The Chamber Pot

In Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing she remarks: ‘The use of any chamber utensil without a lid should be utterly abolished, whether among sick or well. You can easily convince yourself of the necessity of this absolute rule, by taking one with a lid, and examining the under side of that lid.  It will be found always covered, whenever the utensil is not empty, by condensed offensive moisture. Where does that go, when there is no lid?’ However, one also had to be wary of the hazards of these chamber utensils beyond the noxious fumes. Injury or death by chamber pot was surprisingly not an unusual event in Victorian era.  Coroners’ inquests held in the Liberty of St. Etheldreda (East Suffolk) reveal a number of such cases.  In 1891, Coroner Charles Cooper Brooke held an inquest at The Fountain Inn, Tuddenham on a 60-year-old single women Ann Betts who of fell out of bed onto an already broken ‘chamber utensil’, resulting in a severe wound to her leg that caused her to bleed to death.[1]  16 years previously, Coroner Brooke has also held an inquest in Saxmundham on an 82 year fishmonger, Philip Upson, who while coming down stairs with a chamber utensil in his hand was ‘seized with giddiness’ and fell.  A concerned neighbour, Emma Turner, having not seen him as usual that day, had ‘got into the house by the back door, which he always left open’ and found him laying at the bottom of the stairs with the broken chamber utensil ‘under his head’ and ‘blood on his head and face’.  Still sensible, Emma Turner managed to get him into a chair with the assistance of another neighbour and then called for a doctor.  However, despite medical assistance Philip Upson finally succumbed to his injuries some weeks later, being attended to by Mrs Turner in the weeks leading to his death. [2]  Such accidents where not confined to inquests held in St. Etheldreda.  Thomas R. Forbes’s ‘Crowner’s quest’ remarks upon an inquest held in London in which ‘an elderly woman slipped and fell on a chamber pot. It broke, gashing her abdomen’.[3]  Chambers pots, however, did not just cause injury through accident.

Florence Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing (1860)

Various court cases reported in the Victorian press reveal how chamber utensils proved to be a dangerous weapon.  Ellen Buckley was no stranger to the Huddersfield Police Court[4] and found herself facing a month in Wakefield prison after assaulting John Gannon with a chamber pot.  In March 1880, The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, reported that Gannon had been passing by the home of Buckley when he knocked over a clothes-prop onto her doorstep.  Gannon then claimed that Buckley came out of her house and accused him of being a ‘b—thief’, striking him on his head with a chamber pot and causing ‘his head [to] ble[e]d a good deal’. This, Buckley denied.  However, the investigating Police-constable had seen the ‘broken chamber pot in the yard at one a.m.’ The Bench, finding Buckley guilty, imposed a fine of ‘10s. and 7s. costs, and ordered her to pay the complainant 10s.’  She refused: ‘I shan’t pay it’.[5]  A woman of the same name in Huddersfield that same year went on to commit manslaughter with a paraffin lamp, resulting in the victim burning to death.

Just three years later, The Dundee Courier reported on ‘A FILTHY ASSAULT CASE’ brought before the Dundee Sheriff Criminal Court where Harriet Lorimer (also going by the name of Cooper) of Ann Street was charged with assaulting a mill worker, Ann Sinclair, with a chamber pot.  Ann Sinclair described to the court ‘that on the day in question she went to the house of the prisoner, who was a neighbour, to get a bag which she has asked Cooper to keep for her […] On being asked for the bag, Cooper said that witness had taken it away herself, and getting into a rage, pulled her into the house by the hair of the head, and threw her down on the bed, when she drew the chamber pot from under the bed and threw the contents in her face, striking her also on the head with the pot, and cutting her severely’.  After hearing further evidence from a neighbour, ‘the Sheriff held the charge proved, but in view of the probability that Sinclair had given the prisoner verbal provocation, limited the sentence to a fine of 20s. with the option of ten days imprisonment’.[6]

At the Old Bailey in 1864, Dennis Ryan of Old Pie-street, Westminster, was found guilty of unlawfully wounding his wife, having attacked her with a chamber pot, and sentenced to twelve months.[7]  While in 1895, David Worboys was sentenced five years penal servitude for the manslaughter of his wife.  He stated that after attacking his wife with ‘a piece of iron used as a rake for fire stoves’, he ‘then picked up the chamber [pot] and struck her on the head’ before finally strangling her.[8]

[1] Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich (SROi) EC5/34/13 Inquisition at the parish of Tuddenham on the body of Ann Betts, 22 July 1891.

[2] SROi EC5/18/26 Inquisition at the parish of Saxmundham on the body of Philip Upson, 13 July 1875.

[3] Thomas R., Forbes, ‘Crowner’s quest’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 68 (1978), p. 29.

[4] Other reports in previous and later years The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle report a several other instances of Ellen Buckley being brought before the Police Court on various charges.

[5] The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle, 4 March 1880, p. 4.

[6] The Dundee Courier, 6 July 1883, p. 2.

[7] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 02 May 2013), August 1864, trial of DENNIS RYAN (35), (t18640815-806).

[8] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 03 May 2013), June 1895, trial of DAVID WORBOYS (48) (t18950617-538).

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