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World Toilet Day: From cesspits, to Garderobes and washlets – the toilet has a colourful history

To mark World Toilet Day (19th Nov), Yorkshire Water has teamed up with international charity WaterAid to chart the history of the toilet.

World Toilet Day is a United Nations initiative and WaterAid has published ‘It’s No Joke – State of the World’s Toilets’ report to highlight some of the world’s most difficult places for access to sanitation. It draws attention to the fact that 2.3 billion people still do not have access to proper sanitation, including toilets.

As a result, diarrhoea, often linked directly to poor sanitation and hygiene, is among the three most common killers of children under five, along with pneumonia and malaria.

Andrés Hueso, WaterAid’s Senior Policy Analyst for Sanitation, said: “WaterAid’s analysis of the state of the world’s toilets has exposed some revealing facts: in many cases, nations that need to make great strides on sanitation are falling behind, with devastating consequences for health, education and women’s safety. We need leaders worldwide to state publicly that sanitation is crucial and to prioritise and fund it accordingly."

The development of the modern toilet as we know it dates back to 1596, but it was not until the late 1800s that they became a common feature.  And it took until well after World War II before outdoor ‘privvy’ toilets began to be replaced by indoor toilets in British homes.

In the middle ages, toilet provision was very basic. For instance, the ruling classes who lived in castles invented the Garderobe, which was a small cloakroom that also included a basic toilet. This was no more than a tiny hole that people would squat over, with the waste slipping down a chute into the moat surrounding the castle or a cesspit set up for the purpose.

Up until the mid-1800s, most people simply used communal public toilets that were simply a pit in the ground. It was not until the 1850s and urbanisation that sewer systems were built to effectively dispose of waste, and toilets as we know them gradually began to appear. The first modern public lavatory with flushing toilets opened in London in 1852.

Anne Reed, of Yorkshire Water, said: “Although the toilet is universal in western societies, this is still far from the case in developing countries and, as a result, diseases which we are fortunate enough to no long suffer from are massive killers. Sanitation facilities we take for granted are things many people around the world simply don’t have access to and that’s why we work closely with WaterAid to address this problem.”

The origins of the toilet date back as far as the 1,700 B.C and later in the Roman Empire, communal lavatories designed as long bench-like seats were common place in Rome. Today, Asia leads the way in high-tech toilets that include features such as a washlet, heated seats and even the ability to measure blood pressure.

Around 315,000 children under-five die every day from diarrhoeal diseases caused by dirty water and poor sanitation. To donate £3 to WaterAid, text SAFEWATER to 70300.

Donate to WaterAid

Text SAFEWATER to 70300 to donate £3*

*Texts cost £3 plus one standard network message rate. WaterAid receives 100% of your donation. Include SAFEWATER NO CONTACT to opt out of further communications. Text service run for WaterAid by Vir2 (helpline 0330 6600 425). WaterAid registered charity numbers 288701 (England and Wales) and SC039479 (Scotland).

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