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A potted history of plumbing

Plumbing is the unsung hero of modernity. We live day to day without considering the vast network of waterpipes, drains and sanitation plants that look after the things we’d rather not think about – but luckily, innovators throughout the ages have realised that life is lived better in hygiene and cleanliness, and took steps to relieve the world of its waste problems. Here are a few of them:

The Romans

The Roman empire is famous for its plumbing, and although technology like sewer systems and aqueducts were around earlier than the famous civilization, they have appeared to take much of the credit. The aqueduct is both quite an attractive built feature of a town and a clever way of diverting natural water streams into a town or city so that everyone can get some.


[Roman aqueduct ~ Photo by agroffman]

 The Romans were also pretty keen on bathing, and their bath houses featured plumbing too, and they even recycled used bathwater to help flush the latrines –  impressively efficient.

The Dark Ages

 [Bodian Castle ~ Photo by Etrusia UK]

Much of the knowledge and technology gathered and refined by the Romans was lost in the period directly after the fall of the Roman Empire, and people went back to much more primitive methods of waste disposal. There are several stories of cesspits being built beneath wooden floors in castles – which would then give way, occasionally drowning guests of the king (or, in the case of King Richard the Raker of England, drowning the king as well) – an unpleasant way to go.

The Enlightenment

After a few too many cess-related mishaps and a lot of stench and disease, Europe realised that it was time to stop urinating in hallways and start looking into more user-friendly methods of waste disposal. Flush toilets began to be seen in the wealthiest households during the 1700s, and as technology increased, they became more and more widespread.

Victorian Times

Throughout the 1800s, plumbed facilities in the home became the height of fashion. One Thomas Crapper (yes, his real name) did much to encourage the popularity of the flushing toilet and other sanitary and sewerage products – manholes with his name on them are a minor attraction at Westminster Abbey.

[Photo by tomylees]

These days, we’re pretty lucky to have reliable flushing toilets (not to mention hot showers, running baths, washing machines, central heating, basins and dishwashers). So, next time you get annoyed that your toilet is blocked or the water pressure is a bit off, be thankful that you’re not having to dodge underfloor cesspits or empty chamber pots into the street.

Vivienne Egan writes for Thomson Local, which has comprehensive listings of local plumbers.

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