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July 31st 2015
3 min read

A Brief History of Toilets and Baths

Although flush toilets were invented in 1596, they did not become widely adopted because most houses didn’t have running water. For the working classes the “privy” was one or two toilets shared amongst the inhabitants of a whole street.

These were often nothing more than a wooden bench with a hole in it over a brick built ash pit. If you were very poor you would have a bucket that you had to empty into the gutter, or into wooden storage area.

During the Industrial Revolution many terraced houses were built in and around major British cities.

A block of up to 30 houses would have to share 5 toilets and each house had an estimated average of nine people living in it. The cesspits were emptied by the night-men who would load the sewage into a horse drawn cart before dumping it into the local river contaminating the water supply. It was the landlord’s responsibility to ensure that sewage was disposed of properly but due to the cost this involved many ignored the problem, allowing sewage to leak into the streets and causing diseases and illnesses such as Cholera.

If an ordinary household was lucky enough to have a toilet it was at the bottom of the garden and would probably have been a cesspit which was only emptied once a week.

In tenement blocks there would only be one toilet on each floor and this was still the case up until the 1930s. Pieces of newspaper were cut up and hung on a hook to be used as toilet paper, this used to clog the sewers and cause a dreadful smell.

Today, every house has a flushing toilet - probably even more than one – but it wasn't until 1891 when a man called Thomas Crapper patented a new valve and siphon system which eliminated smells coming from the sewers that affluent Victorian houses started to have inside toilets fitted. The lower middle classes would also have had them in cities and suburbs and some lower middle class and upper working class homes would have had fully plumbed outside toilets.


Until the mid to late 19th Century, even for the upper and middle classes, the bath was made of copper or tin. It was a portable affair used in the kitchen of most homes.

The poorer families had to collect water from a street pump which would then be heated on the fire.

The bath was filled and emptied with buckets, adding more hot water as each member of the household took it in turns to use it. As this was a tedious process, people didn’t bathe very often and would usually wash themselves down with a rag using water heated in a hanging basin over the fire.

The rich had a pumped water supply and servants to carry the heated water from the kitchen to the bedrooms but as this was very time consuming, even the wealthy often chose to bathe only every other week.

By the late 1880s, as indoor plumbing with water tanks and heaters became more widely available, houses for the middle classes were built with bathrooms equipped with cast iron full-length baths. However, many other households were to continue using outside facilities for many years to come.