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.

The heads in Vasa

The heads in Vasa


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…


Copyright notices
Vasa photo: By Peter Isotalo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Every effort is made to honour copyright but if we have inadvertently published an image with missing or incorrect attribution, on being informed of this, we undertake to delete the image or add a correct credit notice

8 Comments on “Spending a penny at sea

  1. This blog is more entertaining than any other I know. You just can’t this kind of information anywhere else. 😉 I never knew the RN and USN used the word Head differently. But then I have had precious little time on either. BTW, I have heard of the “Tow rag” but thought it to be a Merchant vessel thing. I am still pondering the title though “Spending a Penny at Sea” ? Obviously, my knowledge of British English is insufficient to fully understand the meaning.

    • Delighted you’re enjoying my blog, Frank! ‘Spending a penny’, i.e. needing to answer the call of nature, harks back to the days when some public toilets in the UK charged a penny to use the facilities.

  2. I’ve read that some public facilities in ancient Rome had running water and sponges on sticks or strings for cleaning – they were for common use but could be rinsed / cleaned after a fashion. There may have been a Latin name for the object and it may have been derisive but I’ve never heard it.

    • And that’s where the expression “Getting the wrong end of the stick.” is supposed to have originated! 😏

  3. TP didn’t change much in Britain till the 1980s, I think! I still remember what i found in public loos while traveling there in the 70s. It was on a small roll, for sure, but of a texture somewhat indistinguishable from newsprint! ^_^

    • Hi Has anyone heard of the tow-rag, a rag on a line for there was no loo paper in those days. The line was cast over the side andhauld in to do the work of toilet paper,then cast over the side to be cleaned.Hence that if anyone was called a tow- rag it was as an insult.NOT Nice. CHeers .Mike Bran

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