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

  • Michael Burden

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.

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

4 The OED cites an Inventory in Lisle Papers (PRO: SP 1/161), f. 56v; it also locates mentions in 1570, (OED, III, 4), and in 1598, in Florio's Worlde of Words, (OED, XII, 210).

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, 602.

7 Misacmos [Harrington, John], A New Discourse of a Stale Subject called the Metamorphosis of Ajax (London, 1596), 120.

8 The Theatrical Observer, No. 2682 (20 July 1830).

9 The Theatrical Observer, No. 592 (16 October 1823).

10 [Stockdale, John Joseph], The Covent Garden Journal, 2 vols. (London, 1810), I, 162.

11 Lumley, Benjamin, Reminiscences of the Opera (London, 1864), 184.

12 Drawing of the Royal Box, Covent Garden, 16 October 1776 at a performance of Arthur Murphy's All in the wrong; collection of Frederick W. Hilles. For a reproduction see The London Stage, V/1, ed. Hogan, Charles Beecher (Carbondale, 1968), plates between 102 and 103.

13 [Stockdale], Covent Garden Journal, I, 180.

14 See, for instance, Baer, Marc, Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London (Oxford, 1992); Bloom, Clive, Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels, and Revolts (London, 2003); and Shoemaker, Robert B., The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth-Century England (London, 2004).

15 [Reed, Isaac], Isaac Reed Diaries 1762–1804, ed. Jones, Claude E. (Berkeley, 1946), 110, 10 July 1781.

16 [Stockdale], Covent Garden Journal, I, 121.

17 MacNally, Leonard, Critic upon Critic, a Dramatic Medley (London, 1792), 62–3.

18 For example: ‘the spectators behaviour was generally appropriate to their station’; Nalbach, David, The King's Theatre, 1704–1867 (London, 1972), 65.

19 Edward Piggott, MS diary in the Beinecke Library, Yale University. Quoted in Gibson, Elizabeth, ‘Edward Pigott: Eighteenth-century Theatre Chronicler’, Theatre Notebook, 42/2 (1988), 65.

20 The Morning Herald (15 May 1786).

21 Wilson, Harriette, Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, 3 vols. (London, 1825), I, 35.

22 Quoted in Baker, H. Barton, A History of the London Stage (London, 1904), 140.

23 [Stockdale], Covent Garden Journal, I, 181.

24 Ibid., I, 160.

25 Chetwood, William, A General History of the Stage, from its origin in Greece to the present time. With memoirs of most of the principal performers that have appeared on the English and Irish stage for these last fifty years (London, 1749), 127–8.

26 The Theatrical Observer, No. 1882 (20 December 1827).

27 [Anon., A gentleman of Oxford, ], The Devil upon Crutches (London, 1755), 38.

28 With a libretto by G. B. Lorenzi on the play by B. J. Marsollier des Vivetières.

29 Anna Margaretta Larpent, Diary, US-SM HM 301201: I, 16 May 1797.

30 The London Stage, V/3, ed. Hogan, Charles Beecher (Carbondale, 1968), 1963.

31 The Theatrical Observer, No. 66 (19 January 1822).

32 [Pückler-Muskau, Hermann Ludwig H.], A Tour in Germany, Holland and England in the years 1826, 1827, and 1828, 4 vols. (London, 1832), III, 66.

33 Ibid., III, 364.

34 The Theatrical Observer, No. 2657 (19 June 1830).

35 The benefit system allowed members of the theatre company (including staff such as the prompter) to have a performance from which they were entitled, after expenses, to the box-office income. The programmes often included both new works and old warhorses especially suited to the performers’ skills. For a fuller explanation, see Troubridge, St Vincent, The Benefit System in the British Theatre (London, 1967).

36 Rosselli, John, ‘Interval’, in Grove Dictionary of Opera, ed. Sadie, Stanley, 4 vols. (London, 1992), II, 811.

37 See Savage, Roger, ‘The Theatre Music’, in The Purcell Companion, ed. Burden, Michael (London, 1995), 323ff., and Purcell, Henry, The Fairy-Queen, An Opera, ed. Burden, Michael (London, 2009), for discussions of this issue.

38 [Anon.], The Prompter, No. 3 (27 October 1789), 16.

39 [Stockdale], Covent Garden Journal, I, 154.

40 Houtchens, Lawrence Huston, Leigh Hunt's Dramatic Criticism 1808–1830 (New York, 1949), 19 November 1809.

41 Gardiner, William, Music and Friends (London, 1838), I, 155.

42 Brownsmith, John, The Dramatic Time-piece: or the Perpetual Monitor (London, 1767), Preface.

43 Playbill, Covent Garden, 9 June 1819, in Frederick Pollock, comp., William Charles MacCready a memorial (a collection of playbills, letters and newspapers cuttings), US-SM 264486, I.

44 Playbill, Covent Garden, 9 June 1820, in Pollock, US-SM 264486, I.

45 Playbill, Drury Lane, 23 February 1842, in Pollock, US-SM 264486, IV.

46 Jackson, Russell, ‘Johanna Schopenhauer's Journal: A German View of the London Theatre Scene, 1803–5’, Theatre Notebook, 52/3 (1998), 146.

47 The Theatrical Observer, No. 2613 (29 April 1830).

48 Handel shortened recitatives in those works by other composers he adapted for London, and the process can still be seen employed later in the century in the 1797 version of Giuseppe Sarti's setting of Metastasio's Ipermestra, GB-Lcm 656.

49 Davis, Tracy C., The Economics of the British Stage 1800–1914 (Cambridge, 2000), 98–9. For further discussion of the situation in the nineteenth century, see her excellent and entertaining article: ‘“Filthy – nay – Pestilential”: Sanitation and Victorian Theatres’, in Exceptional Spaces: Essays in Performance and History, ed. Pollock, Della (Chapel Hill, 1998), 161–86.

50 The Theatrical Observer, No. 210 (18 July 1822); in this case, the English Opera House in the Strand.

51 Gilliland, Thomas, Elbow Room, a pamphlet containing remarks on the shameful increase of the private boxes of Covent Garden (London, 1804), 13.

52 The Theatrical Observer, No. 2659 (22 June 1830).

53 Wyatt, Benjamin, Observations on the principles of a design for a theatre (London, 1811); he abolished the ‘basket boxes’ at the back of the stalls where the prostitutes plied their trade.

54 The Theatrical Observer, No. 1018 (7 March 1825).

55 [Howard, Frederick, 5th Earl of Carlisle], Thoughts upon the present condition of the stage, and upon the construction of a new theatre (London, 1808), 67.

56 The London Stage, III/2, ed. Scouten, Arthur H. (Carbondale, 1961), 975.

57 The Theatrical Observer, No. 2683 (21 July 1830).

58 The London Stage, IV/3, ed. Stone, George Winchester jr. (Carbondale, 1962), 1460.

59 The Theatrical Observer, No. 563 (12 September 1823).

60 [Stockdale], Covent Garden Journal, I, 153.

61 The Freeholder's Magazine (January 1770), 247.

62 The Theatrical Guardian, 4 (1791), 17.

63 [Pückler-Muskau, Hermann Ludwig H.], A tour in Germany, Holland and England in the years 1826, 1827, and 1828 (London, 1832), III, 66.

64 Adams, Samuel, The Complete Servant (London, 1825), Appendix, 21. Hackney coaches first appeared in London in 1620; Pepys mentions them first in his entry for 2 February 1659–60, and they were regulated by Act of Parliament in 1694 when there were about 700 of them plying their trade. The rates set then remained unchanged for many years, as shown by a comparison of those mentioned by Stow, W., Remarks on London (London, 1722), and those listed in Adams.

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), whole issue, and US-SM La 128 and GB-Lbl 163.g.60.

66 de la Rochefoucauld, François Armand Frédéric, A Frenchman in England 1784, being the Mélanges sur l'Angleterre of François de la Rochefoucauld, ed. Marchand, Jean, trans. Roberts, S. C. (London, 1933), 31–2.

67 See Smith, Dane Farnsworth, Plays About the Theatre in England from the Rehearsal in 1671 to the Licensing Act in 1737, or, the Self-conscious Stage and its Burlesque and Satirical Reflections in the Age of Criticism (London, 1936), 247–50, and Plays about the Theatre in England 1737–1800; or, The Self-Conscious Stage from Foote to Sheridan (Lewisburg, 1979), 213–25, for brief listings.

68 See, for example, Milhous, Judith and Hume, Robert D., Vice Chamberlain Coke's Theatrical Papers 1706–1715 (Carbondale, 1982), 86–8.

69 See the table on page 227 of Milhous, Judith and Hume, Robert D., ‘John Rich's Covent Garden Account Books for 1735–36’, Theatre Survey, 31/2 (1990), 200–41.

70 See Milhous, Judith and Hume, Robert D., ‘Theatre Account Books in Eighteenth-century London’, in Superior in His Profession; Essays in Memory of Harold Love, Script and Print, 33 (2009), 125–35, at 127–8, for the accounting divisions found in the London theatres.

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.

72 Colquhoun, Patrick, A treatise of the police of the metropolis (London, 1797), 401.

73 For example, Canto II: ‘Where Thames, with pride surveys his rising towers’; Pope, Alexander, The rape of the lock (London, 1714), 19.

74 Byrd, Max, London Transformed: Images of the City in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1978), 55. If Defoe is to be believed, it had also been much neglected; Defoe, Daniel, Curious and diverting journies, thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (London, 1734), Journey V.

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), 28.

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).

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

79 Cruickshank, Dan and Burton, Neil, Life in the Georgian City (London, 1990), 227.

80 Morris, Christopher, ed., The Journeys of Celia Fiennes (London, 1947), 358.

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), 254, who claims that the water-closet was ‘invented’ in the 1770s, and ‘would soon be the order of the day’.

82 PRO C11/2662/1 and PRO C11/2732/81; see also Orell, John, ‘Covent Garden Theatre, 1732’, Theatre Survey, 33 (1992), 3252.

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). Engraving, [c. 1774].

84 Lewis, James, Original Designs in Architecture (London, 1780), 1213 and plates XIX and XX; see also, Milhous, Judith and Hume, Robert D., ‘James Lewis's Plans for an Opera House in the Haymarket (1778)’, Theatre Research International, 19/3 (1994), 191202.

85 Barton, Nicholas, The Lost Rivers of London: A Study of their Effects on London and Londoners, and the Effects of London and Londoners on Them (London, 2/1992), 63.

86 PRO E112/1824 #7586. Milhous, Judith, Dideriksen, Gabriella and Hume, Robert D., Italian Opera in Late Eighteenth-century London, II The Pantheon Opera and its Aftermath 1789–1795 (Oxford, 2001), 285–6.

87 Ibid., 285.

88 ‘Bumf’ first appears in Barrère, Albert and Leland, C. G., A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon and Cant (London, rev/1897), 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), 276.

90 Stanhope, Philip Dormer, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, The Letters of the Earl of Chesterfield to his Son (London, 1924) I, CXXXIII, 11 December 1747.

91 ‘The goddess who presides [over] the system of sewers (from the Latin cloaca “sewer”) which drained the refuse of the city of Rome’. Micha F. Lindemas, ‘Cloacina’, Encyclopaedia Mythologica (1999).

92 Dibdin, Charles jr., History and Illustrations of the London Theatres (London, 1826), plate 1.

93 Wyatt, Benjamin, Observations on the Design for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (London, 1813), 5663 and plates 1–7. 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., quoted in Kelly, John Alexander, German Visitors to English Theatres in the Eighteenth Century (Princeton, 1936), 66.

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

97 Brown, Eluned, ed., The London Theatre 1811–1866: Selections from the Diary of Henry Crabb Robinson (London, 1966), 73; 29 June 1816.

1 ‘Crap’ or ‘to crap’ is defined as crude slang for ‘defecate’, according to the OED, recorded in Wright, Joseph, English Dialect Dictionary (London, 1898).

2 This article was conceived while working at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California on an Andrew Mellon Fellowship; Alexandra Lumbers, Andrew Cambers, Catherine Molineux and Emma Christopher were present at the time.

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