Flushed with pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper, by Wallace Reyburn
Sir John Harrington is credited with inventing the first flushing water closet, "the John", back in the 16th century. He installed one at his country house at Kelston near Bath, and described it in his A New Discourse of a Stale Subject 1596. Wealthy households might have had a close-stool, which had a padded seat with a metal or porcelain container beneath it, but a close-stool still had to be emptied. Harington’s device emptied itself - it had a pan with a seat and water was pumped up into a cistern above. When a handle on the seat was turned, the water swept the pan’s contents into a cesspool underneath. Although Queen Elizabeth I was impressed and ordered a flush toilet from Harrington, his invention did not catch on.
Things did not change quickly until the mid 19th century when the British Public Health Act of 1848 required that every new house had to have a w.c. The Antique Victorian Furniture Blog noted that a Mr Jennings had already taken out a patent for the flush-out toilet in 1852, when Thomas Crapper was still a teenager in Yorkshire. And a British patent for the "Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer", a siphon discharge system, was issued to Albert Giblin.
Was the Mr Jennings referred to above the George Jennings (1810-82) who installed his monkey closets in the retiring rooms of Crystal Palace, just in time for The 1851 Great Exhibition at Hyde Park? The Great Exhibition toilets were certainly very popular! People had never seen public facilities like this before, and during the exhibition some 800,000 visitors paid their penny and received clean, efficient services. George Jennings definitely continued to innovate – he also designed the first underground toilets at the Royal Exchange, in the City, in 1854.
So the plumber Thomas Crapper clearly did not invent the toilet. In any case, most people did not have flushing toilets in their homes, even well into the Victorian era.
Thomas Crapper advertised in magazines, newspapers and on posters.
Yorkshireman Thomas Crapper was apprenticed to his brother, a master plumber, in 1853 and founded his own plumbing business only 8 years later. It was then, once he moved to London, that Crapper really DID develop some important inventions to made toilet technology run more smoothly. Crapper held nine patents, three of them for water closet improvements such as the floating ballcock, although none were for the flush toilet itself.
Crapper was both an innovator and a big advertiser!
In the 1880s, Prince Edward/later King Edward VII was given Sandringham House in Norfolk by his mother. Prince Edward pulled down the old home and built a new one, asking Thomas Crapper & Co. to supply the plumbing. It was a big project, since there were at least 30 toilets with beautiful cedarwood seats and surrounds; it gave Crapper his first royal warrant and was the turning point in his career. Thomas Crapper and Co. received further warrants from Edward as King and from George V, both as Prince of Wales and as King. Crapper's name quickly appeared on the toilet furniture itself and in advertising using every medium he could think of.
Thomas Crapper advertised on his products: Valveless Waste Preventer.
Apparently nephew George Crapper was also important to Thomas Crapper & Co. George was awarded the 1897 patent for improvements in automatic syphonic discharge systems. When Thomas Crapper later retired in 1904, he passed the firm on to this bright young nephew.
Why didn't the royals give Crapper a knighthood? After all, he had many dealings with royalty, all of them very satisfying. And Albert the Prince Consort had certainly presented George Jennings with the Medal of the Society of Arts at the height of Jenning's career. I suppose Crapper will have to rest in peace, knowing that his work helped to bring about a change in public attitude about buying sanitary wares.