Why is a Marine Toilet Called a Head?

Introduction to Marine Toilets – Why the Head

I first heard this term used whilst serving my time as a marine fitter in Harland and Wolff Belfast. Since then I have been to sea as a Ships Engineer and we all called the marine toilet the head or heads, the name deriving from the days of the wooden sailing ships, when the heads were placed up for’d.

This is a marine article regarding the origin of the marine toilet being known as the head; here we will have a light-hearted look at its history. However, in the middle of a dark night, on a rough sea I am sure going to the loo, and having your nether regions splashed by cold seawater was anything but lighthearted.

We begin then with a brief look at the history of the ship’s head.

History of the Ship’s Head

In the days of sailing ships, the forerunner of today’s marine toilet was known as the head or heads as there were normally two of them, some of them being enclosed in a shelter like our old outhouse toilets.

They were located on each side of the bowsprit, which was an integral part of the ship’s bow, overlooked only by the figurehead at the head of the ship, and this is how the marine toilets become known as the head. Incidentally, the word head came from a Roman galley, where the prow with the armor and battering ram was sometimes referred to as the beak’s head.

The heads on the sailing ships were used only by the crew and officers, with the Captain having his own private head below the "poop deck" (no pun intended) near his stern cabin.

Reasons for the Location of the Head

The reasons for locating the heads so far for’d are listed below:

  • Smells

Smells emanating from the heads would be blown away from the deck of the ship by the following winds; that were normally from aft, as the ship sailed before the wind.

  • Keeping the Heads’ Outflows Clean

Because the heads were right at the bow slanting inwards, the waves constantly splashing seawater upwards would wash any accumulation of waste from the port and starboard planking, whilst also keeping the gratings used as a toilet seat and the surrounding deck area well washed.

  • Using the Lee or Windward Head

The sailors were encouraged to use the lee side head in rough seas or windy conditions as this also stopped the accumulation of waste sticking to the sides of the bow.

  • Fo’c’sle Head

Later on as the ships were developed, a fo’c’ sle head was built under the fo’c’ sle deck. It was originally a sail and rope store, but some of the sailors preferred to sleep and mess here rather than down below. So the heads were kept in their location being handy for them to use.

Web References

  1. servinghistory – history of the ship’s Head, and their locations
  2. toiletmuseum – toilet history

Sketch Showing Locations of Sailing Ships Heads

Sailing Ships Heads