In 1379 New College built a cesspit of such epic proportions that it took 300 years worth of students’ waste to fill it. Yet since then the history of Oxford’s sewage has been less… well, just less. Despite the eminent men and women who have frequented Oxford’s facilities over the years, the toilet has not even a footnote in the twisted and tangled history of the town.
Oxford’s toilets have served as humble thrones, not only for the cream of British academia, but also for royalty. Yet many a blue plaque adorns the places where Charles I must have relieved himself or where Queen Victoria was probably unamused. Indeed, the toilet which was most recently marked out for royal buttocks, a nice little cubicle done up by Univ in 2004 in preparation for a visit from the Queen and labeled the ‘Queen’s toilet’ (apparently we don’t go in for subtlety much round here), is a rather unassuming specimen. It now serves as the vomiting hole for victims of that ever salubrious game, Edward Ciderhands. It seems that, as the most accessible from the quad, it is also the one easiest to stumble into. Certainly a proud legacy.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that Oxford’s toilets are so unsung. What have they really got to recommend them? They’re not old and charming like the buildings, since, let’s be honest, wood panelled plumbing to go along with your wood panelled room would seriously damage its retail value. So what we are stuck with is the bog standard. No-one has to muck out 300 years’ worth of waste anymore, but no-one’s writing home about it either. Has the flush stopped our toilets from leaving their mark in the history books? Or maybe it’s just that there’s no academic eccentric enough to dedicate their life to researching latrines when, let’s face it, bar the odd over-proportioned one, they’re all pretty much the same.
But hang on a moment. Why on earth should toilets have any recognition? They’re not exactly novel, they serve a universal and timeless purpose. In fact, they’re not all that interesting; they have a prescribed function and appearance and aside from the odd death from dysentery, illicit and tawdry meeting, or accidental drug overdose, what of interest could happen behind these closed doors?
But let’s not digress. This is about toilets, not sex and drugs. I’ve even managed too avoid shit jokes, so no lowering the tone now. Perhaps the odd scandal does occur in Oxford’s toilets; certainly gossip is recorded there, thanks to the all knowing bog sheet. Even this, however, is a dying trend as colleges crack down on these toilet tabloids, labelling them as anti-semitic bullying forums. No great loss for literature; indeed the reading material in Oxford’s toilets leaves a lot to be desired, however intellectual those who graffiti the walls of the English faculty loos think they are.
Still, let’s be fair and give our toilets their dues. They’re not all modernized and boring. In the Turf you still have to trek to an outhouse to relieve yourself. It’s a charming design feature I’m sure, but in my opinion it just goes to show how much we would really appreciate it if we did still have historic toilets to match our historic surroundings. I personally refused to pee in the Turf until desperation drove me to it on the third visit. That may just have been me. Nonetheless, it is perhaps better for us all that Oxford’s toilets have remained unimportant in history and thus unimportant to conservation projects.
The real truth is that Oxford’s toilets have been marginalized, not because they are unimportant (any social anthropologist will tell you that human patterns of waste disposal are integral to an understanding of their way of life) but because although the British love a good poo joke, they quickly lose their sense of humour when the joke is on them. Oxford’s toilets may have seen the buttocks of many a great man and woman, but few want their activities in these lowly outhouses recorded. Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford during the reign of Elizabeth I, exiled himself for seven years out of sheer embarrassment after he farted in front of the queen. Imagine his chagrin had he been caught with his trousers down on the loo. So Oxford’s toilets are the victim of a very different British character trait: the struggle for propriety. Some things just shouldn’t be mentioned.