Hungate Dig Uncovers Communal Toilet Block In York

By Graham Spicer | 25 June 2007
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  • Archived article
photo of a low wall and five holes along the side of it in an archaeological dig

The Hungate toilets exposed. Photo: Michael Andrews © York Archaeological Trust

Archaeologists in York have unearthed a 19th- early 20th century communal toilet block, revealing details of how the city’s urban poor used to live.

The toilets were uncovered as part of the Dig Hungate project, the single biggest archaeological excavation in York for 25 years, part of the city’s £150m Hungate urban neighbourhood regeneration scheme.

Located at the east of Lower Dundas Street, which no longer exists, within Dundas Court, the toilets were used until the 1930s in an area which was once in the poorest part of the city.

photo of two men in hard hats working at archaeological dig

Excavations revealed the tipper mechanism and drainage system. Photo: Michael Andrews © York Archaeological Trust

York Archaeological Trust (YAT) archaeologists delved into the York Health Office records in the city’s archives to discover that in 1907 the toilet block served 11 houses, with up to 50 people sharing this block of only five toilets.

Kurt Hunter-Mann, Field Officer in charge of this aspect of the dig, described finding the toilet as “a unique insight into the living conditions of the urban poor, which persisted to within living memory”.

Examination of the site revealed that the loos were Duckett’s tipper flush toilets, initially manufactured in Burnley before being brought to York and assembled in Dundas Court.

photo of an archaeological dig from above showing a row of five circular holes next to a wall

The dig revealed all five waste pipes. Photo: Michael Andrews © York Archaeological Trust

The Duckett toilet appears to have replaced an earlier dry pit communal toilet, which would have only occasionally been cleared out, but the new system was still very unsanitary.

Waste would have collected at the bottom of each of the closet’s pipes, which would not have been flushed out until enough rain or waste water collected in the tipper cisterns at each end of the toilet block.

YAC is now investigating further to see if it can pinpoint when the block was created.

photo of a scoop shaped metal object attached to a metal rod sunk into the ground

The tipper mechanism was still intact. Photo: Michael Andrews © York Archaeological Trust

The Dig Hungate project will run until 2012 and is currently systematically exploring the area’s late Georgian and Edwardian archaeology before it delves deeper to explore the area’s medieval heritage.

A Dig Hungate Open Day is running on July 14 2007 and Archaeology Live training excavations are also taking place throughout the summer – call York Archaeological Trust on 01904 663024 or email trainingdig@yorkarchaeology.co.uk to find out how to take part.

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