Wednesday, January 26, 2022

10 things you didn't know about Thomas Crapper

It's Thomas Crapper day! Every 27th of January a small protion of the world (if we are honest about it, mostly bathroom manufacturer's social media managers) celebrate the life of one of the most famous names in toilet history! 

Chances are you have heard the name before. Chances are also that everything you have heard about him is false. So here, to set the record straight, are ten pieces of information you never knew you needed.


1) He didn't invent the toilet

Either you already know this, or it will be a big shocker... but people have had bodily functions since the dawn of time and consequently have spent thousands of years developing ways and places to deal with that fact. Even the idea of a mechanised flushing toilet (one where you have to pull a lever to make a flush) first appeared in the 1690's and the first patent for a flush toilet was taken in 1976, 60 years before Thomas Crapper was a twinkle in his father's eye. By the time he began his own busieness in 1861 most households had a flushing toilet.

2) He didn't invent the floating ballcock (despite what you heard on QI!)

This is a common misconception which comes from the fact that he held a patent for a 'valveless waterwaste preventer' (though strictly speaking he didn't even invent this, but purchased it from Albert Giblin, one of his employees.) The misconception is so ingrained in history that it slipped past the QI fact checkers in 2008.

However, despite the innaccuracy, it is still delightful to watch Stephen Fry savouring the word 'Ballcock'


Click here to see the video on youtube


This is the point where my reader will cry 'he really wasn't all that was he?' But stick with me, because this is where we start getting to the good stuff!


3) He did invent the bathroom showroom

Thomas Crapper's real genius was not for engineering but for marketing. Until the 1860's the only way prospective buyers saw what they were going to install was through the drawings in sanitary wares catalogues, or tradesmens samples, which look a bit like dollhouse furniture. Thomas decided that people should be able to see and even test the products before use, so he opened England's first Bathroom Showroom on Marlborough Road in Kensington and Chelsea.

4) He did manufacture royal thrones (so to speak!)

In the 1800's Prince Albert (Later Edward VII... the son of Queen Victoria, not to be confused with her husband Prince Albert, who though he was a great champion of the flushing lavatory had also been dead for two decades) asked Thomas Crapper & Co to supply the plumbing for his newly aquired Sandringham House in Norfolk. This order included 30 lavatories and lead to the first of five royal warrents the company was to receive.


5) The 27th of January is actually the anniversary of his death.

We know that Thomas Crapper was born in 1836, but not the actual date of his birth. It was likely in early September as he was baptised on the 28th. 

Thomas Crapper died on the 27th of January 1910 of colon cancer and is burried in Elmers End Cemetary (Now Beckenham Cemetary) in the London Borough of Bromley.

6) His name wouldn't have caused comment in his own lifetime. 

The word Crap actually predates Thomas Crapper, coming form middle english slang. But it fell out of use in the 1700's, so that no one thought twice about it in the 1800's. We owe it's revival largely to American servicemen who arrived in England during the first world war. Language had evolved differently in the states, and some words like Crap had never fallen out of style, and when they saw it printed on the rather fine lavatories they found it hilarious. Hence the word was not only revived, but 'going to the crapper' became a popular phrase.

7) We mostly remember him today thanks to a 1960's biography

Thomas Crapper might have been all but forgotten today if not for Wallace Reybern, a humerouist author who published 'Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper' in 1969. Though based on fact the book is highly embelished, and is responsible for many of the urban legends perpetuated today, but it did help to return the great man to the public consciousness. The fact that Reybern subsequently published Bust-Up: The Upliting Tale of Otto Titsling and the development of the Bra" (a completely fictionalised biography) helped to further confuse the public as to whether Thomas Crapper himself had existed at all.

8) Three of his brothers were also plumbers

Though none of them achieved the noteriety, three of Thomas' seven brothers were also plumbers and toilet manufacturers. His apprenticeship was to none other than his older brother George, who introduced him to London and supported him in establishing his own business.


9) He liked to start the day with a bottle of champaign

Having achieved financial success and professional prestige, later in life Thomas Crapper would habitually start his day with a bottle of champaign Finborough Arms Pub in Earls Court. The pub closed in 2021, and last I heard was for sale... we can only hope that the new owners see fit to revive the champaign breakfast!

10) Thomas Crapper & Company still exists today

After being sold and asset stripped in the 1960's and lying dormant for decades, Thomas Crapper & Co was aquired in 1996 re-launched as a preveyor of reproduction Victorian and Edwardian sanitary wares. They don't come cheap... the pull chain alone costs £169, and a full toilet set will set you back upwards of £1,500, but I can say from personal experience that for those lucky enough to afford them they are money well spent! (no, I don't get commission... sadly!)


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

2022: Relaunch?!?!?

New Year, new resolutions... 'why not return to blogging?' I thought! It's so long since I have done any significant writing, and there are so many ideas I want to explore. So I opened up the blog and was mildly horrified to see that my last post was just over 3 years ago.

When I began this blog in 2013 I was a freshly graduated Master of Applied Theatre looking for a purpose in life. Loo Tours became that purpose, but I never expected that 9 years later I would still be doing it.  Loo Tours has trundled along. I calculated today that I have now shown at least 3500 people around toilets, which ammounts to more than 1 a day over the last 9 years.

In that time I have moved countries twice (to the US and back to England), got married, had a baby, and survived two years of a global pandemic. On more than once occasion I drifted away from toilets (in a professional capacity... they have been the one true constant in my personal life) but I keep coming back to them. The botomless subject with endless branches to explore.

So, my readers (all 10 or so of you)... what can you expect from here on out? 

  • Some combination (tbd) of history, social science, and personal reflection, mostly but not exclusively themed around toilets.
  • Updates on what I'm up to  toilet- and other- wise (without wanting to jinx it there are a couple potential exciting things coming up this year.) 
  • Occasional but repettative attempts at puns. Mostly bad.
  • Excellent factoids to throw into your own dinner time discourse... I guarentee they will either stimulate or completely halt the conversation, depending on the company you keep.
  • The same poor spelling and punctuation you have come to expect from my posts... as the mother of a nearly 2 year old I am incredibly lucky if I get time to write let alone read over what I have written. That said, I love to crowd source my proofreading, so you have my blessing to drop any niggly notes in the comments (plus I think lots of comments boosts my SEO or something. 

My goal is to write a couple times a month as inspiration and the afforesaid toddler allow. Stay tuned next for a Thomas Crapper Day post (unless the muse strikes before then.)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A critical deconstructed response: Public Toilets are Just Not Good Enough (Katy Rice, The Argus, 21 August)

There has been a higher than usual number of public stories in the past weeks, between the Uritrottoirs in Paris, the launch of the Use Our Loos campaign in the UK and the BBC’s big freedom of information request. This has sparked (as it always does) a number of off-shoots which I have followed with interest. In my news round-up the other day I came across this piece by 52 year old Katie Rice entitled "Public Toilets are Just Not Good Enough." The farther I read the more frustrated I became and felt compelled to respond to it… largely because it embodies everything I feel is backwards about current conversations on public toilet provision and because Katie Rice is not alone in these attitudes. Advance warning, this post is a bit of a personal rant.

Ms. Rice starts out promisingly enough with the tag line: 
“PUBLIC loos are a feminist issue and if they’re not, well, then they should be.”
She lists the standard toilet closures that we have heard so many times, but the piece quickly descends into a Victorian cis-feminist rant, more a self-indulgent lament than a suggestion for any possible progress.  Below are some of the more mis-guided and offensive statements, and my responses.
“Most of us women do not want to urinate in public. […] Some, tanked up on a night out, do it in the street at one in the morning but the rest of us, quite frankly, are a bit more civilized than that.”
The equation of “being able to hold it” with “being civilized” taps right into the stigma and shame we place on bodily functions, from pee to periods to perspiration. “Civilized” people control their bodies and don’t admit to producing odors or substances.
 “We need privacy and that comes in the form of a cubicle because we can’t and don’t use urinals like men, not being in possession of that handy little gadget that allows men to wee standing up.” 
Has she heard of the She-wee? It's literally a handy little gadget which allows women (or people who are not otherwise naturally anatomically equipped) to pee standing up. But that's a minor point... plus they are better suited to hiking than urban adventures. 

Anyway, she goes on: 
“Women have to go into the cubicle, lock the door, partially undress, put loo paper on the seat (not entirely necessary but many of us don’t want to sit on an unclean seat), wee, wipe, dress…”
Aaaagh! What would otherwise be a sensible commentary on the amount of time it takes gets obscured by the perpetuation of toilet-seat germaphobia... the idea that the toilet seat is the grossest thing in the room. I am all for cleanliness and hand-washing and good hygiene, but the list of things that has more germs than a toilet seat could fill volumes. Among the things on that list: the flush button, the door handle, the taps on the sink, and the hand dryer. So unless the toilet seat is literally covered in poo chances are you're not going to come into contact with anything on there that you would touch else-where in the loo. 

But then she enters the most unforgivable territory yet...
“And in the politically correct rush […]”
Uh oh! Red flag for thinly veiled trans/homo/xenophobia coming up. And sure enough she goes on: 
‘[…] to start desegregating public facilities as gender neutral, women’s privacy and safety have not been taken into account. They may well address the concerns of transgender people who face intimidation and harassment in gender segregated facilities […] but they don’t address the safety concerns of women who make up a far greater proportion of the population.”

Okay. Firstly there is, as far as I am aware (and I have looked), no research stating that gender neutral facilities are less safe. In fact, the limited case studies available tend to point to gender neutral facilities having a lower rate of crime than segregated ones and that in fact because they have higher footfall they tend to be safer.

Secondly the argument that cis-women form a “far greater proportion of the population” is or should be irrelevant when weighing the relative safety concerns. Because there most definitely is plenty of documented evidence of trans people facing bathroom discrimination and violence.

This attitude infuriates me, but it is very prevalent. I have had multiple conversations in the past month with women over 50 who are heavily involved in the world of public toilets who, as one put it "Don't see why the majority of us should be inconvenienced because of a small minority." By which she essentially meant she would rather see an already marginalized group of the population be further excluded from society than give up the personal comfort of the gender segregated loos she has known all her life. Only half a century ago in the US people were making the same arguments for racial segregation in toilets...  and their arguments didn't sound all that different from the ones for gender segregation you hear today.
“On a more trivial level, can we trust men to put the seat down afterwards? Can we trust them not to wee all over the seat we women have to sit down on? Yuk. No, thanks.”
This is straying dangerously into the “boys are gross and have cooties” territory, which is really best left behind in kindergarten (or better yet, never introduced into our consciousness in the first place… side tangent: where does this idea come from?) Women wee all over the seat too... especially when they buy into the previously mentioned germophobia and insist on hovering above it.

She finishes: 
"What it all comes back to is a lack of public facilities particularly for women. Women have long complained about this problem but they are not being listened to. I don’t think women are being consulted when new buildings are being designed or about existing public toilets. And I don’t think we are making enough noise about it."
In and of itself I can't fault any of these statements. Yes, there is a lack of facilities. And toilet design in a field historically dominated by heterosexual cis-gended men, and therefore the facilities are designed with their bodies and comfort in mind. So by all means let's make noise about it! But lets do it in a way that looks forward rather than drags us backwards. 

The more I get involved in this world of toilet campaigners the more it strikes me how many conversations about publicly available toilets look backwards instead of forwards. Campaigners arguing for Victorian ideals of a discreet private room, segregated by a comfortable gender binary.

And I'm unsatisfied with my own response because I don't know what all the answers are. But whatever they are I think they have to do with much wider questions than public toilets. Because these places don't exist in isolation. They are a reflection, perhaps even an amplification of, our cultural beliefs about bodies, gender, class, morality and propriety.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A feminist toilet story

It's International Day of the Girl, which seemed like as good an excuse as any to catch up on some stories and news. I don't generally consider myself to be a militant feminist, but more and more these days as I read stories and look at history of gender disparities in toilet provision I find myself climbing up on a metaphorical soap-box, and crying foul.

Author's note: It should of course be acknowledged that this issue goes far beyond the gender binary. I have used the terms "men" and "women" throughout most of this piece partly because that is how much of the historical literature and current press divides the matter, but there are, of course, women with penises, men with vaginas, and people who defy any of these prescriptive lables. Perhaps a more accurate division would have been to write about people with external and internal plumbing... but even this didn't seem quite right, as public urinals tend to be for the benefit of (and safest for) cis-gender hetero males... hence I have stuck with slightly clunky outdated terms. I welcome comments on how to do better at integrating inclusive language!

So to bodily functions:

A few weeks back some excitement was caused in the toilet world by news from Amsterdam of a young Dutch Woman, Geerte Piening, who found herself unintentionally at the centre of a debate around women's toilets. From what I have been able to piece together from news reports, the story actually begins in 2015 when she availed herself of an alleyway after a night out drinking. She was caught and fined 140 euros for this action, but decided to fight it on the grounds of sexism: Amsterdam has 33 urinals but only three or four toilets open for women at that hour. Two and a half years later when her appeal was finally heard the judge (male) reduced the fine to 90 euros, but maintained that she should have used a urinal ("It wouldn't be pleasant, but it can be done.")

There is now a facebook page and a women's movement urging women to take photos of themselves in urinals and show the impracticality of their use.

The story intrigued me because I have been saying for years that if women want better access to toilets we are going to have to start peeing in public. Admittedly this has always been somewhat in jest (from a public health point of view I recognize that it is a terrible idea) but the fact remains that part of the reason urinals are plonked on every street corner of Soho on a Friday night is that it is generally expected that men will be out and needing relieve themselves, while women are expected to hold it. I haven't done a comprehensive urinal count of the city, but I can tell you that on my tours alone we pass at least 4 more places where men can go than we do for women in a mile-long walk. Here are a couple of them:

City planners and officials will (as the Amsterdam judge did) argue the impracticality and expense of such accommodation. The fact remains that women's anatomy is seen as problematic, and more complicated to deal with. Women's toilets have been described variously as "objectionable on the score of delicacy" "an abomination" and "an unnecessary expense."

This toilet debate puts me in mind of the social and medical models of disability. The medical model says that it is the person who is broken and needs to be fixed- whether because they can't climb stairs or hear or deal with overstimulation. It looks for ways to help them conform to social expectations, and expects them to adapt. The social model meanwhile argues that disability is to a large extent created by these imposed societal norms, and takes the more holistic idea that society can adapt through inclusive design and different approaches.

The field of toilet design has historically been dominated by men. It seeps across our culture in subtle ways. My favorite example: why do jeans (generally considered to be gender neutral clothing) have a zip closure at the front, if not to allow men to urinate with greater ease? Skeptical that this is the case? Look at the fact that cultures which prefer squatting over sitting tend to favor robes for both genders. These things may have been obscured by the world of fashion, but I firmly believe that the origins of our aesthetic preferences are at least to some extent rooted in the basic functionality of allowing us to relieve ourselves in the most practical manner.

Anyway, this rambling is to say, that while we often take for granted the way things are, there are other ways forward. It may sound extreme to say that we live in a world designed by and for men, but there are subtle signs of that all around us. We've got to start somewhere, so why not with toilets (which, after all, provide access to greater participation in society.) The challenges this disparity creates range from the relatively frivolous (longer queueing times) to the very serious (girls leaving school when they start menstruating because they have no where to go.)

The solution may not yet be obvious, and there is unlikely to be a gender-wide consensus on the best way to approach the issue. Some women will merrily use a she-wee, or a women's urinal, while others see them as degrading or just uncomfortable (which in turn, it could be argued, is a product of our social conventions and ideas of propriety.) There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution.

Right now I think the best we can hope for is to start the conversations. We may not have the answers, but by airing the issues in public we can get more people thinking about what the alternatives might be. Many people (men and women) haven't thought about it simply because our approach is so ingrained that it hadn't occurred to them there was anything to think about.

Do you have a story on the subject, a favorite solution, or an idea that hasn't even been mentioned yet? Do share in the comments!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Thames Barrier Test Day

Today was the annual closure of the Thames Barrier. One of the largest flood barriers in the world, it has protected London from Storm surges and unusually high tides since 1984. It is raised once a month for testing, but a scheduled full closure only happens once a year and is a rather special occasion.

We arrived on the South Bank near Greenwich around 9 in the morning when it was quiet, save for lots of Environment Agency staff bustling about and setting up. We set up a picnic on the grass and waited. By the time things got started an hour later the road was lined with people who had come out to watch.

There are ten gates, four of which lower down and six which lie in the river bed and rise up. They moved one at a time, each one taking about ten minutes to raise or lower. By 11:30 the whole thing was in place. It would stay there until after high tide, and then raise a few meters to allow underspill and level out the water before opening the gates again (we didn't end up staying until the end, so will have to catch the underspill another time. It's apparently a great time to see lots of birds who come to feast on the fish it churns up.)

The barriers have closed 176 times for flood defense (an average of about 5 or 6 times a year) in addition to their routine closures. But it is not intended to last forever... eventually due to climate change and sea level rise the gates will no longer offer complete protection.

The Thames Estuary 2100 Plan developed by the Environment Agency sets out a plan the next 100 years, which of course is largely guess work beyond the short term. As they put it:
"The plan is based on contemporary understanding of predicted climate change, but is designed to be adaptable to changes in predictions (including for sea level rise) throughout the century."
It was interesting to reflect that I have never lived in a place where I was very aware of environmental threats or imagined the Thames as anything other than a beautiful river (with an interesting history of sewage). Until today, as far as I knew Thames Barrier was "that thing that looks a bit like the Sydney Opera House, that you can take a boat to." It's amazing to think about the infrastructure that is in place, and the careful research, thought and engineering that goes into it, without the average person being aware... and that one day changes, no matter how prepared and planned for, will probably take us by surprise anyway. I'm grateful there are people who devote their careers to the subject in so many ways from protecting the environment from harmful chemicals and plastics to tackling the engineering challenges to ensure that when changes do come we are prepared. There were loads of great organizations out recruiting today, and I now have a whole stack of bedtime reading for tonight!

More information on TE2100 is here:
More information and reports on the Barrier are here:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

World Toilet Day: What is it? And how to celebrate!

November 19th!

Every year World Toilet Day sneaks up on us. While we're already hanging out Christmas decorations in September many people forget there are some very important observances that come first, and this is one of them.

It's understandable... World Toilet Day is a fairly young holiday, started in 2001 at the first meeting of the World Toilet Association and only recognized by the UN in 2013. So most people don't know about it until it's happening or has passed, and then they only get the hallmark version of it: The humour without the substance.

Here are the ways a few people describe World Toilet Day:
The aim of World Toilet Day is to raise awareness about the people in the world who don’t have access to a toilet, despite the fact that it is a human right to have clean water and sanitation.“ (United Nations
World Toilet Day is THE day for action. It is the day to raise awareness about all the people who do not have access to a toilet, and the urgent need to end the sanitation crisis. And it is the day to stand up (or sit down or squat if you prefer) to do something about it. (World Toilet Organization) 
A campaign to motivate and mobilize millions around the world on issues of sanitation. (Wikipedia)
You don't have to dig far to learn that sanitation, and by extension toilets, is one of the major humanitarian crisis of our time, even if it doesn't always make the front pages. For the 2.4 billion people who lack access to good sanitation there is an increase of risk of malnutrition and disease. This problem exists not only in developing countries but refugee camps and many large cities (San Francisco for example is infamous for its 'poop problem' due to the high homeless population and the lack of access to basic facilities.') 

But I promised you I'd talk about celebrating and all of this is rather grim. Many consider the humour aspect of toilets to be an important part of the day because it gets people's attention in a way that facts and statistics don't. So here are some ideas for ways to make the most of the day at whatever level you wish to plunge to:

  1. Wish people a Happy World Toilet Day! When they ask why be prepared to tell them a little about the day and its history. It's a baby step, but you never know where simply getting a person thinking about a topic will lead!
  2. Throw a World Day Party! Whether you use it as an opportunity to raise money for a cause or just to reflect on the topic and talk to people about it it's a fun way to acknowledge the day. Topical (but not overly gross) foods include these super adorable Poo Emoji Meringues and lemonade... or rainbow ice cream in honor of the Squatty Potty unicorn. Create a toilet themed Quiz or play.
  3. Volunteer!  What sanitation initiatives are going on locally for you? In San Francisco I am a huge fan of Lava Mae which provides mobile shower units to the homeless population. Find out if your city has similar local programs!)
  4. Donate to a cause! There are many options both local in international, so find out what speaks to your interests. It might be one of the big global charities like WaterAid or something local to you. Get a group of friends together to Twin a Toilet!
  5. Do something fun and toilet related! I'm personally biased towards the London Loo Tour, but wherever you are there is likely to be something happening: visit the Paris Sewers or the Manchester Museum of Science (which has a great sewer exhibition).
  6. Share your celebrations! For the tweeters among you, previous years hashtags have included #wecantwait #worldtoiletday and #giveashit ... keep an eye out for others relating to your activities of choice!

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Sewer Love Story

Last year I looked forward with great anticipation to the Brighton Sewer tour, which had been on my bucket-list almost since I started out on my journey of toilet obsession. But alas, a month before the tour was to take place I got an e-mail saying all tours for the year had been canceled due to flooding. Determined to have a sewage adventure of some sort I searched and found the Paris Sewer Museum. I put out an open call to my facebook friends, and found a partner in crime, undeterred by the thought of a weekend of sewage, toilet hunting and eating snails. Despite my having a horrible hacking cough the whole time (arguably the authentic bohemian experience?) that trip turned out to be one of the best things that has ever happened to me.  I am now engaged to my patient, long suffering travel companion... and he even proposed with a sewer rat puppet.

Six months after getting engaged my fiancé and I finally managed to go down those Brighton Sewers, which are at least partially to thank for bringing us together. So with nearly three years of anticipation riding on them those sewers had a lot to live up to! They did not disappoint.

Our tour began at 9:30 and we waited on the wall outside the entrance with a group of other sewer enthusiasts. Mostly couples, a few families and a few lone travelers. We had a full group of 25, which is the maximum they take.

As we entered were issued with hard hats and rubber gloves and taken into a small room for an introduction. Four guides, all of whom have worked the sewers for many years took it in turns to give us health and safety and a bit of history.

The story parallels that of most large cities in the UK: Brighton's sewers were built in the 1860's in response to population growth and exciting diseases like cholera. Improvements have been made since then, but much of it is still the Victorian system.

Until fairly recently parts of the sewers were tidal... that is when there was not enough water from the household waste to keep things moving gates could be opened twice a day to let in the high tide and flush out the chambers. You can still see barnacles on the walls.

When they are flowing they flow fast! One tunnel we were taken to see moved at about 30 miles per hour... fast enough to knock you over if you stand in it (not recommended.) If you  are standing in sewage and feel yourself going down the first thing you should do is close your mouth. As our guide put it, "You've established you're going for a swim... you don't need to drink it as well."

Sewer men generally work between 2am and 6am as the safest time to go down is while everybody else is asleep (it used to be midnight and 4am, but night clubs have shifted that.) They clean out grit and grease that block up the sewers. Most of them remember when cleaning grit had an added bonus in the form of coins, rings, gold teeth, pocket watches and other treasures that made their way into the sewers. But these days instead of shoveling grit by hand they pump it into a truck.

We walked through the large overflow tunnel and climbed a ladder to emerge in a park a few blocks away from where we began. I wonder if people thought it was strange to see an army of people emerging from the sewers, or if by now the locals are used to it.

We hiked back to the start of the tour to wash our hands, collect our backs and receive goodies and pamphlets. Most of the gifts and indeed much had to do with keeping drains clean. As one guide explained it, the drains coming out of your home are usually only 4 inches thick... so if you let grease start piling up it doesn't take long to obstruct them. Actually most of the point of the tour seemed to be not to indulge curious lovebirds with a sanitation fixation, but to spread the gospel of clean drains. A worthy cause indeed!

I suppose the only appropriate way to end this post is to say that I hope that my marriage will be as enduring and the sewers. That we will treat our relationship with care and respect and not dump grease, wet wipes, ear cleaners or dead goldfish on it (metaphorically or literally.)  That though there may be grit to clean from time to time, we may find the gold and false teeth to make it worthwhile.

wedding vows: check!

Happy Family

One of our tour guides with Ratty