Among the many memorable names to be found upon the floor of Westminster Abbey is that of Thomas Crapper.
Crapper is London's most-famous plumber*. He's best remembered as the man who invented the flushing toilet.
Wrongly so, as it turns out. Flushing toilets were around hundreds of years before Crapper. He made useful improvements, and had the perfect name for the job, so often gets the credit.
The dedications in Westminster Abbey are actually manhole covers, visible reminders of the time his firm re-plumbed the ancient building. The cast-iron lids are said to be popular among brass rubbers.
Other examples of Crapper manhole covers can be found around town, but his London legacy is much greater, as we're about to explore.
* We're not counting Bob Hoskins in Super Mario Brothers, and neither should you.
Toilets on show
Thomas Crapper was born in the village of Thorne near Doncaster in 1836. Age 11, the plucky youngster is said to have walked to London in search of work. True or not, he was soon apprenticed to a master plumber in Chelsea, and began tinkering with pipes.
Crapper was a quick study and soon had his own business as a 'sanitary engineer' on Robert Street (now Sydney Street). The company was a success and later took larger premises on Marlborough Road (now Draycott Avenue). Here's his gang, posing outside the 'Marlboro' Works'.
Note the royal crest on top of the building. Crapper often plumbed for the great and the good. As well as fixing the drains at Westminster Abbey, his firm also grappled with the U-bends (a Crapper innovation) of Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Sandringham. You could say that he supplied the monarchy with thrones.
Marlboro' Works is credited as the first sanitary showroom in the world. It boasted plumbed-in toilets so that clients could 'try before they buy', and huge plate-glass windows to show off the stock. Such a display was brazen, at a time when bodily functions were never acknowledged in polite company. Those windows must have been somewhat controversial, though whether they caused anyone to faint (as is usually claimed) remains doubtful.
It was a propitious time to be a plumber. During the 1860s, Joseph Bazalgette built a huge new sewer system for the capital. There was plenty of work to go around, plumbing London's homes and businesses into the new drains. A few years later, the Metropolis Water Act united the competing water companies into one supplier. Crapper subsequently developed several new technologies that would improve water supply and limit waste.
Crapper flushing toilets were elegant, reliable and water-efficient, three qualities that helped them spread across London then the wider country. His firm helped to overturn the notion that indoor toilets were unhygienic, thereby contributing to the huge improvements in sanitation enjoyed by Londoners in the latter years of the 19th century.
The company remained in family hands after the founder's death in 1910, with Thomas's nephew George Crapper and two other partners taking the reigns. The Crapper name made it through to Swinging London. The flagship store, opened in 1907, could be found at 120 King's Road until the late 1960s.
The company had dwindled by the end of that decade and effectively ceased trading. After over a century of business, Crapper & Co. was seemingly banished round the U-bend. But like a stubborn floater, it popped back to surface in the 1990s. The firm is still operating today, but is no longer based in London. Its website offers a well-written history of Thomas C and his achievements.
So, about that name...
Did crapper give us the verb to crap? Well, sort of. The word existed long before Crapper's time, as a term for rubbish. It had, however, fallen out of use in Britain, and few would have smirked at Crapper's name like we do today. Over in the USA, though, the word 'crap' had continued in its 'piece of crap' usage. It's thought that American servicemen, in Britain for the first world war, were amused to find our toilets emblazoned with the word 'Crapper'. They adopted the term as a nickname for the toilet, as in 'I'm just going to the crapper'. From there, the term grew in popularity, along with the verb 'to crap'.
Despite his fame, Thomas Crapper has never been granted an English Heritage blue plaque. A campaign in 1979 to commemorate the king of the flushers was thwarted when the Greater London Council's heritage committee could find no patents in Crapper's name (they should have tried harder; we found three with modern search tools). 'Contemporary plumbing books did not even mention him,' was the withering conclusion.
Fortunately, the London Borough of Bromley stepped in and erected its own blue plaque on Crapper's Anerley residence, 12 Thornsett Road. His two homes in Buckmaster Road, Battersea, remain unmarked (numbers 1 and 8), should English Heritage wish to honour him.
Thomas Crapper is buried in Beckenham Cemetery, near cricketer WC Grace, and sheep-shearing innovator Frederick Wolseley. But we like to think that those four manhole plates in Westminster Abbey are his true memorial.
Where to find an original Crapper
Crapper's toilets, distinctive beasts with dangling chain-pulls, are still encountered around town, either in their original settings or salvaged from elsewhere. We've started the list below of places with Crapper toilets, but we'd be flushed with joy if you could add your own sightings in the comments.
- CASK, Pimlico
- Crossness Pumping Station
- Parcel Yard pub, King's Cross
- Polo Bar, Bishopsgate
- Sable d'Or, Muswell Hill
- Wesley's Chapel, City Road