Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Feeling a little flushed, dear?- the invention of the flush toilet.

By Mike Rendell

I have always wanted to write a truly lavatorial post for this blog, and this is it – the story of the flush toilet!

Its origins lay back in Elizabethan times when in 1596 Sir John Harington came up with his mighty Ajax (his name for a flushing privy).His invention was therefore the very first 'john'. The Ajax closet (a pun on the fact that 'a jakes' was the medieval name for a toilet) consisted of a seat perched over a brick tank, with a cistern of water which could be directed by means of a valve being opened. Once a week it was necessary to empty the contents of the closet into a cesspool. Harington made two – one for himself and one for his godmother, who happened to be Queen Elizabeth.

Harington published a book entitled 'The Anatomy of the metamorphosed Ajax' giving builders etc details of how to build his privy (the Frontispiece reads 'How unsavoury places may be made sweet, noysome places may be made wholesome, filthy places made cleanly'). Harington never got over the ridicule and scorn heaped upon him for his invention, and in particular for having written a book about it, and it never caught on.

A lady of easy virtue, and a commode: both covered by the title 'Conveniences' (©British Museum).

People continued to use the 'close stool' and it appears in all its glory in a number of Gillray's cartoons including this one showing His Majesty George III and his wife Queen Charlotte enthroned on their respective latrines, when in rushes William Pitt with news that the King Gustavus III of Sweden has been assasinated. The year was 1792.

 By that date the world was finally ready for the flush toilet. The saviour had come in the form of Alexander Cumming, a watch maker who in 1775 patented his design. This consisted of a pan with a sliding valve at the bottom called The Strap, which could be released by the user at the same time as water was delivered from a cistern operated by a separate tap.

The Cummings Patent Toilet, Courtesy of the Gladstone Pottery Museum.

Around this time a young locksmith-cabinet maker called Joseph Bramah appeared on the scene. Suffice to say that he was working with a Mr Allen, installing closets based upon the Cummings patent, when Mr Allen decided on a few improvements aimed at stopping the water freezing in cold weather. He replaced the Strap with a hinged flap which sealed the base of the bowl. To Allen should go the credit, but to young Bramah went the patent. He opened a factory in Denmark Street, St Giles and throughout the next century the Bramah factory poured out the new-fangled sanitary ware. They were generally housed in fine mahogany furniture, and there is a particularly fine example to be seen in Kew Palace, and another at the residence of Queen Victoria at Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight.

It wasn’t long before potters like Josiah Wedgwood got in on the act, designing his first decorated closet pan in around 1777. Small wonder they became status symbols with their beautiful designs. Mind you, there was no sewerage system to go with them, so ‘the problem’ of the effluent was merely moved further down-stream, so to speak.

Fortunately another design improvement hit the market in 1782 when the stink trap was introduced by John Gallait. This consisted of a water trap (similar to a modern bottle trap), but unfortunately they were impossible to keep clean…but at least it was a step in the right direction.

And what of Thomas Crapper, widely believed to have invented the flush toilet? Well, he wasn’t even born until 1836 and in fact what he invented was the ballcock. And no, he didn’t give his name to the human waste we all associate with his name – ‘crap’ had been in use for some time, although quite possibly it became fashionable because of the association with his toilets. The story has it that American servicemen, visiting these shores in the First World War, popularised the phrase ‘going to the Crapper’ because that was the name in bowl! Try telling that to the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary, who point out that the word was in use in its modern sense by 1846, probably deriving from the Old French ‘crappe’ meaning waste.

Post script: ‘spending a penny’? Look no further than the Great Exhibition of 1851 where visitors wishing to avail themselves of the facilities (known as Monkey Closets and designed by George Jennings) were obliged to part with one penny for the privilege.

And one final Gillray to end with: a delightfully revolting engraving showing the different national characteristics of conveniences: the English use a water closet, the Scots use a bucket, the French les Commodites, and the Dutch...the lake.

So there you have it: if the characters in your novel need to visit the 'smallest room' you know what was historically accurate!

Mike has written a book entitled The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman based upon the diaires and writings pof his ancestor Richard Hall, who lived between 1729 and 1801. He also writes a  blog most days on one aspect or another of life in the Eighteenth Century which you can find here.


  1. How fascinating! As a little girl, I remember my grandmother using the phrase "spend a penny" and that was to use the Ladies Conveniences at the main railway station in Sydney, Australia in the 1960s. Always wondered where the phrase originated.
    Thanks for sharing a most interesting topic!

  2. My late father was a very successful plumbing contractor and he regaled us with stories of how the toilet got its name etc, and we thought he was making it up!

  3. It is fascinating how the English language has developed euphemisms to describe "the toilet" - in itself 'hijacked' from its original meaning of putting on make-up etc. There are endless explanations given for the word 'loo', and so on.
    My all-time favourite 'bog' was in a property I bought thirty years ago: a three-seater privy in an out-house next to where the pigs were kept! It had been in dis-use for a century but it did strike me as being very sociable! Shades of ancient Rome, where men would line up on benches and have a good natter as they went about their business!

  4. Great post! When I was a youngster out "west", outhouses were still common. Do so enjoy the working variety!

  5. I have to share the sentiment that I like my modern conveniences. In some historic houses in the UK, as is mentioned above, there are fantastic devices and ornate ceramics to be admired.

  6. Give me "flush and go" anytime, but it helps to remember that it wasn't always that simple!

  7. We did not have a flush toilet in the house until I was in my teens. That's just wrong considering how long they have been around.


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