Lethal Victorian Toilets
That first flush must have been heaven: no more shivery walks to the back-garden privy or night-soil men hauling away the family’s collective filth. The “water closet” was a miracle— so sanitary, so modern . . . and so deadly.
At the start of the nineteenth century, Londoners deposited their waste as people had from time immemorial: into a hole in the ground. From the fashionable West End to the slums of East London, brick-lined cesspits dug in cellars or back gardens were fixtures of urban life. Adequately lined and regularly emptied, the chambers posed little danger to the home dweller’s health. (Too often, in poorer districts, they were not.)
Enter the toilet. With every pull on the chain, two gallons of water accompanied the waste, quickly overwhelming the cesspits. Then, when householders connected their toilets to the local sewers, they created an even deadlier problem. Sewers built to remove rainwater now flushed the city’s human waste into the Thames River.
By the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, the Thames (clean enough at the century’s start to support salmon fishing) had become a long, snaking cesspool. But the Thames was a sewer and a reservoir, the primary source of drinking water for Londoners. Water-borne diseases linked to human waste—dysentery, typhoid fever, and “King Cholera”—killed tens of thousands in periodic outbreaks and epidemics. The Great Exhibition itself hastened the adoption of the flushing toilet, sending more befouled water flowing into the river. Hundreds of thousands of visitors paid to enjoy the novelty of a flush when they “spent a penny” (still English slang for using the facilities).
Cue the hero—the man with a plan to rescue Londoners from choking on their excrement—Joseph Bazalgette. As Chief Engineer to London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, Bazalgette had designed a comprehensive sewage system to pump London’s collective waste to points east of the city. From there, it would flow with the tides to the sea. Still, Parliament had dithered for years over competing sewer solutions. But in the hot, dry summer of 1858, the “Great Stink” caught London by the throat, driving the choking legislators from the halls of the Palace of Westminster. Wrongly fearing the befouled air of the polluted Thames might be fatal, they empowered Bazalgette to dig his tunnels. In the end, London got its clean drinking water in response to the phantom problem of poisonous air.
In 1866 (the setting of my novel, Murder by Lamplight), one last cholera epidemic killed thousands of East Londoners. The tragedy was localized to Whitechapel, a district not yet connected to the sewer system. Finally, after the project was finished, Queen Victoria knighted Sir Joseph Bazalgette in 1875 for his sanitary services to the nation.