2 August 2014


In June, when we were in Aberdeen, Washington State we visited the town's museum and it was there that this poem "The Passing of The Back House" caught my eye. it was probably but not certainly by James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916). Of course "the back house" is a polite euphemism for the outside lavatory, the privvy or what Australians call "the dunny". I know it's a pretty long poem but I think it's worth it if you have five minutes to spare:-

When memory keeps me company and moves to smiles or tears,
A weather-beaten object looms through the mist of years,
Behind the house and barn it stood, a half a mile or more,
And hurrying feet a path had made, straight to its swinging door.
Its architecture was a type of simple classic art.
But in the tragedy of life it played a leading part.
And oft the passing traveler drove slow, and heaved a sigh,
To see the modest hired girl slip out with glances shy.

We had our posey garden that the women loved so well,
I loved it, too, but better still I loved the stronger smell
That filled the evening breezes so full of homely cheer,
And told the night-o'ertaken tramp that human life was near,
On lazy August afternoons, it made a little bower
Delightful, where my grandsire sat and whiled away an hour.
For there the summer mornings, its very cares entwined,
And berry bushes reddened in the streaming soil behind.

All day fat spiders spun their webs to catch the buzzing flies
That flitted to and from the house, where Ma was baking pies,
And once a swarm of hornets bold had built a palace there,
And stung my unsuspecting Aunt--I must not tell you where.
Then father took a flaming pole--that was a happy day--
He nearly burned the building up, but the hornets left to stay.
When summer bloom began to fade and winter to carouse,
We bank the little building with a heap of hemlock boughs.

But when the crust was on the snow and the sullen skies were gray,
In sooth the building was no place where one could wish to stay.
We did our duties promptly, there one purpose swayed the mind;
We tarried not, nor lingered long on what we left behind.
The torture of the icy seat would make a Spartan sob,
For needs must scrape the flesh with a lacerating cob,
That from a frost-encrusted nail, was suspended by a string--
My father was a frugal man and wasted not a thing.

When grandpa had to "go out back" and make his morning call,
We'd bundle up the dear old man with a muffler and a shawl.
I knew the hole on which he sat--'twas padded all around,
And once I dared to sit there--'twas all too wide I found,
My loins were all too little, and I jack-knifed there to stay,
They had to come and get me out, or I'd have passed away,
Then father said ambition was a thing that boys should shun,
And I just used the children's hole 'til childhood days were done.

But still I marvel at the craft that cut those holes so true,
The baby hole, and the slender hole that fitted Sister Sue,
That dear old country landmark; I tramped around a bit,
And in the lap of luxury my lot has been to sit,
But ere I die I'll eat the fruit of trees I robbed of yore,
Then seek the shanty where my name is carved upon the door.
I ween the old familiar smell will soothe my jaded soul,
I'm now a man, but none the less I'll try the children's hole.

We are so lucky to live in homes where we enjoy the lavatorial convenience of porcelain flush toilets. For many years my grandmother Phyllis Morris (nee White) lived in a humble flat in a brick terrace on Canterbury Street in Byker, Newcastle upon Tyne. Her only toilet was down a flight of stone steps in the back yard. And when you got there there was no soft toilet paper - just squares cut from the local newspaper hanging on a string. And no outside lighting either. You had to take a torch or a candle if you needed to do business during the hours of darkness. Yes we are very lucky not to have such a "facility" as that. Imagine having to use it in the depths of winter!

Right - the version I acquired from Aberdeen Museum:-


  1. All day fat spiders spun their webs to catch the buzzing flies
    That flitted to and from the house, where Ma was baking pies,

    I did like this bit

    1. What about "the sullen skies were gray"! And anyway how come your surname has the American spelling of "grey"?

  2. We had an outside dunny when I was little... and newspaper before toilet paper too. We used to go down to the toilet as a family at night . One inside the loo and the rest sat outside on the grass . We recited poems and sang songs and talked about the stars. It was wonderful family time !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. A family outing to the dunny? Who needs to go on a family holidsy when you can simply visit the lavatory together. Were the songs about defecation? I bet Tony could write a good one.

  3. The things people bring back from their holidays. I'm glad you brought this back, an enjoyable read to accompany my first coffee of the day and a howling gale.

    1. I could have brought back one of those snowstorm crystal balls with a little Seattle Space Needle inside.

  4. From when I was 5 years old until I was 20, we lived in a tiny terraced house where the water for hot showers or baths had to be heated by a boiler-stove fed with wood and coal. We also burned our waste paper in there. To get coal and wood from the cellar was always something of a challenge, because of the huge spiders living there. My sister and I quarrelled lots about whose turn it was to fetch the material for the stove - did the one who had used up all the hot water have to go, or was it the duty of that person who wanted to have the next hot shower or bath? We never settled on a definite rule (nor did our parents enforce one), but somehow we always had the hot water when we really wanted it.
    The warmth of that stove in our large bathroom was a very good kind of warmth, it felt different from central heating warmth. Our cat loved the bathroom and had his basket there on top of a closet.
    Clearing the ashes meant pulling out a metal drawer from the bottom of the stove. If you weren't careful when emptying the drawer into the metal bucket for the ashes, you had a puffy cloud of ashes surrounding you to choking point, and settling on every surface in the bathroom - i.e. you had to clean the entire room, not just the ashes drawer.
    I have not forgotten what it was like then (we moved out of that house in 1988) and still find it almost miraculous that here, I can just turn on the tap and get hot water every morning for my shower, without coal, wood, spiders and dust involved.

    1. A fascinating account Meike and I am pleased that this post sparked that memory and gave it written expression.

    2. With you, I am never quite sure whether or not you are serious, or meaning ironically what you write, YP.
      Anyway - I never intended my comment to be so long!

    3. Definitely no irony Meike. No hidden meaning. Just what I said.

  5. My stepfather kept cows on a summer mountain range, moving them from one cow camp to another. Each camp had a primitive cabin with an outhouse. My memories of them are not so fond as your poet's. For one thing, he didn't mention having to dig a new hole every few years and move the thing, a chore that always seemed to go to the kids.

    1. Each time a new hole had to be dug, an exceptionally fertile spot must have been left behind - just right from growing what Americans call zucchini!

  6. I, too, was fortunate to be born in a house with an inside toilet and bathroom although the hot water relied on a back boiler to the living room fire for many years. The hot water tank was in my bedroom giving my brother and I the warmest bedroom (and that wasn't saying a lot). In my grandparent's house the toilet and bathroom were at the end of a very long corridor on the second floor and, with no electric lighting, the journey with a torch at night terrified me as wee child.

  7. PS I enjoyed the poem and loved the photo. I've always had a real 'thing' about pictures of sheds and the like.

  8. No one mentioned the obvious ~ I hope it didn't hurt YP :-/

    If you are taking a poll~ I fall into the category that had an outside dunny.


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