Camping, privies, and mapping the everyday

Reading Lefebvre in the Shropshire Hills
Reading Lefebvre in the Shropshire Hills

At the age of 33, I recently had my first proper experience of camping (my subconscious has all but blocked the ramshackle Cub camps of my youth, although a few excursions in a refurbished caravan a couple of years ago helped). It was quite lovely, and afforded much opportunity for reading – I dipped between Lefebvre and Ian Rankin. I’m aware that I’m very much the camping newbie amongst the historian community, but nevertheless I did find it a thoroughly interesting experience, mostly because it messes with your idea of what’s normal. For me, normal is bricks-and-mortar, running water, bathroom indoors, bins in each room, cooker/dishwasher/washing machine plumbed in, shops on the doorstep where I can buy anything and everything.

Of course, as a social historian of the poor, normal for me is very different to normal for the industrial poor of the nineteenth century. One of my aims in putting together an analyzable map of my study area  is to be able to see what practicalities like this were actually like for the poor of Wolverhampton. Most of the houses were likely bricks-and-mortar, but not to the same construction standards as you or I are used to. Half-brick thicknesses were common, even late medieval/early modern hangovers of timber construction in some cases. There may have been a range of some sort to cook with inside the house, which you can’t do in a tent, but you’d have to source and bring in solid fuel – a lot less convenient than little canisters of butane. Our stove broke, but it was easy enough to buy a replacement or source a takeaway; if your range broke, you were not only hungry but cold and dirty, as it was the source of heat, hot water and hot food.

Detail from the 1871 town plan of Wolverhampton. Note the blocks of toilets (marked with a small circle) in the courts behind the street frontages.
Detail from the 1871 town plan of Wolverhampton. Note the blocks of toilets (marked with a small circle) in the courts behind the street frontages.

Perhaps most telling is the outside loo. When I was young, we used to visit my dad’s cousins in Stockport who had an outside loo – to an 8-year-old, it was utterly fascinating, a throwback to an earlier world. The idea of walking 100 yards to the campsite loo feels like roughing it in the extreme. It would have been rare for residents of Wolverhampton’s slums to have had to walk 100 yards to the toilet, but that hardly says much. Toilets were in blocks of privies, without flushes – get along to one of the less middle-class festivals and check the loos, and you’re still not there in terms of stink, matter and atmosphere. They were shared between dozens of people and only infrequently was matter removed.

Emptying a Brick Privy, Oakham - picture from Dudley Archives
Emptying a Brick Privy, Oakham – picture from Dudley Archives

In compiling my map, I’m hoping for lots of things. One is to populate it with people; another is to populate it with lives. How far did you actually have to walk from your back-to-back on Castle Place to the privy? How far to your nearest water pump? How did you spend your everyday when cleaning, cooking and just living was a physical, hard grind? There’s little outdoorsy romance when you’ve no knowledge of returning to your insulated, centrally-heated, modern home.

For me in the twenty-first century, camping helps me find simplicity amidst the commodified, capitalised modern world. For my subjects of study, the commodification was something that was pressed upon them, the simplicity of their lifestyles a stark necessity rather than a modern luxury. Mapping the movements of all those people over all those years will hopefully give me a chance to show what Michel De Certeau called the “practice of everyday life”, and give those distant voices some volume.

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