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The Fascinating History of the Toilet


The toilet, it goes without saying, is an absolute necessity and has changed sanitation in our day to day lives. In fact, it is arguably one of the most important inventions in human history. The toilet as we know it today had a very humble beginning. It certainly may not seem like it at first glance but the toilet has a fascinating history.

The Romans

2,000 years ago, the Romans grasped the essentials of sanitation. They designed and built the famous viaducts and incredibly innovative draining systems that dramatically improved the state of sanitation in Rome. Supporting a population of 1 million, the Romans had to be sure their systems would be able to serve everyone effectively. Therefore, the first communal toilet was invented. These toilets were situated in long lines, some of which you can still view today, and human waste would drop into the drain below to be washed away by water. After using the toilet, the Romans would wash themselves with a sponge on a stick (hence the saying; don’t grab the wrong end of the stick). Clean water was very precious to the Romans so, instead of washing away their waste with clean water, they used their waste water from their baths to wash away their waste as clean water was so precious.

The Romans had a system of sewers, much like we have today. They built simple outhouses or latrines directly over the running waters of the sewers that poured into the Tiber River. The Romans quickly realised that flowing water greatly improved the disposal of human waste. As early civilisations matured, formal waste areas using flowing water became more available and helped dramatically in improving Man’s waste disposal problems in many ways, not the least of which helped reduce diseases.

The Middle Ages

You’d think that by the time the Middle Ages rolled around, toilets and plumbing systems would have improved dramatically. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong, things were far worse. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, the sewage system they had developed was not adopted across Europe. There are many theories for why this was. Some believe it was due to the paganism belief that water was a precious cleansing and purifying agent and, therefore, should not be used to wash away waste as this would contaminate it. Therefore, Britain headed straight back into the lavatorial dark ages. And for the next 1000 years, they simply went to the toilet wherever was convenient, whether that be in remote fields, chamber pots, or in the middle of the street.

The Industrial Revolution

During the British Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, thousands of people moved to towns and cities, increasing the need for more houses. As a result, many of the houses were extremely crowded with no room for an indoor toilet. ‘Back-to-back’ houses were very common and had no gaps between them. Several of these houses would share a small yard where there would be an outside toilet. Even into the 1950’s it was still common for people to have an outside toilet. The saying goes that the toilets were ‘too far away in the winter and too close in the summer’.

Sir John Harrington

Sir John Harrington (c.1560-1612) is credited with inventing the first modern indoor flushing mechanism. He perfected his flushing device but only made two of his design as it was expensive to produce. So, he made one flushing toilet for his own home and made one for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I of England.

1858 ‘The Great Stink’

By the 1800s London City had reached its breaking point. All the waste from the city was being dumped continuously into the Thames and the smell had become so bad that the curtains of the Palace of Westminster had to be doused with chlorine just to mask the unpleasantness of the odour. As a result, fixing the problem had become a national priority. It was during this time that Joseph Bazalgetter famously started work on the engineering masterpiece that was the London Sewage System. If you want to learn more about this, be sure to check out our article on the history of the Victorian Sewerage System https://www.coastaldrains.co.uk/blog/history-brighton-sewage-system/

It was after a particularly hot summer in 1858, when rotting sewage resulted in ‘The Great Stink’, that the government commissioned the building of a system of sewers in London. Construction was completed in 1865. Consequently, deaths from cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases dropped spectacularly.

First Public Flush Toilets

George Jennings was an English sanitary engineer and plumber who invented the first public flush toilets. In 1851 the first public flushing toilet block opened in London and, due to its popularity, spread around the country. The cost of using these public toilets was 1 penny, hence the famous phrase ‘to spend a penny’. It remained this price for over 100 years.

Thomas Crapper

Thomas Crapper is famously known for inventing the toilet. However, it wasn’t his invention. Crapper was just a wonderful marketing man with a whole lot of money. He entreated people to build toilets for him and then he would place his name on the system before he sold them on. Crapper was famous as a highly successful English plumber who specialised in providing up to date plumbing fixtures and he certainly knew his stuff! Thomas Crapper and his company installed and maintained modern plumbing systems such as flushing toilets, bathtubs, wash basins and modern piping. They also popularised the acceptance of the modern flushing toilet and, thus, his name became somewhat synonymous with the new flushing toilets.

The Modern Toilet

Although the modern flushing toilet has revolutionised and dramatically improved one of our simple yet critical needs, many in our modern world still do not have access to modern toilets. According to the Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000, by the World Health Organisation: 40% of the global population do not have access to “good excreta disposal facilities.” Unfortunately, disease associated with human waste contamination is still extremely rampant in many areas of the world. However, many governments and specialising professionals are fighting to ensure that, one day, everyone will have access to the modern toilet.

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