Thomas Crapper was a successful
London plumber who was employed by the royal family when they
refurbished Sandringham House in the 1880s. He was an efficient sanitary
engineer, but not a great inventor, and he certainly did not invent the
Crapper was born in 1836 - the
year before Victoria came to the throne - in the little town of Thorne,
near Doncaster in Yorkshire. Thorne was then a thriving port;
barges came up the river Don and unloaded cargo on the docks.
Thomas’s dad was a sailor, and his four brothers were dockers, 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, and survived for about a
Recently the company was revived
by Simon Kirby; so now Thomas Crapper plumbs again, and you can get
yourself a superb Crapper high-flush suite.
Crapper manhole covers can be
found all over the south of England; there are several in Westminster
Abbey - apparently one in the cloisters near the deanery is popular for
brass-rubbings - and many in the flower-beds at Sandringham, and at Park
House next door. There is even one at Bedminster in Bristol. I should be
glad to hear about other Crapper manhole covers.
Thomas Crapper lived for the
last thirteen years of his life at 12 Thornsett Road, Bromley. He died
on 17 January 1910, and was buried in Elmers End cemetery; his grave is
near to that of cricketer W G Grace.
The big question is Did he
really invent the siphonic flush? In one of his advertisements he
included a picture of a cistern with the label ‘Crapper’s Valveless Water Waste Preventer
No 4,990) One moveable part only.’ The
phrase ‘water-waste preventer’ was often used to describe the siphon
in the cistern.
Wallace Reyburn, Crapper’s
biographer, is noticeably silent about the date of this patent.
Fortunately it is possible at the British Library to look up all the
patents taken out by a particular person. Thomas Crapper took out nine
plumbing patents, starting with one in 1881 (No 1628) to do with
ventilating house drains, and ending in 1893 (no 11604) for a mechanism
to flush a lavatory by means of a foot lever. None of his patents was No
4990. None of his patents was for a valveless water-waste preventer (WWP).
During the 1880s various types
of siphonic systems were being patented at the rate of about 20 a year -
but none by Thomas Crapper.
George Crapper of Marlborough
Works - Thomas’s nephew - took out in 1897 a patent (No 724) for
“improvements in or relating to automatic syphon flushing tanks.” So
they had clearly been using siphons for some time.
In fact the first patent for a
siphonic flush was taken out by Joseph Adamson in 1853, eight years
before Crapper started his business, and 28 years before he took out his
There was a patent No 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.
So alas it seems almost certain
that Thomas Crapper did not invent the siphonic flush; he certainly did
not patent it, as he implied in his advertising. His reputation rests
mainly on his apposite name, and on Reyburn’s perhaps
In the US, “crapper” is
sometimes used to mean lavatory; one theory is that the word was brought
back by American troops serving in Britain during the first world war,
and impressed by Thomas Crapper’s products. But two difficulties
arise; if the word crap was used in America to mean defecate as far back
as 1846, as stated in Webster’s dictionary, then Thomas Crapper cannot
have been responsible, since he was only ten years old at the time, and
still living at home in Yorkshire! Both OED
(second edition) and Merriam-Webster
give the first use of crapper as 1932, which fits neither with the
original use of crap, nor with the end of the first world war in 1918.
Thunder, Flush and
Thomas Crapper, 1997