During the Elizabethan era, English folks used chamber pots and dumped their waste onto the streets of London. Nineteenth-century living was not much better. By the 1840s, approximately 150 million tons of waste were poured into the River Thames each year. Holders of one of the craziest Victorian-era jobs, "toshers" would mine the fecal dumping ground, searching through human excrement and other waste collected around the city for valuable items. And they earned a good living doing it.
As you can imagine, in hot weather, the river and surrounding areas stunk horribly. And people used the Thames for drinking water. Then, disease wiped out thousands of residents. Finally, when the smell and disease got really bad, the British government decided to step in to eradicate the problem. It took nine years for an engineer and his team to develop a system of sewers that would funnel waste to the outskirts of the city and away from the River Thames instead of into it.
Before sewer treatment plants were built in London in the 19th century, raw sewage was sent directly into the River Thames, which flows through London and Southern England. While that alone is disgusting, what's worse is that people used the river as a source of drinking water. So not only were they ingesting water – but they were also drinking their neighbors' urine and fecal matter.
The people of London survived a cholera epidemic in 1853 after drinking unsafe water from the River Thames, but what really spurred them into changing the way they handled sewage was the "Great Stink" of 1858. In the heat of that summer, sewage basically cooked and fermented itself, and the smell became so bad, residents could no longer tolerate going through every day activities with such a stench in the air. The British government was forced to hire an expert engineer to help combat the problem.
Before civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette created what is now London's sewer system, people used cesspools at their homes. In order to make some extra money, men who worked as day laborers would visit people's homes at night to clean their cesspools. The law required that they do the job at night because venting a cesspool was very stinky and considered "too disturbing" to do during daylight. The "night soil men" were required to climb into the cesspools, shovel out the waste, put it in a wicker basket, and place it on a cart to remove it.
In 1531, King Henry VIII – yes, the one whose wives couldn't manage to keep their heads – signed a decree known as the "Bill of Sewers." In it, he made provisions for London to be divided into eight sewer districts, each with its own commissioner. Each of these commissioners was in charge of keeping their part of the sewer system clean and in working order. Except, that meant that there was no uniform oversight, and commissioners let their problems become their neighbors' problems. Londoners in the 19th century had inherited this lackadaisical style of sewer management, which is probably why they were drinking poo-filled water regularly.