Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Of toerags and spice boxes: Sanitation at sea

Richard De Grijs
Sydney, Australia

Beakhead (top) and internal grating (bottom left) at the bow of the replica Dutch East Indiaman Duyfken (late 16th century; Australian National Maritime Museum). Bottom right: One of the heads and a tow rag at the bow of the Australian National Maritime Museum’s H.M.B. Endeavour replica (mid- to late 18th century). Photos by author.

At 5 P.M. it blew rather fresh, but so steady that the Top Gallant sails were not taken in. The Purser went into the weather round House about this time, which is fixed in the Galley, on the Ships Bows. While he was on the Seat, a mass of wind was forced by a wave up the Galley of the round House. That its violence breaking against the naked Posterior of the Purser, it so lacerated his parts & Aunus, that he was oblidged to get medical assistance, as a quantity of wind had forced a passage into his Belly.1
(Aaron Thomas on HMS Lapwing, 1798)

For much of the Age of Sail, sailors found that going about their routine daily business, including their use of shipboard toilet facilities (if available), was all but straightforward—sometimes uncomfortable or even downright dangerous. By the end of the eighteenth century, Royal Navy frigates usually featured lavatories in the form of two “round houses” on the forward gun deck, one on either side of the bow. Half-cylindrical screens set against the ship’s railing provided some shelter and privacy.

However, on most vessels, doing one’s business was a very public affair for anyone but the senior officers. Until the end of the fifteenth century, sailors relieved themselves over the side of their ship. Waste might also be collected in buckets, which would eventually be emptied overboard.2 That practice was rather unhygienic, however. Like the officers’ private chamber pots, buckets were generally not emptied until they were full to the brim, and even then, at best they were cleaned with just a splash of seawater.

By the sixteenth century, it had become routine to use the bow as a makeshift lavatory—always downwind, causing the least inconvenience to anyone else on board. From the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, many ships featured richly adorned “beakheads”—platforms forward of the bow facilitating access to the spritsails. Such beakheads were open to splashing waves and lined with grates. Doing one’s business in those “heads” soon became common practice; the beakheads were, hence, also known as “gallstones.”3 Refuse would fall directly through the grates into the water, thus avoiding soiling the ship’s hull unnecessarily.

References to a ship’s bow as the “(boat) head” date back to Anglo-Saxon times (early Middle Ages)—“heafod” in Old English, meaning “top of the body”—possibly in reference to the ship’s figurehead at the bowsprit. Early nautical use of the word can be traced to at least 1485.4 Its first use in relation to a toilet function comes from A Cruising Voyage Round the World (1708) by Woodes Rogers (1679?–1732), English privateer and Governor of the Bahamas: “He begg’d to go into the Head to ease himself.” In 1748, the Scottish author Tobias Smollett (1721–1771) similarly wrote in The Adventures of Roderick Random, “The madman … took an opportunity, while the centinel [sic] attended him at the head, to leap over-board.”

Originally, the beakheads were simply lined with rails (or stays—stretched lines supporting the rigging) to sit on or lean against, often precariously, particularly in adverse weather conditions. By the eighteenth century, beakheads had fallen out of fashion and the toilet facilities had evolved into “seats of ease” near the bowsprit, containing one or more holes for waste disposal. Constant breaking-wave action would naturally clean the ship’s hull.

Depending on the size and type of vessel, the heads were either plank seats or rectangular wooden boxes with one or more holes, colloquially known as “spice boxes.” Such heads were common on most ships between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, almost without modification. As their number was usually limited, one’s business was frequently done under the gaze of a queue of onlookers.

Cleaning the heads was an unpleasant task. On Royal Navy vessels in Elizabethan times (sixteenth century), a sailor designated as the “liar” was responsible for keeping the heads clean5:

He that is first taken with a lie upon a Monday morning is proclaimed at the main mast with a general cry, “A liar, a liar, a liar;” and for that week he is under the swabber [responsible for in-board cleaning], and meddles not with making clean the ship within board, but without.6

As toilet paper had not yet been invented, sailors generally cleaned themselves using a communal “tow rag”7—usually a hemp woven rag known as “tow”, even today—or, sometimes, a brush attached to the end of a long rope extending from the heads into the water below. After use, the rag was dropped back into the water, to be washed either by the ship’s motion under sail or by wave action and currents while at anchor.8 Instead of a rag, the end of the rope could also be frayed, serving the same purpose.

A sheep’s tail nailed to a stick dipped into a bucket of water may have served as alternative toilet-paper substitute, as did shakings—loose strands of oakum (tarred hemp) or other fibers worked out of the running rigging—saved by sailors for use when the need arose, or even rags or clothes soaked in vinegar, for use by all. These unhygienic practices offered a perfect opportunity for infectious diseases to spread. Dysentery, typhoid, typhus,9 cholera, and intestinal worm infections10 consequently flourished during the Age of Sail.

Sailors did not like to use the heads, particularly at night, in heavy seas, or during storms when there was a real danger of being washed away by large breaking waves. Instead, they often used buckets (or, sometimes, chamber pots) or hid in dark spaces, for instance on the gun deck or in the bilges, to do their business.11 As a result, the atmosphere below the main deck soon became noxious, attracting vermin while in port, which in turn carried disease.12 Most vessels also offered “pissdales”—primitive urinals—which were usually located midships near the main mast; portable devices consisted of a metal tube or gulley (funnel) attached to a rope, which could be used discreetly and lowered into the water after use.13

Smaller vessels often lacked designated heads. Instead, sailors used the “chains,” narrow platforms extending from their ship’s sides supporting the shrouds—lines that form part of the standing rigging supporting the mast. Anecdotally, before the battle of February 20, 1815, of the USS Constitution with HMS Levant and HMS Cyane off Madeira, the Constitution’s round houses were removed to “afford room to work the forward deck guns in action,” and so her officers had “to make the chains the scene of their profane rites”14—to the surprise and disgust of the British officers watching the spectacle. The Cyane’s commanding officer, Gordon Thomas Falcon (1777–1854), was clearly revulsed, exclaiming that “a British Officer would think it derogatory to be found in the chains in the obscene manner in which the Americans visited them.” To this, Lieutenant Henry Ballard (1774?–1855) responded pointedly,

Why, Sir, we know that these things are mere matter of opinion and our reputation not at all affected by it provided our discipline otherwise is such as will do ourselves credit and our country justice, and when her reputation is at stake we are particular in little else, provided our guns tell well, and you can be a competent judge of how far that end has been attained.15

Officers’ lavatory routines were usually more comfortable, however. As a case in point, while aboard the Royal Charles, the English diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) described lavatory facilities that were “roomy and comfortable … not at all foul-smelling,” featuring a mechanism where “water swept my leavings from the latrine to parts unknown, and the stall did smell as fresh as when I did enter.”16

The captain usually had access to his own privy, located in one of the quarter galleries, the often beautifully decorated balcony-like structures at a ship’s stern. Some Royal Navy vessels even included flushing water closets,17 a convenience that was particularly appreciated by those confined to their ship’s sick bay.18 Privies located at the stern sometimes had lead excrement tubes attached underneath to ensure that all human waste was discharged directly into the splashing waves rather than onto the hull.19

By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, crew toilets also moved inboard and, increasingly, systems of pipes, septic tanks, and even primitive forms of flush toilets became the norm—although a geyser of water might still unexpectedly fly up the drainpipe in heavy weather. Onboard plumbing was not new in the Age of Sail, however. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Romans already used some type of shipboard plumbing system, whereas King Henry VIII of England (reigned 1509–1547) ordered “cloased stalls [where] manne may do his buizness in pryvacy [and] pypes, for ridding ye ship of shytte.”20

The first recorded evidence of septic tanks on board warships comes from Jean Froissart’s (1333?–ca. 1400) chronicles of the Battle of Sluys (June 24, 1340), commonly seen as the start of the Hundred Years’ War (ca. 1337–1453):

Finding themselves beset on all sides by the French, the King ordered the sailors to uncork the tanks which held their doings. The men responded with great gusto and hacked at the great barrels of oak (into which was filtered their waste) with axe, halberd, and sword, breaking through and drowning the French boarders in their filth.21

It is a sobering thought to realize that activities we do today without a second thought, including taking care of our basic human needs, used to take significant effort under often dangerous conditions, with frequent exposure to infectious diseases, not all that long ago.

End notes

  1. Thomas, A. The Caribbean Journal of a Royal Navy Seaman. (Entry: August 14, 1798), 71. Special Collections, University of Miami Libraries; http://scholar.library.miami.edu/thomas/journal2.html.
  2. Borrelli, J. “Artifact of the Month: A Look Inside Blackbeard’s Head.” Queen Anne’s Revenge Project (2018); https://www.qaronline.org/blog/2018-03-01/artifact-month-seat-of-ease; Daniel, S.L. “The Seat of Ease: Sanitary Facilities from Shipwreck 31CR314, Queen Anne’s Revenge. North Carolina Underwater Archaeology Branch, Office of State Archaeology, Research Report and Bulletin Series, QAR-B-09-02 (2009).
  3. “Extreme toilets in the old sailing ships” (2018); https://violity.com/en/new/1562-extreme-toilets-in-the-old-sailing-ships.
  4. The Navy Department Library. “Head (ship’s toilet).” Naval History and Heritage Command (2017); https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/h/head-ships-toilet.html.
  5. In Admiral Horatio Nelson’s (1758–1805) Navy, this task was assigned to the “plumber’s mate”; Pepys, S., and Bright, M. (ed.). The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. 1. (London: Bell, 1904), 99.
  6. Cited by Rodger, N.A.M. The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain 660–1649. (London: Penguin UK, 2004), Ch. 22.
  7. The modern British slang insult “toerag”—low life, loser—is an unlikely remnant of this nautical custom.
  8. Spilman, R. “Tow-Rag, or How Sailors Cleaned their Bums.” The Old Salt Blog (2020); https://www.oldsaltblog.com/2020/03/tow-rags-or-how-sailors-cleaned-their-bums/.
  9. de Grijs, R. “Ship fever: A malignant disease of a most dangerous kind?” Hektoen International (2024). https://hekint.org/2024/04/15/ship-fever-a-malignant-disease-of-a-most-dangerous-kind/.
  10. de Grijs, R. “Of vermicide and vermifuge: A history of intestinal parasites at sea.” Hektoen International (2023). https://hekint.org/2023/07/17/of-vermicide-and-vermifuge-a-history-of-intestinal-parasites-at-sea/.
  11. R., K. “The Voyage of the Tranby.” (2019); https://tranby1829.weebly.com/privys-and-toilets.html.
  12. de Grijs, R. “Filth so foul and stench so offensive as not to be imagined.” Hektoen International (2023). https://hekint.org/2023/12/07/filth-so-foul-and-stench-so-offensive-as-not-to-be-imagined/.
  13. Marsden, P. “Sealed by Time: The Loss and Recovery of the Mary Rose.” Archaeology of the Mary Rose, Vol. 1. (Portsmouth, UK: Mary Rose Trust, 2003); Marsden, P. “Your Noblest Shippe: Anatomy of a Tudor Warship.” Archaeology of the Mary Rose, Vol. 2. (Portsmouth, UK: Mary Rose Trust, 2009).
  14. Brenckle, M. “Head Lines.” USS Constitution Museum (2014); https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/2014/01/18/head-lines/.
  15. Martin, T.G. (ed.). The USS Constitution’s Finest Fight, 1815: The Journal of Acting Chaplain Assheton Humphreys, US Navy. (Mount Pleasant, SC: Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, 2000), 35–36.
  16. Pepys and Bright (1904), Op. cit.
  17. Brenckle (2014), Op. cit.
  18. Ibid.; Letter from Isaac Chauncey to Jesse Duncan Elliott, July 19, 1834. Boston Navy Yard, RG 181: Letters and Circulars Received from Board of Navy Commissioners 1825–1842. Waltham, MA: National Archives and Records Administration.
  19. Borrelli (2018), Op. cit.; Daniel (2009), Op. cit.
  20. Cruickshank., C. Army royal: Henry VIII’s invasion of France, 1513. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 41.
  21. Froissart, J., and Brereton, G. (transl.). Chronicles. (London: Penguin UK, 1978), 64.

RICHARD DE GRIJS, PhD, is a professor of astrophysics and an award-winning historian of science at Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia). With a keen interest in the history of maritime navigation, Richard is a volunteer guide on Captain Cook’s (replica) H.M. Bark Endeavour at the Australian National Maritime Museum. He also regularly sails on the Museum’s replica Dutch East Indiaman, Duyfken.

Spring 2024



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.