonderful peek at life as it used to be. I'm sharing this hub with all my delight in it.

Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on October 22, 2014:


It pleases me to hear that you enjoyed this article - hopefully as much as I enjoyed writing it. I hope too that there will be more from the earlier days. I appreciate the vote up, interesting and useful.


Dave from Lancashire north west England on October 22, 2014:

What a fantastic article full of so interesting facts and an intimate look of days of your former life in Africa. really enjoyed this and a guess there are more to come from your earlier days. Look forward to them. Voted up, interesting and useful.

Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on October 19, 2014:


Fortunately that was not a problem under the blaze of the Africa sun - I imagine that yours was a little less than comfortable. I very much appreciate your stopping by - thank you.

Dianna Mendez on October 19, 2014:

I enjoyed your story, Sally. You told it with creative flair and made the reader engage throughout. I remember having to use a privy or outhouse when I was a child at our church. You didn't want to have to use it when it was winter because it was so cold and the wind blew through the cracks. Thanks for sharing.

Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on October 19, 2014:


I am delighted to find you back on one of my hubs MsDora. I am glad you were able to relate to this story, I am especially pleased that you enjoyed this one.


Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 19, 2014:

Beautiful story, and among other things, a tribute to the privy. Sally, you have such versatile writing talents. This article is full of family, fun and nostalgia. Excellent read!

Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on October 18, 2014:


I bet you were grateful to find one there:)

Thank you for your comment

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 18, 2014:

Very entertaining to read about your johnny house. I used one only at campsites.

Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on October 18, 2014:

Hi Kim,

It has always been my intention to put them into a book.

You are quite right, definitely called the outhouse in your neck of the woods.

I value you continued support and very much appreciate the share, thank you so much.


ocfireflies from North Carolina on October 18, 2014:


Love this story and look forward to hearing more-maybe a collection that could lead to a book : ) Around in these parts, the privy is called the outhouse. I am pretty sure there are still some around. Smiles. V+/Share for sure.


Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on October 18, 2014:


This may not be everyone’s idea of a home improvement in the modern world but stats do reveal that 40,000 people in Britain still have a Privy or Outhouse in back garden. In the USA California USA there are 67,865 still in use. You can even find them being sold on e-bay – used or new.

In Africa, this might be seen by many people living in rural areas – those who have no running water as a definite home improvement.

Others keen to get back to nature - may consider this as being a ‘green’ option – no use of chemicals or water going to waste.

I had a little fun with this one so it was meant partly to entertain, a tale from my own memory of how things were - but you got me thinking DDE and you know – I always value your input.

I hope you are having a great week-end


Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 18, 2014:

Hi sallybea great to read another wonderful hub from you. I don't have a privy and is certainly an odd value to a home. You have shared an interesting story.Voted up!

Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on October 17, 2014:

DJ Anderson - I came to the UK about fifteen years ago leaving behind a lifetime of experiences which I may gradually share. My twin is on the right and I am on the far left.

I agree flies are disgusting creatures but all the same can be fascinating subjects for a macro photographer like myself:) I love all the little critters under my lens even the ones with filthy habits.

Your comment is very much appreciated, thank you


DJ Anderson on October 17, 2014:

Sally, what an amazing story. How long did you live in Africa? If you have more stories, please share with us. How old were you when you returned to England? In the photo, would you happen to be the child second from the right?

We never had an outdoor toilet, but I have seen them. And, we have big green flies, not blue ones. I do hate those flies, so much!

Thanks for sharing this story with us.


Sally Gulbrandsen (author) from Norfolk on October 17, 2014:

Thank you Billy - yes a true story - I was born in Africa and grew up in the rolling hills of Zululand. My parents went there after the war.

I am glad you able to relate to this one Billy. Some things stay imprinted on one's memory, just as if it were yesterday:)

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 17, 2014:

What a wonderful story. True I assume. May I ask what you were doing in Africa?

Thoroughly enjoyed this one, Sally. Great tale that I could relate grandparents had a one-hole throne on their farm. :)


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