We probably take many household features for granted these days, particularly when it comes to the plumbing. Flushing toilets, baths and showers are part of our everyday lives, and have been for many years.

Here Gilson Environmental Services, who deal with septic tank problems in Suffolk, Norfolk and across East Anglia, trace the history and development of all three of these inventions, and why you should still treat them with care – particularly if you aren’t connected to the mains water supply and drainage systems.


The Flush Toilet

The flush toilet was invented in the 1590s by Sir John Harington, a godson of Queen Elizabeth 1. His water-closet had a pan with an opening at the bottom, sealed with a leather-faced valve. A system of handles, levers and weights poured in water from a cistern, and opened the valve. However, it never really caught on as an invention – the waste still went into a smelly cesspool – and many people still preferred to throw their human waste onto the street below, or, in the case of Londoners, into the River Thames.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the flush toilet really proved its worth. First, the Government decreed that every new home should have a WC (or an ash-pit privy). Then, engineer Joseph Bazalgette designed a modern sewage system for the capital. This ensured all of London’s waste was treated at a special plant before it was allowed to recirculate or flow into the river. The water became much cleaner, the stink in the streets was reduced, and disease in the capital fell. All this led to Bazalgette’s design being introduced across the country.

The toilets of today are far more sophisticated, with cisterns resting on top of the toilet, flushable valves – and, in more recent years, low- and automatic-flush varieties.


The Bath

In Greek and Roman civilisations, private baths were the preserve of the wealthy – although there were plenty of public facilities for the wider population to use instead. In Roman times the public baths were a place to socialise as well as somewhere to have a good wash.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the middle-class began to have their own bathrooms, thanks to running water being supplied into more homes, and the tubs were made of metal rather than wood. It also helped that gas and electric water heaters were invented around this time.



The Shower

William Feetham is widely credited as having invented the modern shower in the UK in 1767. Originally a stovemaker, he devised a system of pumping water from a basin (which the user stood in) to an overhead tank. The user then pulled a chain to release the water onto their head. However, it was effectively a self-contained system, and the water was reused – which meant it got dirtier over time.

As with baths, having running water (and the ability to heat it) in the home led to a rise in the use of showers in the 19th and 20th centuries. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that showers became really popular, as homeowners realised they used a lot less water than a bath (and were much cheaper as a result).


If You Are Connected to the Mains…

All the wastewater in the modern home – whether it’s from a toilet, shower, bath or even a kitchen sink – is channelled into underground drains and, from there, into a local sewage treatment works. Unwanted objects such as nappies and wet wipes (and grit) are screened out. This is followed by the primary treatment, where the solid waste is separated out and treated, and can be recycled for farmers to use on their land or to generate energy.

A secondary treatment stage removes all the smaller particles in the wastewater, and air is pumped in which encourages ‘good’ bacteria to break down the ‘bad’ bacteria. The final treatment stage sees the wastewater go into a settlement tank; the clean water is filtered out of the top and can be returned to rivers and streams.


…And if You Aren’t

Not all homes in the UK are connected to the mains sewerage system. Some properties are in rural areas and the installation cost would be too great, while others aren’t suitable for geographical reasons – they are below the level of the mains and the waste can’t be carried away by a gravity-led system, which is the commonest type in this country. In cases like these, alternative methods of waste disposal must be used instead – which is where Gilson Environmental Services come in. We can install cesspit tanks, septic tanks and sewage treatment systems from our base in Ipswich.

If you are a homeowner with one of these types of installations, and particularly if you have a septic tank, you need to be careful about the items you dispose of in your toilets, showers, baths and down your sinks.

Effectively, you are responsible for your own screening process so it’s up to you to ensure you don’t pour too much oil and grease down the sink, only flush toilet tissue down the WC, and keep baths and showers clean. If you don’t follow this advice, you could clog up your drains and damage your septic tank or sewage treatment system.


Gilson Environmental Services – Experts in Septic Tank Problems in Suffolk

If you find you have a problem with your cesspit, septic tank or sewage treatment system, then you can call us on 01473 741530. We offer a round-the-clock service. We are not tied to one manufacturer, and you can rely on us for a swift resolution of the problem – whatever is causing it. We can also install new systems – for more details, follow this link.