bar of palmolive soapAlthough available from 1810, water closets (flushing toilets) could only be afforded by the very rich. Poor people had lavatories outside in courtyards and alleys: they did not flush, and their contents just tipped into cesspits, which leaked their contents into adjacent wells, thereby ensuring that water supplies were polluted. In London, drains carried sewage and germs straight into the Thames: this water was then used by poor people to wash clothes and even for cooking.

Sewage, then, was a huge problem in Victorian London. Successive cholera epidemics highlighted the severity of the problem, which was finally brought home to Parliament by the 'Great Stink' of 1858, when the stench from the Thames became overpowering. The Metropolitan Board of Works, under its chief engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, constructed 82 miles of 'intercepting sewers': smaller, pre-existing sewers draining into the Thames were intercepted, so that their waste could be discharged much further downstream, at Beckton and Crossness, where outfall sewage works were completed in 1864 and 1865.

As a result, by the time that John James and Mary Ann opened their little shop in Drury Lane in 1869, sewage in London was less of a problem. However, living in an area as poor as Drury Lane, they were very unlikely to have had a lavatory as luxurious as ours.

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