Camp Latrines

Cambridge District Scout Archives

This aspect of camping is rarely commented upon in written records.  It is a need that requires little daily comment and it is generally only in retrospect that situations seem worthy of recollection.  There is no mention of latrines in The First Fifty Years, a history of the 5th Cambridge Perse.

The importance of these issues is reflected in the inevitable feedback from the first user on a new site.  Or rather users, one male, one female with a secondary sharing of comparative merits of the facilities.

The quantities of toilet tents and Elsans residing in storerooms tell of an age when campsites were generally less well equipped. The records of camping ‘in the vicar’s field’, or at ‘Mr Jane’s farm Quy’ suggest a need for self reliance in these matters.

2nd Cambridge 1930’s

Four stages

The four phases of provision are the slit or straddle trench, the portable chemical toilet, the ‘Portaloo’ and the toilet block.  These are all preceded by the ‘the bushes’, a resource not suitable for any static camp or camp site and rarely in any place but at urgent need and in thick cover. Even on these occasions a small pit is required.

  • Slit Trenches   This simplest solution had a number of refinements.   The Scouter of 1944 reminded campers ‘there should be a separate hole with a layer of stones to be used as a wet latrine’.  A temporary ‘bucket and chuck it’ system was not significantly different.
  • Elsans              Invented in 1924 they use chemicals and require appropriate disposal points near the site.  They can be readily transported and like slit trench require screens or tents.
  • ‘Portaloos’       A step beyond toilet tents but requiring vehicles to move them.
  • Toilet blocks    Used for permanent sites
  • Self composting A fifth stage is upon us with the introduction of self composting systems.  The knowledge and discipline required to use these facilities is not yet general.
Headquarters Gazette 1921

Alongside the latrines are the provisions for hygiene.  They move from the basic to the technical, with the tripod wash bowl holder the traditional camp gadget.  These required a place for the soap; a problem often initially solved but which often failed with the inevitable diminution and lubrication of the cake.  The water was seemingly never quite clean and the towel never quite dry.

Cambridge Archives

1925                ‘Sidney Odom was in charge of the camp and I remember him telling us “when you go to the bog aim straight” just small trenches in those days – Elsans had not been invented’                                                                                                     Ken North

‘I remember Herbert Mudge each morning walking past our tent wearing an overcoat over a night shirt (we all wore pyjamas) with a “good morning chaps” on his way to the bog.’                                                                                                                                  Ken North

1931                Abington Campsite     Local Council requirements ‘Construct a drain to carry off effluent from the existing urinal and provide a cesspit…’  ‘Sanitary Conveniences: To be constructed at least 40 feet from the well.  Sufficient openings for lighting and ventilation… The seat, the aperture beneath the seat…shall be of such dimensions as to admit a movable receptacle for filth of a capacity not exceeding two cubic feet …accumulated during a period of not more than a week.’                                                                                                              District Minutes

1932                  Rules for Camping     Abington Campsite                ‘No. 17) Latrine buckets will be emptied every Monday morning by someone in the village.’

1932 – 35        Rings for lat. Screens 3d’       I don’t know what this 55th Cambridge account book entry means.  They also purchased a spade and entrenching tool (3/5), poles and 6 yds of hessian, and at another time specifically ‘latrine screen and poles’ for 13/6.

1941                ‘…reported that the cess pit (at Abington) was in danger of being flooded.’

1945                ‘The Secretary reported receipt of three chemical closets from Messrs. Woolworth’         District Minutes

1949                Proposals to have ladies cloakrooms at HQ.  Estimates required.    District Minutes          It is suggested elsewhere that this was not carried out before the proposal to move HQ to Perne Road site was mooted.

1956                Skyblue (CUSAGC periodical) records a camp at which the first job was to overhaul the latrines on a standing site in Norfolk prior to a rally.  They were so bad that the first response was to abandon the event and the last to generate this record.

1968                Troop requirement     ‘Two toilet tents  10/14/10’

1971                ‘appealed for better toilet facilities at Abington….quite inadequate for larger numbers.’  Cub Leaders Minutes

1975                County Equipment store at 136 Ross Street (including 5 Elsans)       CSG     

1976                A disconnected sentence in cub’s letter following County Jubilee camp read ‘Talking about toilets some one ran into ours and knocked it down.’

1982                ‘We went on ‘clean the toilet patrol’. We changed the portable toilet water and changed the disinfectant water. Then we washed out the other toilets’.  28th Cambridge

2007                The elaborate Christmas celebrations of the Phoenix Explorer Unit resulted in the ill matched combination of a latrine being dug by a hut in the woods by an Explorer in black tie.

2011                A slit trench for night time easements was dug by a patrol tent of Cubs.  Not fully thought through it was placed a yard from the back of the tent, dug to the depth of three inches in soil that did not drain.  This camp convenience was full before being proudly displayed to leaders.  The following hot days drove home the error of their ways.  It gained one point for the intention but dropped several more for execution.

2017                The Portaloo’s at Cub District camp became a source of amusement for bored onlookers, rocking on their foundation and drumming well to the discomfort of those inside.  Very obvious when misused they required a rigorous cleaning schedule to maintain hygiene.  The site was large and the blocks of ‘loos’ were given a very strong light at night, occasioning complaints by campers near and far.  Larger versions were designated for both leaders and those with physical difficulties.  The inevitable supposition was that all leaders needed the extra space; sometimes true, the space was generally welcome.

Note                            Elsan’s were provided aboard bombers during the Second World War.  Chemical toilets were fine, chemical warfare was not.  They were advertised in The Rover 1934 for 21/-, collapsible for 30/1 and Permanent Camp for 47/6 (that is 21 shillings to 47 shillings and sixpence).

Toilet Paper

The only reference to toilet paper found is in the 1947 District Minutes giving permission to the secretary to order stationary ‘Duplicating paper, Typing paper, Carbon paper, toilet paper.’

A tale, told by the Cambridge scout who experienced the event, relates been given two sets of instructions for a hike, one right and one wrong (no, I don’t know why).  A colleague on the hike in need of a personal moment and lacking toilet paper utilised one set of instructions.  It was the wrong set, which is to say the redundant instructions but the story was recalled with a readiness which reflected the concern of the moment.

Toilets in Scout buildings

Lest it be forgotten not all Scout meeting places had toilet facilities.  Ken North recalls the 13th Cambridge meeting at the parish rooms in 1923 Romsey (Cambridge) ‘Tracy Hall’ had no toilets or water and only gas lighting.  The Cambridge Headquarters building at Grafton Street, which closed in the 1960’s, had no separate facilities for women.   My own Scout hut in the late 1960’s was built on farm land with no toilet facilities but enough bushes for boys.


28th Cambridge camp              1984   Four toilet tents, washstand and Sesspit (cesspit)

JWR Archivist Mar 2019