Contrary to Wallace Reyburn’s claim, made in his book Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper (1969), Mr Crapper did not develop the toilet mechanism – that is part of a history covering centuries – but some of his patented inventions greatly improved the sanitary conditions of the W.C. device and gave it the appearance familiar to us today. Furthermore, his innovative approach to design and display succeeded in popularising the toilet system at a time when Victorian prudery made silence prevail on the topic.
The credit for having invented the first flushing toilet is claimed to belong to the wit and author Sir John Harington (1560/1-1612), godson of Queen Elizabeth I. After simple forerunners of privies made, for example, of stone, or consisting of multi-seated latrines (flushed out at intervals by a temporarily diverted stream), he came up in the late 1580s with a device that consisted of a seat, a bowl and a posterior water cistern whose valve could be opened to flush away the bodily waste. He called his invention Ajax, a pun on ‘a jakes’ (a slang word for the privy), and even wrote a playful tract about it: The Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596). Harington’s contraption so impressed the Queen on one of her visits that she had one installed at her Palace in Richmond in 1596.
Soon forgotten, such an advanced sanitary implement would once again become the inventor’s concern over 150 years later when several patents of improvements were filed, one of the most important being the S-bend (to keep out foul odours) in 1775, introduced by the Scottish watch and instrument maker Alexander Cumming(s). When Thomas Crapper (1836-1910), a plumber by trade, opened his own company for sanitary installations in Chelsea in 1861, he was one of a few contemporary ‘sanitary engineers’ who promoted in-house sanitary fittings and continuously worked on their perfection. Furthermore, he pioneered the bathroom showroom by openly displaying his wares behind large plate glass windows to a bashful Victorian public. He was a proponent of the ‘Water Waster Preventer’ (a siphon fitted in the water cistern) and developed the ‘Disconnecting Trap’, an essential underground drain fitting that helped improve public health. His company rapidly grew to become a household name, famous for the quality of its products and service, which included – quite unusual for the branch – repairs work (for which a separate repairs workshop was built). In the 1880s it was ‘Crapper & Co.’ whom Edward, Prince of Wales, invited to install the sanitary fittings in his rebuilt Sandringham residence – it was the first of several Royal Warrants gained by the company.
However, not all of Th. Crapper’s inventions found public approval, as this humorous account from “The History of Thomas Crapper” goes to show:
Amongst others was one for a spring-loaded loo seat which, as the encumbent arose, leapt up pulling rods which automatically flushed the cistern! … Over time, the rubber buffers on the underside of the seat began to perish, and became sticky. This caused the seat to remain down, attached to the loo pan for a few seconds as the user got to his feet. Seconds later the seat, under stress from the powerful springs, would free itself and sweep violently upwards – striking the unfortunate Victorian on the bare bottom! The device became popularly known as the ‘Bottom Slapper’, consequently [it] was not a commercial triumph.