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‘Pots, privies and WCs; crapping1 at the opera in London before 1830’2

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 May 2012


What was the interplay between plumbing and the routines of audience behaviour at London's eighteenth-century opera house? A simple question, perhaps, but it proves to be a subject with scarce evidence, and even scarcer commentary. This article sets out to document as far as possible the developments in plumbing in the London theatres, moving from the chamber pot to the privy to the installation of the first water-closets, addressing questions of the audience's general behaviour, the beginnings in London of a ‘listening’ audience, and the performance of music between the acts. It concludes that the bills were performed without intervals, and that in an evening that frequently ran to four hours in length, audience members moved around the auditorium, and came and went much as they pleased (to the pot, privy or WC), demonstrating that singers would have had to contend throughout their performances with a large quantity of low-level noise.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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3 See, for example, Small, Christopher, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Hanover, 1998), 1929Google Scholar.

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5 J. Howell, Proverbs 18 in Lex. Tetraglootton (1660).

6 ‘it was always my office to hold his head during the operation of an emetic, to attend him to the water-closet when he took a cathartic, and sometimes to administer a clyster’; Colman, George, The Connoisseur by Mr Town, No. 100, 25 December 1755 (London, 1756), II, 602Google Scholar.

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65 Against all the odds, it was in its original place in Metastasio's libretto, having escaped Mingotti's constant alterations to operas, and the aria retained its original dramatic excitement; see Burden, Michael, ‘Metastasio in London: A Catalogue and Critical Reader’, Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, 49 (2007)Google Scholar, whole issue, and US-SM La 128 and GB-Lbl 163.g.60.

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71 See, among many texts, Roy Porter, Diseases, Medicine, and Society in England 1550–1860 (Cambridge, 2/1995), 45–58, for a consideration of some of these issues.

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75 Book 1, lines 247–8: ‘To where Fleetditch with disemboguing streams, Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to the Thames’; Pope, Alexander, The Dunciad (London, 1728), 28Google Scholar.

76 For those areas which did not have access to such natural flushing mechanisms, a secondary sewer was provided, but householders were specifically forbidden from connecting privies to such systems, since the flow of water was erratic in hot weather and the drains simply clogged up.

77 The Builder's Dictionary or Gentleman's and Architect's Companion (London, 1734), II, ‘Sewers’; similar comments appear in Neve, Richard, The City and Country Purchaser's and Builder's Dictionary (London, 1736)Google Scholar.

78 Ware, Isaac, A Complete Body of Architecture (London, 1761), 346Google Scholar.

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81 Cruickshank and Burton, Life in the Georgian City, 96. Others have opted for a later date, for example, Rudé, George, Hanoverian London (London, 2/2003), 254Google Scholar, who claims that the water-closet was ‘invented’ in the 1770s, and ‘would soon be the order of the day’.

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83 Dumont, Gabriel Pierre Martin, ‘Coupe prise sur la longueur du Théâtre de Coven Garden, a Londres’, in Parallele de Plans des Plus Belles Salles de Spectacles de Italie et de France par le Sieur Dumont (Paris, 1778)Google Scholar. Engraving, [c. 1774].

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87 Ibid., 285.

88 ‘Bumf’ first appears in Barrère, Albert and Leland, C. G., A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant (London, rev/1897)Google Scholar, and, not surprisingly, was initially a boys’ schoolyard term.

89 Montagu, Mary Wortley, lines from ‘The Reasons that induced Dr S to write a poem call'd the Lady's Dressing Room’, in Essays and Poems and Simplicity, A Comedy, ed. Halsband, Robert and Grundy, Isobel (Oxford, 1977), 276Google Scholar.

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93 Wyatt, Benjamin, Observations on the Design for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (London, 1813), 5663 and plates 1–7Google Scholar. Interestingly, in an earlier essay, Observations on the principles of a design for a theatre (London, 1811), he makes no allusion to this dramatic increase in sanitary provisions, despite his frank discussion of the elaborate arrangements for abolishing the ‘basket boxes’ at the back of the stall where the prostitutes plied their trade, and the segregation of the classes in access both to the auditorium and to the refreshment rooms.

94 A highly entertaining paper by Jim Fowler of the V & A Performance Collections entitled ‘James Winston: Theatre Architect Manque’, given at the Society for Theatre Research's meeting in Richmond, Yorkshire, drew my attention to this drawing.

95 Grimm, Johann Friedrich Karl, Bemerkungen eines Reisenden durch Deutschland, Frankriech, England und Holland (Altenburg, 1775), III, 208ff.Google Scholar, quoted in Kelly, John Alexander, German Visitors to English Theatres in the Eighteenth Century (Princeton, 1936), 66Google Scholar.

96 Parke, William, Musical Memoirs (London, 1830), II, 146–7Google Scholar.

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