The Horror of Drowning in Sewage

Britain’s worst inland waterway disaster was the sinking of the SS Princess Alice in the river Thames. This happened in 1878, when the ship collided with the larger Bywell Castle. The Princess Alice was broken in two, and sank quickly. More than 600 people drowned. The crew of the Bywell Castle rushed to save as many people from the river as possible, and local boatmen from both shores joined in the effort. They managed to pull 130 survivors from the water. Curiously, dozens of the survivors became ill afterward, and 16 more people died within two weeks of the wreck.

The collision happened near two of London's sewage pumping stations, only an hour after they had pumped 75 million gallons of sewage into the river. The water was also polluted by factories up and down the river. The accounts of survivors of the Princess Alice described the horrible condition of the water from which they were pulled. Descriptions of those who drowned were pretty grim, too. The wreck itself led to inquiries and lawsuits in which it was determined that both ships were at fault. It also led to discussions in Parliament over sewage treatment practices and changes in the way London's wastewater was handled. Read the story of the SS Princess Alice at Amusing Planet. 

Update: Read all the comments and replies under this post to learn more about the history of sewage than you ever knew you could learn. Thanks, WTM! 

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The mechanical flush toilet was first invented circa 2000 BC. The ground floor of the Palace of Knossos in Crete had a latrine with a wooden seat, an earthenware pan, and a reservoir for flushing water. The flush toilet was not reinvented until Sir John Harington (sometimes erroneously spelled ‘Harrington’) developed a flushing toilet, the ‘Ajax’, in 1596, one of which was installed in the Richmond palace of his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, thus setting the vogue among the nobility. (The name ‘Ajax’ itself was a pun; "jakes", pronounced ‘jacks’, was then the common term for a privy.) Harington’s invention was the first flushing toilet that used moving parts to remove the contents and refill the water tank. Unfortunately, this device was demolished after John Harington died and it was almost 200 years until the flush toilet was re-invented again.
Harington’s flushing toilet incorporated both a valve at the bottom of the water tank and a wash-down system. It had a cistern containing water, a seat, and a bowl to receive the user’s deposit. With the cistern, it had a means of flushing away that deposit using a sudden rush of water from the cistern. However his design was not widely adopted because there was no public supply of running water with which to flush it. His was a crude contraption that inspired the first toilet jokes and which the Queen reportedly declined to use. He never made another one. Improvements were made on these devices over the years, but for the next century they remained Rube Goldberg contraptions that didn't work very well and tended to reek from all the waste matter collected in their ill-fitting joints and from the sewer gases backing up the trapless effluent lines.
In referring to both the sanitation practices of the time and his new invention, Sir Harington said of the Ajax: “This devise of mine requires not a sea full of water, but a cistern, not a whole Thames full, but a halfe a ton full, to keep all sweet and savourie.” Unfortunately, Harington made the mistake of writing a book about his invention, and people were disgusted by it. Harington’s ‘Ajax’ was mocked and the public ignored his toilet, preferring to stick with the close-stool and chamber pots. None other than nobility could have afforded it, anyway.
The earliest patent for a flush toilet belonged to another Englishman, Alexander Cummings (sometimes erroneously spelled ‘Cumming’), in 1775. Nearly 200 years after Harington and his Ajax, Alexander Cummings invented the first modern flush toilet. Cummings, a watchmaker, recognized the economic potential for a functional flush toilet and drastically simplified Harington’s original design with a single sliding valve that emptied the bowl, released water from a cistern to clean it, and then refilled the cistern.
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Water closet derivation is given above. Accepted john derivation is given below.
Sanitary Ramblings -
Brits were big on euphemisms since they hesitated to say things like 'toilet' and 'excrement'.
The water-closet with flush toilet was designed to allow one to achieve the Victorian ideal of faecal denial. The loo and the water-closet concealed the sight, sounds, and smells of poop, making them everyone’s dirty little secret that no one, not even the servants, needed to be privy to (pun intended) any longer. Consequently, contemporary culture became a culture of faecal confusion. Everyone knew that everyone pooped, but everyone of culture pooped using apparatus and facilities specifically designed to create the appearance that no one did.
According to the OED, a water-closet is “a closet or small room fitted up to serve as a privy, and furnished with water supply to flush the pan and discharge its contents into a waste-pipe below. Often abbreviated W.C. or WC''. The term has been in use since 1755.
The water-closet was the room with the toilet, whereas the bathroom was the room with the bathtub. Water-closets date from the mid-1700’s but didn’t become common until the mid-1800’s. By the late 1850’s it was very fashionable in England to have an indoor water-closet, and indoor plumbing became a status symbol. The WC was often located off the landing halfway up the stairs from the first to the second story (hence the alternate term “halfway house" for lavatory).
By 1870, the gilded throne of feudal monarchy had given way to the porcelain throne of Victorian morality. The Victorian demand for faecal denial had finally engendered an infrastructure that could truly provide it. Now the affluent could emerge from their water-closets with no evidence whatsoever left behind, as though they didn’t ever poop at all. The lower classes, enveloped by the stench of their privies, close-stools, and chamber pots, could only stare in envy and dream of the flush toilets they could never afford. It would be decades before they could.
‘Closet’ has become a universal all-encompassing term for ‘toilet’ in Britain, used even in applications far removed from a water- or earth-closet. For example, ‘closet’ is frequently used interchangeably with ‘privy’, such that terms like ‘midden privy’ become ‘midden closet’.
In 1735, there was reference made to a toilet enclosure, using the term ‘cuzjohn’, an abbreviation of “cousin John”, as in “going to see cousin John”. The same year, this term became just the word ‘john’, meaning ‘the place of easement’. By the 1800’s there were several different parallel proper names in use: the Joe, the Jane, the Fred, Miss White’s, and the Widow Jones, to name a few. Of interest to ripperologists: ‘john’ also, of course, means a prostitute’s client (since at least 1906) but during the 1800’s, ‘john’ alternatively meant ‘policeman’ (as in John Law), derived from an abbreviation for "John Darm," a pun on the French ‘gendarme’.
Following are some of the words and phrases used in Britain to mean ‘lavatory’: bog, cloakroom, close stool, closet, commode, convenience, garderobe, gents, heads, khazi, ladies, latrine, loo, necessary, netty, place of easement, powder room, privy, shithouse, smallest room, thunder-box, toilet, water-closet, and WC.
For ‘go to the lavatory’, these euphemisms are commonly used: ‘explore the geography of the house’, ‘go to the restroom/cloakroom/loo/toilet’, ‘pay a visit’, ‘powder my nose’, ‘visit the smallest room’, or ‘wash my hands’. To say ‘Please may I be excused?’ usually meant to request permission to go to the lavatory.
‘Privy’ used to be a general word for `lavatory' or `toilet' but was used especially for a shed or hut, separate from the house, which contained seats over a cesspit or privy vault, an earth closet, or sometimes a water-closet. Modern dictionaries say privy is an American word for an outside lavatory, but according to the OED, the word privy is 600 years old, and means “a private place of ease, a latrine, a necessary”; hence the derivative terms privy house, privy stool, and privy member. A privy was called by various names, such as `netty' in the northeast of England and `cludgie' in Scotland. Other names associated with ‘privy’ (and frequently, ‘toilet’) are loo, thunderbox, shitter, shithouse, back house, outhouse (in USA), water-closet, outdoor convenience, chamber of commerce, holy of holies, cloakroom, shot-tower, ‘smallest room’, ‘john’ (dating from 1735) and ‘place of easement’.
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Okay, you snared me, again.
Kit Harington, who played Jon Snow in Game of thrones is related to John Harington — the inventor of the first flushing toilet in Britain in the 16th century.
It has been intimated that he is why we call a toilet "the John."
Perhaps you can explain to us why the bathroom/lavatory/crapper, etc was/is referred to as a 'water closet'? Other than there being water in the room to flush the toilet being the obvious reason, it still makes me wonder why water closet? I find the description a bit misleading.
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