Henry Moule's earth closet, improved version c1875
"by User Musphot on Wikimedia Commons"
|Moule's Patent Earth Commode" Pat. 1869|
Photo from Mark Henderson (Used by permission)
|Directions for using the Earth Commode/Closet|
Photo from Mark Henderson (Used by permission)
|A somewhat blurred view of the same Earth Commode Directions|
(The photo on the right was sent to me by R. Lent who fixed up the image and says
"In recognition of your interesting work and research.")
Photo from Mark Henderson (Used by permission)
|Once in a while someone sends me some unbelievable photo's showing something so significant it demands attention. Moule's Earth Commode is featured on my faq's page. I did not have any pictures of one; only drawings in a book. Here is what Mark found.|
|I just bought a home circa 1842 in CT and found this "earth closet" in the attic. It is an oak "Moule's Patent Earth Commode" Pat. 1869. It still has the directions and I thought you might enjoy reading them. Thanks for the history lesson....I just don't know what to do with the "closet". The commode is in pristine condition.|
Here are what the directions shown above say:
Things to be observed:
The Earth Closet; What is it?
I received an EMail from Wayne Collins (firstname.lastname@example.org) asking me the following:
"I am trying to find out what Reverend Henry Moule invented. I have found something about an earth closet. Can you elaborate on that? I would be very grateful for an answer. -- Wayne Collins".
I did not know the answer but Wayne continued to research the subject and finally found out what it was. The answer is quite interesting and was found through On-line: SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY by the Systems Administrator whose name is Adam Hart-Davis. Send mail to Adam here. Here is the explanation of what an earth closet is...
| If you want to see an actual Earth Closet, go HERE.|
An earth-closet is a lavatory in which dry earth is used to cover excreta. Until a hundred years ago, the traditional ``place of easement'' for people living in the country was either a privy with a cess-pit, or an earth-closet. The definitive book on the privy is Chic Sale's "The Specialist."
In Britain, Queen Victoria used an earth-closet at Windsor Castle, although many types of water-closet were available. For many years, the earth- and water-closets were rival systems with champions and detractors on both sides.
Henry Moule, champion of the earth-closet, was born in Melksham, Wiltshire, on 27 January 1801, the sixth son of a solicitor. He went to Cambridge, and in 1829 became vicar of Fordington in Dorset, where he remained for the rest of his life.
(Also born 1801: Robert Dale Owen, American social reformer and politician; Sir Joseph Paxton, English architect who designed Crystal Palace; Fredrika Bremer, writer, reformer and champion of women's rights; Vincenzo Bellini, Italian operatic composer who influenced the likes of Wagner and Chopin; Brigham Young, second president of the Mormon church.)
For some years he was chaplain to the troops in Dorchester Barracks, and from the royalties of his 1845 book ``Barrack Sermons'' he built a church at West Fordington.
In 1861 he produced a 20-page pamphlet entitled National health and wealth, instead of the disease, nuisance, expense, and waste, caused by cess-pools and water-drainage. ``The cess-pool and privy vault are simply an unnatural abomination,'' he thundered, "the water-closet ... has only increased those evils." And he went on to describe his own amazing discovery.
In the summer of 1859 (I think) he decided his cess-pool was intolerable, and a nuisance to his neighbour; so he filled it in, and instructed all his family to use buckets. At first he buried the sewage in trenches in the yard, one foot deep, but he discovered by accident that in three or four weeks "not a trace of this matter could be discovered." So he put up a shed, sifted the dry earth beneath it, and mixed the contents of the bucket with this dry earth every morning. "The whole operation does not take a boy more than a quarter of an hour. And within ten minutes after its completion neither the eye nor nose can perceive anything offensive."
Then he discovered that he could recycle the earth, and use the same batch several times, and he began to grow lyrical. "Water is only a vehicle for removing it out of sight and off the premises. It neither absorbs nor effectively deodorises.... The great ... agent ... is dried surface earth, both for absorption and for deodorising offensive matters." And, he said, he no longer threw away valuable manure, but obtained a "luxuriant growth of vegetables in my garden."
He backed up this last point with a scientific experiment, persuading a farmer to fertilise one half of a field with earth used five times in his closet, and another with an equal weight of superphosphate. Swedes were planted in both halves, and those nurtured with earth manure grew one third bigger than those given only superphosphate.
Moule quoted a biblical precedent for his efforts, from a set of instructions about cleanliness: "And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee." (Deut. 23:13) The New English Bible is even clearer: "With your equipment you will have a trowel, and when you squat outside, you shall scrape a hole with it and then turn and cover your excrement."
According to Moule, doctors said that if his scheme could be generally adopted, "much more would be effected by it for the prevention and check of disease and sickness, and for the improvement of health, than Jenner has effected by the discovery of vaccination."
About 1850, some people in England brought the earth-closet inside the house, and various patent mechanisms appeared, the first by Thomas Swinburne in 1838 (No 7810). In 1860 Henry Moule produced a sort of commode with a bucket below seat, and a hopper behind it containing fine dry earth or ashes. When you had finished you pulled a lever to release a measured amount of earth into the bucket and cover the contents.
In partnership with James Bannehr, agent, Moule took out a patent in 1860 (No 1316)---and others in 1869 and 1873. He set up the Moule Patent Earth-Closet Company (Limited), which manufactured and sold an earth-closet for every occasion, the expensive models in mahogany and oak. "They are made to act either by a handle ... or self-acting, on rising from the seat. The Earth Reservoir is calculated to hold enough for about 25 times, and where earth is scarce, or the manure required of extraordinary strength, the product may be dried as many as seven times and without losing any of its deodorising properties."
The closet was often inside a shed or privy, which provided some privacy and protection from inclement weather. Parker's Patent "Woodstock" Earth Closet had similar automatic mechanisms triggered either by the release of pressure on the seat---so that it `flushed' when you stood up---or by pressing a foot lever.
W Liddiard invented another "Patent Self-acting Foot-board" to discharge the earth. He also patented a commode "particularly adapted for use in-doors," and a multi-seater earth-closet for use in schools. Any number of units could be bolted together, side by side, and the earth-releasing mechanism operated from a distance, so that children could be prevented from playing with the device and wasting the earth!
An 1873 dry-ash commode could be filled straight from the fire-gate. The cinders were automatically separated and kept for reburning, while the fine ash covered the contents of the bucket every time the lid was raised. A later version had a removable drawer instead of a bucket, rather like some chemical lavatories today.
In the 1960s, my father had an earth closet in a tiny shed outside his remote holiday cottage in Yorkshire. He issued strict instructions not to pee in it, since urine would make it smell; "Go out on the hillside," he said. However, Moule claimed that the dry-earth principle is applicable to urinals, and "especially suitable for schools and railway stations and other public places ... all offensive smell may be prevented, and a valuable manure manufactured."
I had thought the earth-closet was a bit of a joke, but Moule was convinced that it represented the future. He worked out the implications; if used by six persons daily the earth-closet would require on average one hundredweight (50 kg) of earth per week, which he recommended should be dried in an iron drawer under the kitchen range. A town of 10,000 would need 16-18 tons of earth per day---but only borrowed!
He wrote a string of tracts and pamphlets, including "The advantages of the dry earth system" (1860), "The impossibility overcome: or the inoffensive, safe, and economical disposal of the refuse of towns and villages" (1870), "The science of manure as the food of plants," and "Manure for the million---a letter to the cottage gardeners of England." He also tried hard to get government support, with an 1872 paper on Town refuse---the remedy for local taxation. The substance of his argument was:
"There can never be a National Sanitation Reform without active intervention by central government.
That active intervention can never take place under the Water Sewerage System, without a large increase of local taxation.
But let the Dry-Earth System be enforced... and with a vast improvement in health and comfort, local taxation may be entirely relieved."
He managed to convince a lot of people. The medical journal The Lancet of 1 August 1868 reported that 148 of his dry-earth closets were used at the Volunteer encampment at Wimbledon---forty or fifty of them used daily by not less than 2000 men---without the slightest annoyance to sight or smell.
The Field of 21 November 1868 said "In towns or villages not exceeding 2000 or 3000, we believe the earth-closet will be found not only more effective, but far more economical, than water drainage."
This combination of economy and health was powerful. In 1865 the Dorset County School at Dorchester, with 83 boys, changed from water-closets to earth-closets, and cut the annual maintenance costs from GBP3 to 10/- (GBP0.5)! At the same time smells and diarrhea were eliminated. Lancaster Grammar School brought in earth-closets because the water-closets were always out of order "by reason of marbles, Latin grammar covers, and other properties being thrown down them."
For some decades in the second half of the nineteenth century, therefore, the earth-closet and the water-closet were in hot competition. Almost everything Moule said was true, and much the same arguments are used today by the champions of bio-loos and composting lavatories. The environmental considerations have not changed; using water-closets is expensive, and merely shifts the problem downstream---the sewage has to decompose somewhere.
Henry Moule died in 1880, but even in his seventies he was still trying to persuade the British government that the earth-closet was the system of the future, and he nearly succeeded. Nevertheless in rich countries, because it does rapidly and effortlessly remove the sewage from the house, the water-closet has won the battle---so far...
Moule's patent earth closets, dry closets
Born in 1801 and a hero, in a small way, of the 21st century green eco-movement, the Rev. Henry Moule patented an earth closet toilet system in 1860. His motives were to save his poor Victorian parishioners from cholera by devising a sanitary but simple set-up, suitable for homes where indoor piped water was an impossible dream. Today his design, now re-named a composting toilet, could save us from water shortages and expensive plumbing, while enriching our vegetable gardens. The big drawback is that someone has to haul earth around: first filling up the hopper which releases a dollop of earth or ash at the right time, and then emptying the bucket into a potato trench.
Moule has few rivals for the title of inventor of the earth closet. While some people think that Thomas Jefferson's privy system at Monticelloused ashes or earth, this seems difficult to prove. Moule's closet is usually described as the first of its kind, although David J. Everleigh'sStory of Domestic Sanitation says that he was "not the first to patent a dry closet" and his success came from his "energy and business acumen".
Apart from the new patent inventions, there were crude forerunners available to gentlemen in upper-class English houses. Constance Peelmentions this, though she was too discreet to go into much detail:
The modern earth-closet was not known until 1860, when the Rev. Henry Moule took out a patent, but in the [earlier 19th century] a rough sort of earth-closet was used and occasionally such might be found in a small room, or even in a large unventilated cupboard adjacent to the dining-room, billiard-room, gun-room or, as it was called, the hunting parlour. Here too were kept the articles which gentlemen who drank deep and long might be expected to require.Mrs CS Peel, Home and Habits, in GM Young's Early Victorian England, 1934
This website usually likes to know how things seemed from the viewpoint of someone with real experience of daily housekeeping. Catherine Beecher, who went into a long, enthusiastic discussion of earth closets in her American Woman's Home (1869), only hinted at the advantages for those doing the household chores, saying it "relieves the most disagreeable item in domestic labor". Presumably all the housewives or servants who had ever had to empty a chamber pot in an outside privy would agree with her, even if they had to carry buckets of earth out to the garden instead. Of course, many earth closets were built in an outside hut in the first place:
One winding path led to the earth closet in its bower of nut-trees half-way down the garden...Flora Thompson describing the 1890s in Candleford Green , 1945
From the words on the hopper - MOULE'S EARTH SYSTEM J. W. GIRDLESTONE'S PATENT - the design in the photo seems to be from the mid-1860s or later, after JW Girdlestone became engineer to Moule's Earth Closet Company in London.
15 August 2007