Category Archives: Artefacts

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Caversham Toilets and Social History

Edwardian toilets at Chiltern Open Air Museum

COAM Caversham toilets and social history

The Museum is rightly proud of its Edwardian public conveniences. These were originally situated at the south-east corner of the bridge over the Thames at Caversham, for use by passengers of the Reading tram which operated from 1901 until 1939 and terminated at the bridge.

The conveniences were opened in June 1906. Built of ornamental ironwork, they originally provided 3 WCs for ladies, 3 for Gentlemen and 8 urinals. The exterior walls consisted of cast-iron panels which slotted into cast-iron poles and were held in place with putty. Each had five rows of panels of different heights and patterns, with most of the top row being latticed for ventilation. The whole structure was topped with a clerestory to allow light to enter; this was supported on four cast-iron pillars and finished with a cast-iron cap with decorative finials. Internally, the walls were constructed in the same way as the external walls but with no pattern except on the top row. The individual components were all standard catalogue parts, but the building as a whole was custom-built to conform to the detailed requirements of Reading Council. The total cost of the building, including erection, was £1051.

The conveniences were open each day from 6.00am until midnight to avoid people ‘committing nuisances at a late hour’ because the public urinals were closed. An attendant was always present and, for the penny that it cost to use the toilets, would provide each customer with a freshly-laundered towel in a sealed wrapper.

Caversham toilets in their original location

By 1980, the toilets were no longer required and, as no other practical use could be found for it, the now-derelict building was marked for demolition. However, it was of particular interest to COAM, partly for its historical value and partly to provide much-needed toilets on site. Therefore, in 1985, the building was dismantled by a team of volunteers and re-erected in its current position. The toilets were opened in 1991 with the final finishing touches – the cast-iron MEN and WOMEN signs – being added in June 1999.

When you look at the pictures of the sad, dilapidated building in Caversham and then at the smart, useful toilet block as it now is, with its wonderful Edwardian detail, you realise exactly what it is that the museum achieves. However, more than this, the building represents a much greater issue in our social history. Had it been erected a few years earlier, there would have been no need for the ‘WOMEN’ sign because public toilets were generally not provided for women in Victorian Britain.

Womens sign on historic toilets

Public conveniences began to be provided from 1851 onwards, largely following the Great Exhibition held in that year, but they were only for men. One explanation is that this was because women were too modest to answer the call of nature when away from home; certainly at this time they were seen very much as living in the ‘private sphere’, staying at home, submissive to their husbands.

However, the lack of public toilets greatly affected the extent to which women could leave their houses. They had to plan their excursions to include areas where they could relieve themselves and so often travelled no further than the homes of family and friends. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘urinary leash’, a form of control of women’s activities.

From the 1850s onwards, the Ladies Sanitary Association campaigned for the provision of women’s toilets. They had some success as women’s toilets slowly began to be opened throughout Britain. Interestingly, some of the first were opened in the West End of London in the 1880s to allow women to shop for longer. However, erection of women’s public toilets was often opposed by men who objected to them being placed next to men’s toilets and sometimes took to sabotaging them. It was not until the advent of the First World War, when women began to work in the public sphere that the provision of women’s toilets really began to be taken seriously.

Written by Paula Lacey, Museum Volunteer


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The Henton Chapel Organ

When I joined as a volunteer a few months ago, and was diligently reading through and trying to absorb the information in the buildings’ briefing documents, something jumped out at me from the information on the Henton ‘Tin Tabernacle’ chapel:

‘Interior fittings: The organ is an American Reed Organ, made by F Estey & Co. of Brattleboro, Vermont’

During subsequent chats with other volunteers, I heard it said that they found it quite surprising and puzzling that an organ made in an obscure part of the North-Eastern United States should find its way to the middle of the English countryside.

Well… not necessarily!

The Estey company (which originally made melodeons) was founded in 1852 by Jacob Estey, and their manufacturing base was indeed Brattleboro, Vermont. However, over the rest of the 19th Century and well into the 20th, Estey became and remained for many years the largest manufacturer of reed organs in the world. By 1869, production exceeded 300 instruments per month. Twenty years later, production was running at 13,000 organs a year and the company had built over 300,000 organs by the turn of the 19th/20th century.

The Estey factory in Brattleboro, Vermont

The Estey factory in Brattleboro, Vermont

Estey exported very widely and would certainly have had distributors and retailers in England.

In fact, Estey produced an ‘Acclimatized’ organ specifically for use in hot and humid climates, and these were much used by missionaries in Africa, Central America, and elsewhere.

During the Second World war, every US Army chaplain was issued with an Estey ‘field organ’; small, very simply constructed from plain timber, painted battleship grey and designed to fold up to be stowed in the back of a Jeep!

The business declined in the 1950s with the advent of electronic organs, which Estey did have a shot at producing. Unfortunately this wasn’t successful, and the company finally went out of business in the early 1960s.

Estey produced a wide range of models, from small ‘cottage organs’ to quite large instruments. Our organ is of the type known as a ‘chapel organ’, designed for smaller spaces and venues and therefore exactly right for Henton. Estey did in fact also produce pipe organs for larger churches and silent movie accompaniment, and I was amused to discover they also produced a model of chapel organ with a set of pipes fixed to the top. These pipes were simply plain metal tubes and did absolutely nothing, but presumably imparted some pipe-organ gravitas to a humble chapel reed organ!

Estey Chapel Organ

A page from the Estey catalogue of 1888

One interesting thing is that our organ appears to be black. And as far as I can see, this was the original factory finish (although it is possible that it was refinished when restored by Stevens). I’ve never seen another black one (they are usually plain varnished wood), and an image search online has failed to turn up any pictures of other black Estey chapel organs. So a little bit of a mystery there perhaps! The external design of the ‘chapel organ’ varied quite a bit over the years when it was in production, and I am currently trawling through some catalogues to see if I can pinpoint a date for our organ. I’m also trying to track down who the Estey dealers or retailers in England may have been.

You may be wondering why the Estey name caught my eye in the COAM documentation? Well, my wife has done quite a bit of research on her family history, and discovered a few years ago that she is in fact related to the Esteys. In 2017 during a trip to the USA we visited Sue’s cousin Gordon J Estey, who is now the senior member of the family. Gordon is an absolutely delightful gentleman and something of a collector of rescued Estey organs; his house is a bit of a museum, with an organ in almost every room! Gordon looks after some of the Estey company archives (which apparently were quite meticulous) and has very generously offered to help out with identifying the exact model of organ we have, dating it, and possibly (fingers crossed) finding out more about it such as who the original purchaser was.

So there may be an update on this shortly!

Kevin Fitzsimons
COAM Volunteer


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