Part two:  Flushed

The story of the water closet, or how plumbers saved the world.

In our last edition, we looked at what came before the plumber. Going back to the early days, it’s worth noting that back then urine had a commercial value in certain areas. Where cloth was being made, urine was collected from nearby farmsteads, hamlets and villages to aid the fulling and bleaching process. As with grapes and wine making, the urine was trodden into the cloth. It’s fair to say that health and safety was unknown. Here Australian Plumbing Industry history correspondent Paul Yunnie investigates the legacy of the toilet.

Following the centuries after the Romans retreated back to their homeland, there was obviously a need for some development in the hygiene department. Towns and cities were dying, literally dying, with the adverse effects of open drains and sewers – often affecting the water supply. Pestilence and plague were rampant. Nowhere more so than as illustrated in Sydney when the colonies first water supply, the Tank Stream, became so polluted it could no longer be used.

Measures were put in place to cover these water courses and eventually drains were installed to take away waste. Cities began covering both fresh water and foul water streams and rivers. In London the Fleet river was one of the first to be isolated. The biggest undertaking was that engineered by Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer to the Board of Works. In the 1860s he built 83 miles of intercepting sewers, draining 100 square miles of buildings and carrying 420 million gallons a day. The main outflow from the city is what we know as the Albert Embankment and Victoria Embankment that run along the River Thames. Londoners actually drive over this engineering feat everyday. Nevertheless, dependence on the night soil men carrying away the waste from homes was slow to change. Nothing could happen without running water being supplied to premises. When this eventually happened, attention was turned to the WC itself.

Many inventors/engineers are credited with the development of the water closet. Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Crapper (1836-1910) was not the first – by a long way. That accolade goes to Sir John Harington (1561-1612), who in 1592 made the first flushing WC. He only made two, neither of which survived. One for himself and one for his godmother – non other than Queen Elizabeth I. Developments then stagnated, if you’ll excuse the pun, for nearly two centuries. It wasn’t until 1775 that one Alexander Cummings (1732-1814), a watch maker would you believe, patented an Improved Water Closet, and introduced the u-bend, (‘Improved’ implying that there had been some developments in the intervening years). There were a number of shortcomings that came with Cummings WC, some due to the materials that were available at that time. Next on the scene was Joseph Bramah (1748-1815), a cabinet maker. Aware of problems with Cummings WC, he set about improving the WC and in 1778 patented his new device. By 1797, he had sold 6,000 of his water closets.

So who was Thomas Crapper? Well, to start with, as we have seen he did not invent the modern WC. But he did improve both the WC and improved the ventilation of house drains, taking out many patents. He was a well-respected plumber and even had both Edward VII and George V as clients earning the company the Royal Warrant. The word derived from his surname was not in fact associated with him as it was in use long before his time. The company bearing his name was reformed in 1999, manufacturing WCs to the original patterns of Thomas Crapper & Co.

The amount of water used for flushing often depended on the user. Sufficient water for a day’s use was usually accommodated in a tank in the roof space. The amount of water depended on how long an individual held down the flushing mechanism. In the 1800s, attention was given to improving this method and, backed by local authorities, saving water. A standard 2 gall tank usually fitted about 5 ft above the pan became the norm and will be familiar to many older plumbers.

Meanwhile out in the street public urinals began to appear – at first for men only! Those familiar with French towns will be familiar with the very public public urinals. Early examples can also be found on Australian streets such as the cast iron unit under the Sydney Harbour Bridge on the city side of the harbour.

Like so many everyday services provided for by plumbers, heating and mechanical engineers, they are taken for granted by the general public – and often out of sight as well. Our industry has been around for many years, has improved the lives of everyone and can genuinely be said to be the founders of the Health and Safety movement – sorry, couldn’t resist another pun!