There’s a toilet problem at Britain’s $64,000-a-year school for elites

LONDON — England’s most famous all-boys boarding school, known for educating over a third of the country’s prime ministers and several of the royal family’s children, has an awkward problem to flush out.

After heavy rain caused the local sewage system to flood, the school was forced to delay the start of in-person instruction after winter break, just as students were due to return.

“Following extensive flooding in the region, the Thames Water sewers which serve the town of Eton flooded,” Eton College in Windsor, England, said in a statement. “Therefore boys could not return for the scheduled start of term on 9 January and the College has moved to remote teaching.”

Read between the lines: The risk of clogged toilets was just too high.

In an email to parents and guardians, reported on by Bloomberg News, school officials laid out the problem more simply. “The sewers in the centre of Eton won’t cope with the arrival of nearly 1,350 boys,” they said.

Now, the school says it hopes the problem will be unblocked soon. “We are in regular contact with Thames Water as they seek to resolve the situation and we look forward to welcoming boys back as soon as possible,” Eton said in a statement. In the meantime, however, pupils of the establishment that costs about $63,800 a year, founded in 1440 by Henry VI, remain stuck at home.

The sticky situation put a spotlight on Thames Water, the private utility that provides waste and water services for Windsor and Eton and is the largest water supplier in the United Kingdom.

The company faces what critics say are unsustainable levels of debt, and it was embroiled this year in several scandals, with an investigation finding it had dumped 72 billion liters of sewage into the River Thames since 2020. Thames Water was forced to ask shareholders for more funds to invest in repairs and upgrades to its pipes system. It also asked British regulators for permission to increase its fees, sparking complaints among customers who already face sky-high bills because of inflation.

This week, it said it was working to fix the situation in and around Eton, but it suggested that may take time as water levels remained high following heavy rain in its region of operation. “We are sorry to staff and students who have been impacted,” Thames Water said in a statement. “Our teams will be carrying out a clean-up in the coming days once the river levels recede.”

In early January, the company warned customers that high water levels would cause problems along the local network. “The heavy rainfall of recent weeks, and a high water table, have put huge pressure on our sewers and pumping stations. Water is entering our network above and below ground, and flows from flooded rivers are adding to the problem in some areas,” it said.

Eton students are not the only ones affected by the local flooding and wastewater problem. But in the United Kingdom, where Eton serves as the ultimate symbol of the elite — Princes William and Harry studied there, as well as Boris Johnson, David Cameron and many other prime ministers, and pupils wear tailcoats — the situation was greeted with puns and a heavy dose of schadenfreude.

One tweet joked that the college was “full of” excrement — they used a ruder word — implying that the institution had a credibility problem, as well as a sewer one.

“The Battle Of Water Loo has been lost at Eton,” read another tweet, playing off the British term for “toilet.”

Meanwhile, Just Stop Oil, the activist group known for staging acts of civil disobedience to call for an end to the use of fossil fuels, linked the flooding around Eton to climate change and suggested the government may be more inclined to tackle it because it affects a famous school. (While flooding may be caused by various factors, experts have said that the United Kingdom is likely to face more frequent and heavier rainfall periods because of climate change.)

“Maybe it won’t take millions of people dying for our government to do something about the climate crisis. Maybe it’ll just take the toilets at Eton backing up,” the activist group said on X.

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