J&J Graham of Penrith and the water closet furore

Water closet – by any other name

Water closet; toilet; privy; lavatory; loo; bog, ty bach in Welsh (‘little house’), khazi, netty… Brits have a LOT of words for what other English-speaking nations also call the dunny, the John… Not forgetting a ‘long drop’, which is self-explanatory if you’ve ever used one!

In 1861, the term of choice for Penrith Health Board was ‘water closet’. And the lack of one in a very respectable Penrith shop was the source of a row that had the whole town talking.

J&J Graham

Anyone who has been to Penrith since 1793 knows who J&J Graham are. And has probably bought cheese or bread or marmalade in their excellent shop.

According to their website, 

Established in 1793 by the Graham brothers, James & John, we are located at the gateway to the Lake District.

Graham’s traditional shop is situated in Penrith’s Market Square, the current building dates back to 1880.

However, in 1861, their old premises lacked a certain something. And Mr Graham wanted to keep it that way.

Which Mr Graham?

That Mr Graham has to have been John Graham, grocer, who was 49 on the 1861 census. Where he can be found with his daughter Elizabeth, and two apprentices, at Beaconside.

Wife Sarah (née Nicholson) was absent. They had been in Great Dockray in 1851.

Penrith Board of Health’s squabbles

Penrith Board of Health met on January 28 1861 and spent a chunk of time squabbling about the board, previous meetings, who was in charge when…

No one seems to have been too sure how to enforce matters like drainage problems, when there was a dispute between two parties: an elderly and infirm John Atkinson, 84, and a sick Dr Irving.

Dr Irving’s beef was that John Atkinson was disposing of ‘soap suds and sewage’ on his land.

John Atkinson was said to have taken to his bed with the worry of it, ‘possibly never to rise again’.

In the end, the Board decided it was none of their business.

The water closet question

And then they argued about Messrs Graham the grocers.

Who had been served with a notice requiring them to install a water closet.

Board member Mr Shaw wondered how they could compel Messrs Graham to install one.

Mr Rowntree said there was a grate near the premises that was ‘filled with night soil’ (sewage) that would have to be cleared away. This was in the Old Post-office Lane, near Mr Graham’s own house.

Mr Graham interrupted, and said a grate in the street was nothing to do with him.

Mr Rowntree proposed the board’s surveyor be instructed to put in a water closet, possibly in the cellar.

Mr Graham objected to the idea of a water closet in a grocer’s warehouse.

When Mr Shaw asked about the back story to the dispute, he was told by other members he’d know if he’d been to more meetings.

A speech worthy of Henry V or Churchill!

The story was that the shop and house were now separate, leaving the shop without a watercloset. The shop workers therefore had nowhere to ‘go’

Mr Graham had said he’d have the surveyor forcibly removed if he tried to put one in.

Mr Graham said a lot of men were determined to make him put a water closet in the shop. He came out with a bunch of objections, before getting a little carried away!

It was a scandal to the English law and jurisprudence that one man at a board like this was allowed through malicious motives to be both accuser, pleader, judge and jury, and even so far to forget himself as to become the executioner by signing the death warrant.

Mr Shaw tried to bring the debtate to the actual point. Mr Rowntree said Mr Graham should be allowed to finish.  

Mr Shaw told him: “You are not chairman, I am not going to be dictated by you, learned as you are.”

Mr Graham said:

…if you put fifty privies in my yard, I will put them under lock and key. I shall just put the key in my pocket and say you shan’t use it. 

He would not put in a water closet:

..an Englishman’s house is his castle.

He then put on his hat and walked out, members of the board trying in vain to get him to stay.

Anticipating black eyes if a water closet was enforced

The board continued the debate. Mr Watson saying the Public Health Act allowed them to insist on works being done but didn’t make it a criminal offence not to. So if Messrs Graham bundled them out, what could they do? 

The chairman had some sympathy: what grocer would want a water closet where food was kept?

If they attempted to force the issue and resistance was offered, what would they do?

“He did not like Mr Watson in the first instance to go with an armed force and have a regular fight, with the usual accompaniment of black eyes and broken limbs…”

Mr Watson being the surveyor.

Mr Scott said he would be very sorry if the surveyor got ten or 12 men armed and put in the water closet by force.

The chairman, John Jameson, said Mr Watson must make a proper report to the board of what took place so they could act accordingly. They did not want to make a grand flight in the town.

The subject then dropped. 

A water closet under watch and guard

The board met again in February.

When it came out that Messrs Graham and their 11 shopmen were using the water closets at the Fleece Inn. Which was causing problems for (landlord) Mr Fenton, and his family and servants. Mr Fenton had put a lock on the door, but Mr Graham had had the impudence to obtain a duplicate key.

Mr Watson the surveyor said he’d been told to leave the shop, and that there was a privy in Moreland’s Yard that would do, if they were allowed to use it.

Joseph Cockbaine, owner of the property (and member of the Board, but ‘conflict of interest’ doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone!), said no way were they going to use that privy. He had put a watch on it and would guard it closely. 

Mr Rowntree said the town was watching the affair with interest, and if they didn’t compel Messrs Graham to put in a water closet, they’d lose all their authority.

A motion was put: should a water closet be put in Messrs Graham?

For: Messrs, Rowntree, Kirkbride, Leggett, and Cockbaine.

Against: the chairman, and Messrs Lowthian, Altham, and Scott.

WIth the chairman’s casting vote, the motion fell.

Mr Cockbaine: “Farewell to the powers of the board. We are done.”


In March 1861, Penrith Board of Health was up for re-election.

Among those standing was John Graham, of Beacon Bank.

And the Penrith Observer commented: “we should rejoice to see the board conducted with more dignity and less personality”.