Story Of London

Toilets in London: Introduction to the Series

Toilets in London: Introduction to the Series
by Stephen Montgomery

One of the first users of the flush toilet was Elizabeth I – who was considered eccentric because of her fastidiousness in the area of personal hygiene she took a bath every month “whether she needed it or not”. The inventor of the first WC, Elizabeth’s godson, was considered an out and out lunatic however – he took a bath every day! The history of the toilet is not without interest and this series will explore the arrangements which Londoners have made through the ages for the public and private provision of this basic amenity.

Toilets in London: Introduction to the Series

by Anthony Waldstock

Poor Mr Crapper. No,Thomas Crapper did not invent the toilet and he was never knighted. He did have a part to play in the evolution of the water closet but it was a small one. The myth that ‘Sir’ Thomas Crapper was the father of this device dates from the First World War when American doughboys passing through England on their way to the battlefields in Europe made their first acquaintance with the flushing toilet. They saw the words T. Crapper-Chelsea printed on the tanks and coined the slang “crapper” meaning toilet. Neither is the word ‘crap’ in this context derived from that gentleman’s name but has a much earlier, if somewhat obscure, origin.

There have been claims that flushing toilets were developed in antiquity. The most recent comes from China. A Reuters report in July 2000 brought us the startling fact that archaeologists had discovered a 2,000-year-old toilet complete with running water, a stone seat and a comfortable armrest. This was in the tomb of a king of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC to 24 AD), who believed his soul would need to enjoy human life after death. However, one of the archaeologists involved is quoted elsewhere as saying that the royal lavatory was “just two stone slabs with a hole in between,” and bore a marked resemblance to the plumbing used by hundreds of millions of today’s Chinese.

The only well-attested ancient claim for the water closet is to be found in the palace of King Minos in Crete. This was constructed about 1700 BC and has what many hold to be the world’s first “flushing” lavatory, a toilet which is flanked by two cisterns which held rainwater. Apart from that, there is no record of a flushed toilet until the reign of Elizabeth I.

The first water closet was designed and built in 1596 by the Elizabethan poet Sir John Harington. Water was drawn from a cistern into the bowl and flushed into a cesspool beneath by pulling a handle in the seat to release a valve. An illustration of the system shows fish swimming in the cistern. The pan contained water to prevent foul smells from rising and the discharge flushed down all the inside walls. Only two Harington WC’s are known to have been built. The first was at his home near Bath and the other at Richmond Palace for the use of Elizabeth I, both of whom were noted for their unusual attention to personal hygiene.

During the 17th and 18th centuries a few people had WC’s built, one notable example being the automatic flushing lavatory built at the home of Sir Francis Carew in Surrey. Bulk manufacture was started by the London cabinet maker Joseph Bramah who patented his unit in 1778. By 1797 he had sold 6000 and his closets continued to be manufactured until the 1890s. In these, the lavatory bowls were boxed in wood. The first pedestal WC was the Jennings Pedestal Vase which won a Gold Medal when it was unveiled at the Health Exhibition of 1884. Jennings was also the first to introduce the oval ‘picture-frame’ lavatory seat still in use today. It was said at the time that these were actually used to frame family portraits by some of his less sophisticated customers.

This series explores the provision of public and private sanitation in London – from the “parlous” latrine at Fleet Bridge to the “now you see it, now you don’t” UriLift of today. The links to the articles already available follow below.

Toilets in London: Part 1 – A history of the WC