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Thursday, 26 June 2008

Spending a penny

There’s a news story today about workers having to clock off whenever they need a toilet break. Workers in Victorian Lancashire endured poor sanitation at home and at work. Although Manchester passed a bye-law in 1845 insisting all new houses that were built should have a separate privy, but there were still 38,000 privy middens in 1869. Around this time, Liverpool, too, had over 30,000 houses without a flush toilet.

Workers couldn’t even ‘spend a penny’ in comfort at work. As late as 1893, inspectors who visited the cotton mills found there was still much room for improvement – the toilets were filthy, with no ventilation – and in many mills, they were right next to the machinery. One Preston mill’s lavatories were so bad, the manager tried to stop the factory inspector from seeing them at all. In many mills, inspectors found that the toilets were rarely, if ever cleaned. Although some firms paid for the toilets to be cleaned, in other mills workers paid one penny (pre-decimal coinage) per month to have the toilets cleaned, plus one penny per week for hot water. In some factories, women workers were expected to take turns to clean the lavatories. Some mills used hot water from the steam engine to flush the toilets, but workers complained this made the smell from the privies even worse.

Image: Weaver, believed to be at York Mill, Rishton, early C.20th postcard. Author’s collection.

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