Today, bathrooms on boats (or ‘heads’ for those in the know) are common, but the truth is that these modern luxuries would have been unimaginable on sailing vessels during the Age of Sail!
Essentially, heads, or ‘seats of ease,’ as they were known during the Age of Sail, were simply holes cut into the deck planking, with a seat built above it. These seats did not provide any privacy between them and to make matters worst, they were completely open to the outdoors, at the head (bow) of the ship. So, while it was unpleasant to use these facilities, it could also be dangerous. Especially in high seas!
But this treacherous location was by design. Placing the head at the bow (or front) of the ship, ensured that the wind and ocean spray would take everything unpleasant away. Including…the smell. This location also ensured that the crashing waves on the bow cleaned the crew’s shared rag attached to a rope, also known as a tow-rag (toe-rag), which they used to cleanse themselves after going about their business. Sailors would pull up the line and use the wet rag. Then sling it back over the side to be ‘washed’ for the next lucky fellow.
And while you may not be able to think of how this situation could get much worst, a lack of seats on which to ease oneself was a perpetual problem during the Age of Sail, for ships of all sizes. On a Man-of-War sized ship with some 800 crew…guess how many seats there would be? Max six.
Now, the heads we’ve described so far really were for the general crew onboard a British Naval ship, so in truth there were fancier facilities for those of higher rank. And this luxury largely came in the form of privacy. Officer’s heads were in small, round cubicles, called roundhouses, which not only gave them privacy, but also kept out the wind, rain and ocean spray.
But there was more! Captains had an even more comfortable time, being offered the luxury of privacy and options. They were afforded a washstand in their quarters with a chamber-pot for evening use (which servants emptied over the side in the morning) and a designated captain’s lavatory at the stern of the ship, in one of the quarter galleries, which were colourfully painted and decorated with carvings.
Yet, despite the ornate decorations of even the most luxurious of bathroom accommodations onboard, these heads remained largely basic compared to what we have access to today. But even still, the crew’s seats of ease remained the most unpleasant, so disagreeable in fact, that an Age of Sail sea poet (perhaps William Falconer) wrote a lament about a Chaplain who is quite distraught over the crew’s lavatory conditions that he is having to use, expressing how much he wished to use the quarter gallery’s facilities. It is called, “A Sea Chaplain’s Petition to the Lieutenants in the Ward-room, for the Use of the Quarter Gallery. In the Manner of Swift”…and we’ve included just a hint of this lengthy petition below, which gives a little (funny) insight into just how basic these amenities truly were…
“You that can grant or can refuse the pow’r,
Low from the stern to drop the golden show’r,
When nature prompts, O patient deign to hear,
If not a parson’s – yet a poet’s pray’r!
E’er taught the diff’rence, to commissions due,
Presumptuous I aspir’d to mess with you :
But since the diff’rence known twixt sea & shore,
That mighty happiness I urge no more,
An humble boon, and of a diff’rent kind,
(Grant heav’n a diff’rent answer it may find)
Attends you now – excuse the rhyme I write,
And tho’ I mess not with you – let me sh-te.”