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'
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!)