Life without taps and toilets

Just 150 years ago, communities in the UK were living without clean water and safe toilets. Since then, everything has changed – and now we want to make sure everyone, everywhere has access to these life-saving essentials.

2 Oct 2014

Just 150 years ago, houses in the UK didn't have taps or toilets, sewage ran through the streets and deadly diseases were rife, as this cartoon from the magazine Punch illustrates:

Punch cartoon, 'A Drop of London Water
Photo: Punch magazine

During the 'Great Stink' of 1858 the overwhelming smell of untreated sewage filling the River Thames got so bad, it forced MPs to leave the Houses of Parliament – prompting the creation of a House of Commons Select Committee to solve the problem.

Seven years later a new sewer system, designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, was introduced in London. It eliminated water-related diseases like cholera which had begun to plague the city, and in the decades that followed, similar changes across the UK led to improved public health, a dramatic drop in child mortality rates and increased life expectancy.

A change we can replicate today

Right now, millions of people around the world are still living without clean water and safe toilets. But as UK history shows, it doesn't have to be this way. 

Debendra in front of the toilet at his school.
Debendra stands in front of the toilet at his school in Siraha, Nepal. "We can't use the toilet and there is no water," he says. "Finding a safe place to relieve ourselves takes time. We miss our classes and it disturbs our study."
Photo: WaterAid/Mani Karmacharya

We believe everyone, everywhere can and should have access to clean water and toilets by 2030. That's why, with your help, we want to gather as much information about how and when the UK got access to these essentials, and collect local stories and photos to show just how much our lives changed as a result.

We'll incorporate your research into a report on the history of water and sanitation in the UK, which we'll deliver to MPs in the summer of 2015 – to show them the life-changing difference access to taps and toilets can make, and that reaching everyone, everywhere by 2030 is possible with the right political will.

Share your stories of taps and toilets at a Big History tea party >