A metaphor for the modern world

Having a tinkle, taking a slash or going for a leak – they’re all phrases used to express the nature of something we all do but which polite society says must retain a certain ambiguity in general speech. That’s the thing about English as she is spoke. Sometimes a good metaphor says as much about something as saying the thing directly.

There was a time not so very long ago when if you were rushing to find the smallest room in the house, it’s likely you wouldn’t find that room on the inside. More often than not, the smallest room in the house was somewhere outside.

And on cold nights, that could seem like a long way outside.

The classic Aussie outdoor dunny. This example behind a church at Windeyer on the NSW Tablelands.

In the days before the advent of modern plumbing systems, the typical Australian outside toilet, the dunny, was found at a discreet distance from the house, home of the redback spider and a place where the business of doing your business could stay nobody else’s business. When Yallambie Homestead was built it’s unlikely the toilet was given much consideration in the plan of the original design. The great Aussie khazi was pretty much usually a bit of an after-thought, a simple, rudely built structure not commonly remembered for its architectural merit.

“There was no plumbing or external pipes, and the family used a hip-bath filled with water brought up from the kitchen. Additional water was probably kept in a large jug, with a basin in which to wash face and hands.” (Calder: Classing the Wool, p84)

“…a strategically presented pot cupboard”
Tin hip bath at Amess House, Churchill Island. (McLachlan)

At the Homestead a bathroom of sorts was situated on the upper floor in a small room located just above the front door. The main feature of this room was a hip bath which was laboriously filled by hand once a week by servants bringing hot water up from the kitchen. The house employed a small army of servants to look after the needs of the family and these servants included both a parlour maid and a chamber maid. It was the task of the chamber maid to maintain each of the six and sometimes seven bedrooms in the house, each of which would have been provided with a washstand and chamber pot, the latter kept either in a strategically presented pot cupboard or placed simply under a bed. Waste would be routinely carried discretely downstairs every morning by the chamber maid and emptied into an outside cess pit.

Assorted chamber pots in the maids’ closet at Barwon Park, Winchelsea. (McLachlan)

Such a system certainly saved on the necessity of nocturnal visits to the privy by family members during the night and while it might sound like a primitive arrangement, it was an efficient if labour intensive arrangement that remained a common feature of many Australian houses until well into the second half of the 20th century.

As a six year old, I remember staying over with my parents at the home of my father’s sister in Ballarat, just around the corner from Lake Wendouree. The house probably hadn’t changed much since the 19th Century and I recall Aunty Melva explaining the toiletry arrangements of the house which seemed like a novelty to me, a wide eyed kid from the suburbs of Rosanna.

“The toilet’s outside in the garden but you don’t want to be going out there on a freezing night in Ballarat. Here, just let me put this under your bed.”

And with that she produced a po which she slipped under the bed in the second best bedroom of the house.

I remember my parents looking at this pot dubiously after Aunty was gone and my mother’s horrified reaction, “Well, I’ll not be using that,” but after its use was explained to my wonderment, I was fascinated by the device in ways only a small child can. I decided if anyone was to use that thing, that person was going to be me.

In the dark of night therefore I crept out from the old Army stretcher that was my make shift bed and into the room where my parents were sleeping where I woke my mother.

“Mummy, I need to wee.”

“Well you can go outside and use the toilet.”

“No I want to use the potty.”

“Well you can’t. What would your Aunt think tomorrow? She would think I had used it.”

So much for the act of nature where my mother was concerned, and with that and nursing a great feeling of injury I crept off to the outside dunny at the bottom the garden, on a cold Ballarat night in winter where funny to relate, I found I didn’t need to wee after all.

Thus began and ended my childhood experience of the Victorian era chamber pot but the story is an illustration of the sensibilities that surrounded one of life’s most basic functions. The po, as the chamber pot has often been referred to, has been called many things in its day. The old thunder jug of yesteryear has alternately been known as the gazunder, Jordan and Jerry, and a good many other things besides, all euphemisms designed to disguise the real and very practical purpose of the item.

A novelty chamber pot produced as propaganda during World War 2.

There are a few theories about how the word Jerry was coined as a metaphor for the chamber pot. Some think it was because of the similarity in the shape of the German military helmet. Others say it was due to war time propaganda which depicted a German soldier hiding under a bed and listening to careless talk, a bit like the Reds of the later Cold War era. Whatever the reason, chamber pots became a useful object for British propaganda during the War years especially when referencing the nasty, Nazi leadership.

The unpleasant contents of the chamber pot

I have a small, novelty pot, too small to be ever useful I’m afraid, which is marked “Adolf in Po-land”, with the German dictator’s face placed strategically on the inside where the unpleasant contents of a pot would usually sink. In an earlier era, similar pots were made with another dictator’s face in the pot, the Emperor Napoleon. Adolf is thankfully no longer with us although strange to relate there are some who will always maintain he went off to live on a farm somewhere in Argentina. For some reason conspiracy theories have always been popular but in a world gone a little potty of late, it seems they have taken hold like never before. If enough people believe something to be true, then for practical purposes it literally becomes true, in spite of empirical evidence to the contrary.

So to all the tin pot dictators and would be dictators who I’ve been hearing about in the news and are alive the world over today, I’m telling you now, old pots aren’t needed much these days. The potty has had its day and if nothing else, you’ll find it makes a pretty damn fine flower holder, and that’s a metaphor for the modern world.

Fill the nastiness in that bowl with a few of life’s flowers…

2 thoughts on “A metaphor for the modern world”

  1. A couple of years back, my husband and I visited Dennis Severs’ House in Folgate St Spitalfields in London. It’s not so much a museum as an art installation. The premise is that the people living in the house have just that minute left, and so there are half drunk cups of tea, the smell of baking bread, the spluttering of candles etc. Each room of the house represents a different use of the house, with the top floors of the house inhabited by poor immigrant Huguenot weavers. As someone very conscious of smells and aromas, I loved the attention that they paid to smells- until I reached the weavers’ floor. The smell from the chamber pot was overwhelming and it looked pretty convincing too. Perhaps the attendants on duty were responsible for providing the contents? You can see the house at:
    https://www.dennissevershouse.co.uk/the-tour/

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  2. Ha, that’s a good one Janine. I think that’s something we forget when we look at old photographs, the smells of the era that would have accompanied the images. VL has Huguenot silk weaver ancestors who settled in Spitalfields at the end of the 17th Century. They probably emptied their chamber pots from the top floors of such a house.

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