Helle’s Toilet: Three-Person Loo Seat was Unusual Medieval Status Symbol
Helle’s Toilet is the name given to a Medieval toilet seat that was discovered during an archaeological excavation in London. It is most notable for being a rare example of a triple toilet seat. Apart from that, its state of preservation, in spite of its age, is also noteworthy.
Although made of wood, Helle’s Toilet was able to survive till this day thanks to its fortuitous burial in waterlogged earth, which helps to preserve organic materials. In 2019, Helle’s Toilet was on display as part of the Museum of London Docklands’ Secret Rivers exhibition.
Helle’s Toilet. (Museum of London)
Discovery of Helle’s Toilet
Helle’s Toilet was discovered in the 1980s, during a series of archaeological excavations near the River Fleet. The triple toilet seat was found buried in waterlogged earth, above a cesspit that drained into the River Fleet. Since waterlogged environments have low levels of oxygen, biological activity is greatly reduced, which results in the preservation of organic remains. Thus, Helle’s Toilet, which was made of a single plank of oak, was preserved. The holes in the seat, incidentally, were roughly hewn with an axe.
This triple toilet seat is not the only organic artifact from London’s past unearthed from a waterlogged environment. In 2017, for instance, a collection of Tudor period shoes was among the artifacts discovered during works on the Crossrail route near Farringdon Station, where the lost Faggeswell Brook was discovered.
Tudor period shoes found during works on the Crossrail route near Farringdon Station, where the lost Faggeswell Brook was discovered. (MOLA)
The River Fleet is the largest of London’s subterranean rivers and has an interesting story behind it. This river is a tributary of the Thames and was in use as early as the Roman period. The river had two eyots, or small islands. One of these eyots, the southern one, ceased being an island in the 11th century, when the land around it was reclaimed, and the channel was infilled.
In addition, this was the site where a bridge was built over the Fleet River, which connected to an east-west road. The archaeological work during the 1980s revealed a row of buildings that fronted the road. Since Helle’s Toilet was found in this area, it is believed that it may have belonged to one of the tenants of these buildings.
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“One of the Smelliest and Dirtiest Rivers in London”
As the Middle Ages went on, the River Fleet became increasingly choked and polluted, as a result of the industrial and residential buildings that were built along its banks. In fact, the River Fleet was notorious for centuries as one of the smelliest and dirtiest rivers in London. Ben Jonson, an English playwright and poet who lived between the 16th and 17th centuries, described the river in a satirical poem, On the Famous Voyage, as a place where “Arses were heard to croak, instead of frogs”.
An attempt to ‘rehabilitate’ the river occurred during the second half of the 17th century, following the Great Fire of London. After this disaster, the river received new stone embankments and had four decorative bridges built over it. This project was meant to turn it into London’s version of the Great Canal of Venice.
Unfortunately, the Fleet River failed to attract barges, for whom the project was undertaken in the first place. As it was underused, the River Fleet became polluted once again. Between the 1730s and 1870s, the River Fleet was bricked over in several phases. As a result, it became a subterranean river, and was eventually forgotten. The river was only rediscovered during the latter half of the 20th century.
Bridge over the New Canal at Holborn: illustration from Alexander Pope's ‘Dunciad’ (1728). The bathers are included in satirical allusion to the poor quality of the water. (Public Domain)
The Story of a Rather Unusual Artifact
The dig that found Helle’s Toilet was the largest archaeological excavation in London at the time. Unfortunately, funding ran out before the work could be completed. Consequently, the findings were never published. As for Helle’s Toilet, it was kept in storage, and never went on display, until the temporary exhibition by the Museum of London Docklands in 2019. As Helle’s Toilet is a rather unusual artifact, it was one of the highlights of the exhibition and received much publicity. Moreover, the curators of this exhibition were able to dig up some interesting information about the artifact.
One of the most intriguing pieces of information about Helle’s Toilet is found in the name given to the artifact. Curators were able to find historical records from the 13th century showing that one of the buildings fronting the east-west road connected to the bridge over the River Fleet (as mentioned earlier) was known as ‘Helle’. It is from this building that the triple toilet seat acquired its current name. The curators also found out that ‘Helle’ was owned at one point of time by a cap-maker by the name of John de Flete and his wife, Cassandra. It has been speculated that the triple toilet seat may have once been owned by the de Flete family.
Regardless of whether Helle’s Toilet belonged to the de Flete family, it was almost certainly a sort of status symbol. This is due to the fact that the toilet would have been a private facility. This is supported by the presence of a common privy, which was used by the general public, nearby. Unfortunately, the structure that enclosed the toilet has not survived. Nevertheless, it has been speculated that this structure would have been built of wattle and daub.
While the structure covering the toilet has not survived, the ‘mechanism’ below it has been preserved, thereby allowing archaeologists to reconstruct the way human waste was disposed in Medieval London. Helle’s Toilet was found over a wicker-lined cesspit. This arrangement would have allowed liquid waste products to drain out, and be filtered by the soil. Solid wastes, on the other hand, would accumulate over time. This meant that every time a cesspit was filled, a new one had to be dug.
Helle’s Toilet only seated three, unlike this public toilet. (English Heritage)
Why Three Seats?
It is not entirely clear why a triple toilet seat was made in the first place, and it looks as though no one has really bothered to speculate about it yet. Perhaps it was intended to be practical, i.e. three members of the de Flete family (or whichever family who owned it) could use the toilet at any given time? Or perhaps it allowed the toilet’s users to socialize while doing their business? Then again, without further evidence, we may never know for certain why Helle’s Toilet was made with three seats.
Helle’s Toilet was one of the artifacts on display during the Museum of London Docklands’ Secret Rivers exhibition. This temporary exhibition ran from May 24, 2019 till October 27, 2019, and featured not only artifacts, but also photos, films, and artwork pertaining to London’s lost rivers.
Detail of Helle’s Toilet. Source: Museum of London
In preparation for this exhibition, Helle’s Toilet was treated by an archaeological conservator. Apart from the actual artifact, a replica of the full toilet seat was also made for the exhibition. No doubt this would have given visitors some sense of what it was like to use this triple toilet seat during the Middle Ages, though the ‘finer’ details would have (wisely) been left to their own imaginations.
Top image: Inside an early 18th century privy from Townsend House, Leominster, showing a 3-seat earth closet. Preserved in the Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings, Worcestershire. (DeFacto/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
By Wu Mingren
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