Issue 5, 15th January 1996: Henry Moule, Down to Earth
By Adam Hart-Davis.
[Computing, Law, Science and Technology, SciFi, Sport, The Unexplained, UP]
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:
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...