Defining heritage - and what has the loo to do with it?

It may sound a little odd but the liveliest discussion on heritage I’ve recently had was with a group of Oxford Preservation Trust members on our Annual Historic Churches Tour and it was all about toilets.

© Old Fire Station - Old Fire Station, Oxford

It was my colleague, Jacquie, who had got me thinking when she pointed out that very soon, there would be no examples of the outside toilet left in the UK. To future generations the concept that many people still had to relieve themselves outside in the “house of ease” until after the Second World War will be totally unimaginable. In contrast, we’re able to see examples in the UK of toilets from as far back as the Roman occupation and these have been a valuable insight into their society because it was something everyone had to do. Just some of the things we have seen from the Roman toilets are their engineering skills, how they prided themselves on good hygiene and the differences between the wealthy and poor.

So anyway, I’d brought that up whilst on that tour and although we didn’t know each other very well, everyone was suddenly nodding along and laughing, many could remember having an outdoor toilet whilst growing up. All of a sudden there were all these stories about their old houses and how they remembered freezing cold nights and newspaper! Some had also lived abroad, so the discussion moved onto exotic historic toilets and there was a particularly interesting story about a snake in India but I won’t elaborate. Just through talking about toilets, I had discovered all sorts of interesting things about these people’s lives, and as most had grown up in Oxford I was finding out all about the city too.

More than just an ice-breaker

When I started thinking about a blog post trying to define heritage, I spoke to some of my contemporaries – the 20-25 age bracket – as I know we are fairly hard to engage in heritage in general. I asked them about what the word meant to them and the response was mixed. From those who had studied archaeology with me at university, heritage clearly meant something that is part of every culture, something that has an influence on development and society at pretty much every level. However, for those who hadn’t studied a similar subject, the word had very little meaning – and when doing some word association, I got a very wide selection including “trees”, “traditional”, “patriotic”, “Henry VIII” and “wooden panelling”.

I was struggling with where to take this blog post, then the conversation about toilets, reminded me just how important personal and social heritage is. Truthfully, unless you are into architectural history on an academic level, it’s the story of the building and the people who lived, worked or studied in it, which are what’s really interesting. So - my conclusion? No matter what it is, anything can be a part of your heritage and that if we try and preserve Roman toilets why not the noble outhouse, too?

Some Oxford stories to explore

Take the opportunity to discover something a little different this year at Oxford Open Doors...

- Find out about Oxfam’s build-a-bog scheme at Oxfam House

- Take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Story Museum to get a glimpse of the Bodleian’s historic printing presses.

- Find our more about the Old Fire Station and the charities that now occupy it.

- Experience Oxford Castle Unlocked and see a selection of vintage Morris Motors vehicles including the Bullnose Morris in the castle yard to celebrate the city’s 100-year old connection with the car industry plus a display of Oxford University’s eco-marathon car PEGGIE and Oxford Brookes University’s Formula Student Racing Car.

Oh, and in case anyone’s found this blog whilst searching for the heritage of toilets have a look at this great book – Cotswold’s Privies  and you can find a rather interesting brief history here.