A little over 100 years ago, most households in the UK did not have access to an indoor bathroom fitted with a toilet, bath, or even running water. The rise of indoor bathrooms was a seismic shift in the layout of millions of UK homes and led to significant changes in behaviour, challenging the way people used their homes and thought about their purpose.
The transition from outdoor to indoor plumbing required large-scale modernisation of existing infrastructure, new technologies, supportive and targeted legislation, as well as significant changes in behaviour. There were also a variety of environmental and health concerns pushed by citizens that overlapped and crystallised around the issues of sanitation, galvanising widespread action. The combination of factors and policy approaches pursued mirrors the current context of the climate crisis and could shed light on issues around consumer uptake, legislative flexibility, and technological innovation to spur on rapid transition.
From supportive and targeted government legislation, the wholesale adoption of new technologies, to the overlapping public concerns around health and the environment – the rise of indoor plumbing contains the first flush of rapid transition.
At first, it may seem like toilets could teach us very little about addressing the climate crisis. Yet the proliferation of porcelain in the UK holds a variety of lessons for rapid transition. Back in the 1860s, toilets were extremely rare and households having their own water supply was even rarer. As the burgeoning middle class scrambled to own their own loos in the later half of the 19th century, the rise of questionable sewage practices and water contamination galvanised a broadbase of public support for modernising the sewage system, which was in much the same state as when the Romans finished building it.
From here, an unparalleled infrastructure programme swept across the cities of Britain, bringing modern sewage disposal methods, filtered water and substantial improvements in sanitation provision. The co-benefits were plentiful, helping to fight outbreaks of cholera and disease, as well as ridding cities of that unimaginable stench. However, these co-benefits were concentrated amongst the growing middle classes, with the working poor in regional cities throughout the country still reliant on communal water and outdoor privies, leaving these communities vulnerable to disease and illness, which further entrenched inequalities.
Through the first half of the 20th century, this changed. Continued infrastructure investment, a house building boom and slum clearance programmes transformed the indoor loo from a symbol of class to a household essential. The 1967 House Conditions Survey found that 25 percent of homes in England and Wales still lacked a bath or shower, an indoor WC, a sink and hot and cold water taps. But by 1991, only 1 per cent of households lacked one or more of these.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Our current climate crisis and policy debate mirrors the rise of the loo. Just like the government at the tailend of the 1800s, today’s government and the general public unanimously agrees that the climate crisis is a problem that is causing harm to the environment and public health; and that it must be addressed. In turn, we have seen a raft of policies focused on scaling up green infrastructure, changing human behaviour and deploying new, low-carbon technologies. However, there’s also a risk that our response to the climate crisis in the UK – both in terms of policy but also socially – will cement inequalities, as it did in the early days of indoor plumbing. Learning from the ways in which policy and investment was adjusted, amended and scaled up to make indoor plumbing pretty much ubiquitous could provide invaluable lessons for the coming decade.
Indoor loos were limited before the 1860s. Few families had their own water supply and instead relied on communal water pumps and small outhouses called cesspools, which were poorly maintained and often overflowed. Solid waste was collected at night by poorly paid workers who distributed it to the gardens and farmland surrounding the cities. Waste water seeped into the ground or flowed into rivers.
The rise of flush toilets amongst the middle classes in the mid-1800s didn’t improve the situation at first – it actually worsened it. Wealthy households could now flush their waste directly into rivers, leading to groundwater contamination. Consuming contaminated water led to recurring epidemics of cholera, which killed 23,000 people in 1853-54, 10,000 of which were in London.
The situation was particularly acute in London and other industrial cities in Britain. The summer of 1858 in particular represented a pivotal moment in the move towards modern plumbing. Hot weather exacerbated the smell of untreated sewage in the river, bringing the city to a standstill. The government could barely function and people avoided leaving their homes, demanding urgent action. Unlike the Elizabethans, the Victorians had connected the dots between unsanitary living conditions and the spread of disease. But the government still had considerable problems connecting each household to a wider, modern system. The “force of sheer stench”, as the Times described it, prompted the government to accept Joseph Bazalgette’s proposal of a modern sewer network.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, after many large UK cities built modern sewer systems and gained access to pressurised, filtered water, substantial improvements were made to sanitation provision in urban houses. However, most changes were found in middle class households. Bathrooms were rare in working class housing, and provision of toilets varied across the country. While cities like Liverpool had near-complete provision of WCs in homes by the 1890s, many industrial northern towns still relied on outdoor privies, with only 7.5 per cent of households having WCs in 1906 in towns like Rochdale.
It took decades of government action for indoor bathrooms to be present in most households. By the mid-1960s, the continuous construction of new housing, slum clearances and demolitions increased access to modern plumbing to many more areas. The 1967 House Conditions Survey found that 25 percent of homes in England and Wales still lacked a bath or shower, an indoor WC, a sink and hot and cold water taps. By 1991, only 1 per cent of households lacked one or more of these. Today, the numbers are negligible. The indoor bathroom has gone from a novelty into a universal household fixture in the span of 100 years.
Kicking the can?
The rise of indoor plumbing has unintended consequences: bathrooms required large quantities of water to dispose of waste: a single leaky toilet could leak more than 400 litres of water in a single day. Innovations to flushing systems have tried to tackle this problem by designing the “dual-flush system” we find in many of our homes today. Yet recent Thames Water research indicates that due to bad installations and human error, the volume of water loss exceeds the amount of water the dual flush should be saving. Centuries after the invention of the flush toilets, the problem of water waste persists.
Bazalgette’s much-lauded scheme moved sewage ‘out of sight’ of Parliament and dumped it 10 miles further down the Thames, solving the problem in London, but essentially displacing it elsewhere. A particularly tragic incident happened in 1878, when a passenger steamer sank after a collision, causing the death of 600 people; many of those who were rescued later died from ingesting contaminated river water. Following the accident, London’s Metropolitan Board of Works began purifying the sewage rather than dumping the untreated waste into the water.
These unintended consequences mirror the current context of a green energy transition. It has been argued that the electrification of heat, for example, in addition to putting more pressure onto the electrical grid, will be moving combustion away from the home and to the power station unless significant strides are made to completely decarbonise electricity. Poor installation of heat pumps and associated pipework can lead to up to 30 per cent wasted energy. Additionally, some research points out that energy efficiency measures being installed in homes could lead to increases in energy consumption through the rebound effect.
The power of people
This rise of the loo highlights the importance of public support and advocacy in pushing for urgent change. The private manufacturing sector was essential in producing the equipment needed to facilitate the transitions, but it was the people’s demand for better sanitation that drove the shift. London’s ‘Great Stink’ and growing concern around water pollution acted as a burning platform, and had a powerful effect on MPs, who were able to kickstart the transformation of London’s sewage system. From London, the infrastructure investment programme spread like a bad smell.
Growing public interest in sanitary arrangements, along with a rise in medical experts, river pollution lawsuits and a new sense of civic pride, helped galvanise the political will needed. In the middle of the 1800s, sanitary reformers established stringent health laws, created general boards of healths and the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, and became a role model in plumbing codes for the rest of the world.
The transition was not equal, however. More than a century later, in 1970, one in four Scots still had to share an outdoor toilet. As a result, one group of Glasgow neighbours came together to fight for indoor toilets, creating residents’ associations to campaign for full facilities. This movement was essential to how housing associations and cooperatives manage Scottish social housing today.
The need for reflexive policy
While many middle class households had access to modern bathrooms by the turn of the century, it took government action in the form of legislation and grants to increase access to sanitary facilities to all areas of the country. The scale of disrepair of housing was an urgent national problem; privately owned houses were seen as a national asset with an important role to play in housing present and future generations. It was also recognised that home improvements tended to occur shortly after properties changed hands in response to retention on mortgages by lenders.
The 1919 Housing and Town Planning Act made toilets a minimum requirement for all new dwellings; forty years later, the Government passed the 1949 Housing Act, starting a programme of grants for the improvement of privately-owned housing. Successive legislation gradually added to the range of assistance available and evolved to meet specific issues in the housing stock.
Successive legislation gradually added to the range of assistance available and evolved to meet specific issues in the housing stock. The 1959 House Purchase and Housing Act made it mandatory for local authorities to make grants of up to £150 available to improve dwellings by adding bathrooms or showers, a sink, hot water supply, WC and food storing facilities. The 1964 Housing Act gave local authorities powers to, in some circumstances, compel landlords to make improvements.
It was believed that many owners were not likely to invest in home improvements if not incentivised to do so, which is the ‘split incentive’ problem climate policy still grapples with today. However, despite efforts to concentrate the grants in the most deprived areas and even with 75 to 90 percent grants, in 1979 only one fifth of households in London had applied for the grants as they still had to find large sums of money to cover the remainder. Many found the system complex, confusing and unnecessarily bureaucratic. But in the 1980s, means-tested grants started to even this inequality out.
Home improvement grant application deadlines accelerated the number of applications in some places, which put huge pressure on builders and tradespersons. In 1973, Welsh MP Alec Jones pointed out that upcoming grant deadlines resulted in 3,500 applications in his constituency, despite the fact that the existing building force in the area could only complete 250 per year. This resulted in delays and cost increases for which the grants did not account for. The pressure on builders risked the quality of work being done, potentially jeopardising this policy push.
Not only does this emphasise the need to focus on scaling up the skills sets required for modern climate policies, such as mass retrofitting and the installation of heat pumps, it also shows how essential it is to be reflexive and dynamic when pursuing policy. If the home improvement grants hadn’t been adjusted to better fit the needs of the public, the scaling up of sanitation would have faltered and the groundswell of public support may have turned.
A flush with co-benefits
The near-universal adoption of indoor plumbing brought a myriad of co-benefits to the British population. For instance, the modern sewage system drastically reduced the spread of diseases in urban centres like London and educated whole populations around the human costs of poor sanitation. The rise in public awareness during the nineteenth century was deemed “the great sanitary awakening”.
The transition towards universal sanitation was also dependent on a series of technological breakthroughs. Municipal water systems had to be built: reservoirs, pumps, water towers and pipes. Additionally, a porcelain toilet with a U-bend water trap to prevent gas from seeping back into the bathroom was needed.
These public health gains were also enshrined in law, such as the Public Health Act of 1848, to create guidance and aid in all sanitary matters, with decentralised support for local authorities. The advances made in the UK also had a huge impact on the USA, where recurrent epidemics of yellow fever, cholera, smallpox, typhoid, and typhus made the need for effective public health administration a matter of urgency. This, in turn, gained considerable momentum alongside the blossoming sciences, with public authorities expanding to take on new tasks such as immunisation, environmental regulation, public health education and the provision of healthcare.
This case study was produced in partnership with Nesta as part of a series looking at energy transitions, some from other countries, and some from the UK’s recent past.