Issue 3, Thomas Crapper: A Busted Flush?
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Thomas Crapper---Fact and Fiction

Yes, there really was a Thomas Crapper, a plumber who made toilets and left his name not only on them but also on manhole covers across southern England. However, some American encyclopedias claim that he became Sir Thomas Crapper, and invented the flush toilet. This is just not true. Kathleen Meyer's wonderful book ``How to Shit in the Woods'' is hopelessly wrong about him on page 1. I have been doing some research, and can now reveal quite a lot about this memorably-named Victorian businessman.

The main source of information is Wallace Reyburn's book ``Flushed with Pride'' (Macdonald 1969, Pavilion 1989). This claims to be a biography of Thomas, but the material supplied to the author by Edith Crapper, Thomas' great niece, seems to have been ``remembered with advantages,'' as Shakespeare put it, and the book is not entirely reliable.

Thomas Crapper was born in 1836---appropriately enough the year before Queen Victoria came to the throne.

The name Crapper is an old Yorkshire name meaning cropper, and the family lived in the little town of Thorne, near Doncaster. Thorne was then a thriving port; barges came up the river Don and unloaded cargo on the docks.

Thomas' dad was a sailor, and his four brothers were dockers (longshoremen), but he must have been unhappy at home, for at the age of eleven, according to Reyburn, he walked 165 miles to London and got himself apprenticed to a plumber in Chelsea. By 1861 he had his own business, which became Thos Crapper & Co, Marlborough Works, Chelsea.

Crapper was a competent and successful plumber, but his reputation in the history of British sanitation rests on the claim that he invented the syphonic flush.

Unless you have unusually high mains pressure, just turning on a tap cannot produce enough of a jet to flush sticky deposits from porcelain. Victorian plumbers realised they needed a better gush.

Plumbers knew that valves were bad news

They also knew that valves were bad news and should be avoided. Apart from the waste caused by their continual leaking, people used to leave the water turned on to help clean out the bowl after a feeble flush. Thus lots of water was being wasted, and as these new-fangled closets became more fashionable, the authorities became increasingly worried about the water supplies. Indeed the Metropolitan Water Act of 1870 required them to build ``water-waste preventers'' into their cisterns.

The solution was to put the cistern high up on the wall above the lavatory to provide a good pressure or head of water, and to deliver it by means of a syphon. This provided such an effective flush that the valve in the bowl became dispensable.

The heart of the idea was the syphon mechanism. When the user pulled the chain---or pressed the lever---the whole volume of water in the cistern was released rapidly, through a wide pipe, which gave a tremendous gush. When it was complete the flush stopped, and water could not flow again until the next flush; so it had no valves, and it prevented the waste of water.

The syphonic flush was brilliant for three reasons. First the water came down with what Crapper called ``considerable velocity;'' second it saved water, for once the flush had happened no water could flow from the cistern until it filled and the chain was pulled again, and third it had only one moving part, which made it simple and reliable. Almost every British cistern has one to this day---and still, British Standard 7357 (1990) requires that ``Cisterns shall be supplied with an efficient flushing apparatus of the valveless syphonic type which prevents the waste of water!'' However, current EC regulations have forced British plumbing to go with the flow, and allow valves in the cisterns. Within a few years we shall have 6-litre flushes and valves, and the syphon will disappear. Shame!

American plumbers were beginning to develop their own systems in the 1870s and 1880s. Curiously, they chose a different route, and developed flapper valves, which is what most American cisterns have today. Perhaps the flapper valves were easier to make, and Americans were not compelled by law to use water-waste preventers. (If anyone out there knows about this aspect of American plumbing history I should be delighted to hear details.)

Crapper installed the royal loos

The British royal family took over Sandringham House in Norfolk in 1861, and refurbished it in the 1880s. Queen Victoria was sufficiently impressed by Crapper's reputation that he was invited to install the drains and probably the plumbing, including some thirty lavatories with cedarwood seats and enclosures, and so it was that the flower beds at Sandringham---and at Park House next door, where Princess Diana was born---are filled with Crapper manhole covers, and the syphon became a royal flush!

Crapper manhole covers can be found all over the UK; there is even one in Westminster Abbey, in the cloisters near the deanery---apparently popular for brass-rubbings.

Thomas Crapper died on 27 January 1910, and was buried in Elmers End cemetery, near to famous cricketer WG Grace. He had lived for the last thirteen years of his life at 12 Thornsett Road, Bromley.

The big question is Did he really invent the syphonic flush? In one of his advertisements he included a picture of a cistern with the label:

Crapper's Valveless Water Waste Preventer
(Patent #4,990)
One moveable part only.

Wallace Reyburn, Crapper's biographer, is noticeably silent about the date of this patent. Fortunately, at the British Library, it is possible---although tedious---to look up all the patents taken out by a particular person. Mr Crapper took out exactly six, starting in 1881 (#1628) to do with ventilating house drains, and ending in 1893 (#11604) for a mechanism to flush a lavatory by means of a foot lever. None of his patents was #4990. None of his patents was for a valveless water-waste preventer (WWP).

During the 1880s various types of syphonic systems were being patented at the rate of about 20 per year---but none by Thomas Crapper.

George Crapper of Marlborough Works---Thomas's nephew---took out in 1897 a patent (#724) for ``Improvements in or relating to automatic syphon flushing tanks.'' So they had clearly been using syphons for some time by then. Indeed a syphonic flush was patented in 1857---four years before Thomas set up his business, and 24 years before he took out his first patent.

There was a patent #4990 to do with WWPs---taken out by Mr A Giblin in 1898. This covered a minor improvement by which WWPs could discharge when the cistern was in any state between half-full and full. There is no evidence of any connection between Mr Giblin and Mr Crapper.

Alas it seems unlikely that Thomas Crapper really did invent the syphonic flush; he certainly did not patent it, as he implied in his advertising.

In the United States, although not in England, a ``crapper'' means a john, or toilet. Could this crapper be from Thomas Crapper? The word could have been taken back by American troops serving in Britain during the first world war, and impressed by Thomas Crapper's products, which would have been common in the south of England.

However, there is a problem. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, Mass. 1993) says that ``to crap'' means ``to defecate''---and has done so since 1846! If the word crap was used in America to mean faeces as far back as 1846, then Thomas Crapper cannot have been responsible, since he was only nine years old at the time!

My conclusion is that Thomas's reputation rests partly on Reyburn's over-enthusiastic biography, and mainly on his wonderful name. Raise your glasses, please, to the Crapper who installed the royal flush!



Adam's home page, and his his encycloopedia. InfoSeek search on Queen Victoria. From the alt.folklore.urban USENET FAQ, see the ``What's In a Word'' section for the low-down on Crapper. What makes a good public toilet? Zero-gravity toilet instructions from 2001---A Space Odyssey. All about composting toilets.
Science on the Web
The London Science Museum, and their list of other museums on the Web, Scientific Web Resources.
Yahoo's science-magazine section. Franklin Institute's bulletin (weekly).
Search tools
Yahoo's science section. Searches by word: OpenText, WebCrawler, Yahoo, Lycos, InfoSeek, SavvySearch (searches multiple indices at once, but slow). Other searches: INFOMINE (The University of California's "Physical Sciences, Engineering, Computer Science and Math search tool). Yahoo' history section.
Back Issues
1995 October: 2 (Richard Arkwright, Cotton King), September: 1 (Henry Bessemer, Man of Steel).
Other links
alt.folklore.urban USENET FAQ, Portraits (University of Texas, USA), Adam's home page.

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