Posted by: christinelaennec | February 25, 2013

The not-so-good old days

I love the Victorian nature of much of Aberdeen, as you’ll know if you click on the tab “Aberdeen architecture” on this blog.  Our own “double upper” flat was built in 1884, and we love the character it has.  But there’s one aspect of life back then I wouldn’t have enjoyed.  Here is a sight not far from our house.

Outdoor toilet (presumably no longer in use), Aberdeen, February 2013.

Back area, Aberdeen, February 2013.

Do you see?


I do appreciate the hand-painted sign.  Would you vintage experts say it dates from the 1940s or 50s?  (I’m pretty sure that it isn’t actually used any longer as a toilet.)

Our own garden sheds were once toilets, as there weren’t indoor toilets when our flat was constructed.  And the amazing thing is how long people continued to live without indoor plumbing.  In 1990, when we lived in Illinois, Michael and I spent a delightful summer hosting a child from Belfast, as part of a programme called the Irish Children’s Fund.  The aim of the programme was to give Protestant and Catholic children from Northern Ireland an experience that might give them a new perspective on life, and in particular on the deep sectarian divides in that country.  (Happily, the organisation felt it had fulfilled its mission and was dissolved in 2011.) Our host child benefited from two weeks of holiday, and from meeting children of – in their own words – “the opposite religion”.  But the best thing about coming to stay with us?  We had an indoor toilet!  In 1990, our child’s family lived in housing with only an outdoor toilet.

As they say in Aberdeen, “shockin’, is it?!”



  1. Just to let you know that one of my friends from school who lived in trendy Islington in North London also had an outdoor toilet until well into the 90s! Plus she had a bath in the kitchen too. I never thought it was that unusual because all of my summer holidays until the age of 18 were spent in a tiny house in Ireland that also had a toilet ‘around the back’. I used to dread needing the loo in the middle of the night and having to don wellies, a warm jumper and a torch just to ‘go’. Strangely enough, I think of the outside loo with fondness rather than horror. The only things I didn’t like were soggy loo-roll on damp days and large spiders who used to live in the nooks and crannies.

  2. I can’t amazing a outdoor toilet. As far as i know (and I’m 50) houses overhere has always have indoor toilets.

  3. oh goodness, i can’t imagine popping out to the loo in the middle of the night. i’m not so good with cold or spiders. it’s incredible to think how many things have changed even in the last 30 years or so.

  4. Okay so we British folk are not as sophisticated as you, in fact we’re such savages we don’t all have indoor plumbing, how uncouth we are.

    It must be very tiring being perfect all the time.

  5. I guess that’s why every bedroom had a “po” for emergencies!

    Even worse, our house, built c1890 had an indoor loo for family and an outdoor one, just outside the back door, for the staff…

    I do like our bathroom as we still have the original fittings and the world’s most comfortable bath.

  6. REally, that is shocking! Hard to believe in our times….

  7. Very interesting! About this — when my mother left her home to marry my father — her family did not have a indoor bathroom – she heated-up her water over the wood burning stove for a bath and had to leave the house to use the toilet — called the “outhouse” — that was in 1955.. Thank goodness the home she would live in once married had indoor plumbing..

  8. It reminds me of camping, but at least that’s only for a week or two in the summer, I wouldn’t fancy having to go outside at night for the loo during the winter. Amazing to think that some people in the UK and Ireland still didn’t have indoor plumbing as recently as the 1990s, I think of it as dating back about 50 years.

  9. I remember my Mum telling me how dreadful an outdoor toilet was when illness struck. I won’t go into details, but oh dear!

  10. Interesting, Christine. My grandparents had an outside toilet until about 1970, when the connection to ‘mains’ water coincided with a new bathroom and toilet. Our own Cornish cottage had an outside loo until we had an extension built in 1987. Calls of nature were answered briefly during the winter months, I can tell you.

  11. I spent the first ten years of my life in a house without an indoor bathroom/toilet. This was in the 1950s. I well remember sitting outside with a paraffin lantern preventing the pipes from freezing, but not the human. And the tin bath in front of the fire in the kitchen. And one other thing, in those days there were no Andrex puppy soft loo rolls either!

  12. Shocking to think as recently at 1990 the pluming was still in the dark ages, mind you I see that your little closet has a sky light so you will get some daylight whilst you do your business or you can sit and look at the stars!


  13. Yes, I would say this is shocking in the “modern world” that people still lived without the basics. But kudos to you, Christine, for hosting a child and giving him a different view of not only the opposite religion, but a different culture. ❤

  14. This was not isolated to the UK. At one time part of my job included home visits to families in need. This was in the USA. One of the homes I visited at that time in the 1990’s did not have any indoor plumbing. People are always shocked when I tell that story but there is much more poverty and need in parts of the US than people realize or admit.

  15. Dear all,
    Thanks for these fascinating responses! I have to say I’m surprised at how many people have had outdoor toilets until fairly recently. And in posh places like Islington.

    As Kristeen and softie1 have said, this isn’t limited to the UK. I didn’t mention it in the post, but in the 1980s my mother worked with needy families in Portland, Oregon who had severely disabled children. She told me that some of the homes she went into had dirt floors (not sure about the plumbing).

    My own great-granny May lived in great deprivation at times. She was a meticulous housekeeper, though, and had high standards of cleanliness. When I wrote the post I was thinking of her, and also of our sister church in Malawi. We helped to fundraise for a toilet block for the church. These are outdoor toilets, but a step forward for the people there. I suppose it’s all relative.

    But I’m really glad not to have to go out to the shed in the middle of the night.

  16. My parents now live on an island in Canada where we vacationed beginning when I was about 7. This would have been right around 1970. The cottage, we rented had an outhouse and an outdoor shower (which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as water for one would have provided water for the other). Nothing but happy memories tied to that place.

    Friends of mine did mission work and home repairs in the tiny town of Pineapple, Alabama, in the late 1980s. No running water in many homes.

    When we’ve encountered tummy issues, I have all but kissed my washer and dryer.

  17. Interesting! There are actually families who still live this way by choice over here in the states. In fact, many people are now choosing composting toilets too, as a way to conserve water. So, sometimes it is a lifestyle choice.

    When I was in college I rented a cabin without running water. We had a cozy little outhouse and in the summer it was surrounded with flowers and was actually gorgeous!

    I do wonder a bit though …. if you can’t “move your hole”…. who were the poor souls that had to go & clean out the … underneath?? I would imagine they are VERY happy for piped plumbing, septic systems etc!! 🙂 (composting toilets, on the other hand, are apparently not so noxious due to the use of wood shavings, or so I understand!)

    Fascinating the different topics that come up and sad that some would think you were criticizing Scotland. I can tell you love your home!

  18. A very interesting topic!
    In the Frisian village where I am born the outdoor toilets had a wooden bucket hidden in a kind of bench. Once a week these were swapped by the men of the ‘eau-de-cologne car’. Some of my school friends had such an outdoor toilet, with some pieces of old newspapers on a rope for certain purposes. I thought we were very lucky to have piped plumbing in our house.

  19. Dear Kelly, Lynne and Ineke,

    Thanks for your contributions to the outdoor toilet discussions!

    Kelly, the stomach flu is visiting our house at the moment and BOY am I glad for indoor plumbing. (Also my washing machine, no dryer here.) I think outdoor toilets and showers – memories of camp for me – are nicer in the summer than I imagine in the winter. Your parents’ island sounds amazing!

    Lynne, the whole topic of composting toilets hadn’t occurred to me. I remember a t.v. show / social experiment in 2000. A group of people of all ages lived for a year on a long-uninhabited island off of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. They had composting toilets, and a rota for cleaning them. They also had buildings to live in, but I guess no indoor toilets, or not enough? It seemed to be a very good way of solving the problem and following the series I don’t remember it being a huge issue.

    Ineke, that’s so interesting. I LOVE the idea of the “eau-de-cologne man”!

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