Spending a penny at sea
Early warships featured a beakhead on the bow which was used to ram enemy galleys.
Around the 900s platforms for archers were built on either side of this beakhead. Known as ‘heads’, these platforms were slotted to allow drainage from breaking waves and became a convenient way to answer the call of nature. Since then lavatories at sea have been called ‘the heads’ in the British Navy; ‘the head’ in the USN.
It was good manners to use the lee (down weather) side so that waste fell clear into the sea and the waves sluiced the area.
In Nelson’s day toilet accommodation for commissioned officers in a ship-of-the-line was in the quarter galleries adjoining the cabins in the stern. Some admirals had a personal portable commode, and there were some early adopters who even had primitive flush loos.
Forward there were two small ‘round houses’, cubicles which gave some privacy, on the foremost bulkhead of the upper deck, which were used by petty officers. From 1801 one of these was reserved for the men in the sick berth.
The crew’s facilities were very sparse but it must be pointed out that ashore sanitary conditions were often far from what would be acceptable today; human waste was often just dumped on the streets. At least in a ship it was disposed of into the sea!
In a ship-of-the-line like HMS Victory, 800 or so men had to make do with just a half dozen or so ‘seats of easement’; adjacent seats with holes over a clear drop to the sea. The area was completely exposed to the weather.
Toilet paper was not invented in Britain until the late nineteenth century but officers used old newspaper or discarded paper. The seamen had to make do with scrap fibrous material such as oakum.
Some Georgian navy ships had ‘piss dales’ at the side of the ship. These were a bit like modern urinals, with a pipe leading out into the sea and allowed men on watch to ease themselves without leaving post.
Most captains were fastidious about sanitary arrangements and punished offenders sternly who relieved themselves in inappropriate places.
Now, of course, modern ships and submarines have lavatories very similar to those on land. You just have to be careful not to leave the sea-water valves open…
Vasa photo: By Peter Isotalo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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