The legend of Thomas Crapper, the man who didn't invent the toilet
Thomas Crapper (1836–1910) is remembered as "the inventor of the flushing toilet". But how much of what we think we know about Crapper is true? Robert Hume examines five persistent myths about this 19th-century pioneer
Myth 1: Thomas Crapper never even existed
Reality: It has been widely assumed that the story of Thomas Crapper is the humorous invention of a satirical writer. This may have resulted from a spoof biography, Flushed with Pride, by Wallace Reyburn (1969) which is full of jokes and puns. But Thomas Crapper really existed.
A certificate in Doncaster Archives (ref P4/1/A12) confirms that he was baptised on 28 September 1836 in St Nicholas church, Thorne, south Yorkshire. His life can be traced from census returns, parish records and street directories.
Crapper set up his sanitary works in Chelsea and married his cousin, Maria Green, in 1860. In the 1891 census, Thomas is styled a ‘Sanitary Engineer’, commuting to London from his home in Brighton. In 1895 he returned to the London suburbs, settling at No 12 Thornsett Road, Anerley, where a commemorative blue plaque can be seen on the wall today. By this time, Crapper had taken out nine patents related to sanitary ware, copies of which are held in Kensington Library. His death certificate records that on 27 January 1910, aged 73, he died from bowel cancer.
Who was Thomas Crapper?
1836 | Born in Thorne, south Yorkshire
1853 | Apprenticed to his brother George, a master plumber in Chelsea
1860 | Married his cousin Maria Green
1861 | Founded his own plumbing business at Marlboro’ Cottages in Chelsea
1862 | A son, John Green Crapper, was born. Died in 1863
1866 | Built the first bathroom showroom in the world in Marlborough Road, Chelsea. He used ‘shock tactics’ to display his white toilet pans to the public behind large plate glass windows. Some ladies who passed the windows are said to have fainted at the sight!
1887 | Royal commission to supply plumbing for Sandringham House. Thirty water closets with cedar seats were installed, as well as flushing urinals for a room adjoining the billiards room
1902 | His wife died
1904 | Thomas retired, passing the firm to his nephew George and his business partner Robert Marr Wharam
1910 | Thomas died and was buried in Elmer’s End cemetery, Beckenham
Myth 2: In 1848, at the age of 11, “he walked from Yorkshire to London in search of work”
Reality: No he didn’t. The census shows that he was still at school until at least 1851 when he was 14 years old. Probably he attended the Brooke’s Trust School in Thorne.
It is most unlikely that he walked to London. Why should he? His family were not that poor. His father was the captain of a steamboat and his cousins were also in the shipping business, so it would have been easy for him to have gone by boat.
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Furthermore, he had no need to ‘search’ for work. His brother George was a master plumber in London. He had several men working for him, and was happy to take Thomas on as an apprentice in 1853 and give him an attic room in his house in Robert Street, Chelsea.
Myth 3: Thomas Crapper invented the flushing toilet
Reality: Untrue. As early as 1449, in London, Thomas Brightfield had designed a toilet that flushed with water from a cistern. In 1596, Sir John Harington built a flushing toilet at his house near Bath for the visit of his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I. But it was expensive to install, so most people carried on using chamber pots.
Until the end of the 19th century, toilets were often poorly designed. Valves leaked and huge quantities of clean water were wasted. Many people were afraid of the risk to their ceilings and furniture by having water, under pressure, piped throughout their house. Others considered the idea of defecating within the home abhorrent. Chamber pots and commodes were intended mainly for urine; if you needed to empty your bowels you used the privy, outside.
The Metropolis Water Act (1871) required manufacturers to build into their cisterns a mechanism called a ‘water waste preventer’. Crapper was not responsible for any major improvements in water waste preventers, though he did build silencers to cut down the hissing and gurgling noises that cisterns made when filling. Nor were all Crapper’s systems reliable. One of them, with an automatic flush and self-raising seat, was so accident-prone that it came to be known as the ‘bottom slapper’!
Thomas Crapper’s real achievement was that he helped to bring about a change in public attitude by his invention of the first bathroom showroom in the world in Chelsea. Many of his WCs, basins and baths were plumbed in, so customers could even try them out! Previously, if you wished to order sanitary ware, a salesman would visit your home with a catalogue and some samples only a few inches high. It was due in no small part to Crapper that people became less embarrassed about purchasing sanitary ware in public.
Myth 4: He was knighted, becoming Sir Thomas Crapper
Reality: Another popular myth is that Thomas Crapper’s plumbing work was so admired by the royal family that he was knighted by Queen Victoria. He is sometimes even referred to as ‘Sir John Crapper’.
He wasn’t knighted and ended his days as plain ‘Mr’ Crapper. But it is easy to see how the misunderstanding has arisen because he did have many dealings with royalty. In the late 1880s the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) asked him to install the lavatories and drains at Sandringham House. This royal commission gave him the right to display at his Marlboro’ Works in Chelsea an eye-catching royal crest painted blue, red and gold and the words, ‘By Appointment’.
Crapper was also responsible for supplying lavatories to Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. He laid the drains at the Royal Horticultural Society in Wisley, and at Westminster Abbey, where three cast-iron manhole covers can be seen to this day bearing his name.
As for ‘Sir John’ Crapper, it is most probably confused with Sir John Harington, Elizabeth I’s godson.
Myth 5: The word ‘crap’ derives from his name
Wiki Answers: “Q: What is the history behind the word ‘crap’? A: Most people associate it to Thomas Crapper, who invented the flushing toilet”.
Reality: Untrue. The word has no connection with Thomas Crapper. It first appears in JC Hotten’s A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words (1859): “CRAP, to ease oneself, to evacuate”. Thomas Crapper did not even set up his business until 1861, let alone become famous.
The expression, a ‘crapping ken’, meaning a privy or water-closet, was used in 1846 in The Swell’s Night Guide to social life in London, when Thomas was just ten years old. In fact, research suggests that Thomas had a traditional Yorkshire name which was originally ‘Cropper’ – someone who brings in the crops.
It is possible, however, that the American word ‘crapper’, in the sense of a lavatory, is derived from Thomas Crapper. When US soldiers were based in England in 1917 they probably saw cisterns stamped with “T Crapper” in some public toilets, and may have taken the word ‘crapper’ home with them. Certainly, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang records the word ‘crapper’ as a synonym for a toilet, in use from the 1920s.
Dr Robert Hume is author of Thomas Crapper: Lavatory Legend (Stone Publishing, December 2009)
This article was first published in the January 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine