Thomas Crapper

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Thomas Crapper.

Thomas Crapper (baptized September 26, 1836; d. January 27, 1910) was a plumber who founded Thomas Crapper & Co. Ltd. in London, England.

Although not, as per urban legend, the inventor of the flush toilet (the myth being helped by the surname), Crapper put in much effort to popularise it. He was noted for the quality of his products and received several Royal Warrants.

The manhole covers with Crapper's company's name on them in Westminster Abbey are now a minor tourist attraction.


Thomas Crapper and his company

The story of Thomas Crapper and his achievements has been somewhat confused by Wallace Reyburn's 1969 book Flushed With Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper (ISBN 1857028600), a heavily fictionalised satirical biography in the style of scholarship [1] ( Adam Hart-Davis' later writings on Crapper help set the record straight.

Crapper was born in Waterside, Yorkshire (near Thorne), in September 1836 (the exact date is unknown). His father Charles was a steamboat captain. At the age of 14, Crapper was apprenticed to a master plumber in Chelsea, London. After his apprenticeship and three years as a journeyman plumber, in 1861 he founded his own company at Robert Street, Chelsea. In 1866 he moved the business to nearby Marlborough Road (now Draycott Avenue).

Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet — credit is usually given to Sir John Harington in 1596, with Alexander Cummings' 1775 toilet regarded as the first of the modern line — but he did popularise it. He was a shrewd businessman, salesman and self-publicist. In a time when bathroom fixtures were barely spoken of, he heavily promoted sanitary plumbing and pioneered the concept of the bathroom fittings showroom.

In the 1880s, Prince Edward (later Edward VII) purchased his country seat of Sandringham House in Norfolk and invited Thomas Crapper & Co. to supply the plumbing, including thirty lavatories with cedarwood seats and enclosures, thus giving Crapper his first Royal Warrant. The firm received further warrants from Edward as King and from George V both as Prince of Wales and as King. Contrary to Reyburn's book, however, Crapper never received a knighthood and was never styled Sir Thomas Crapper.

In 1904 Crapper retired, passing the firm to his nephew George and his business partner Robert Marr Wharam. Crapper lived at 12 Thornsett Road, Bromley for the last thirteen years of his life and died on January 27, 1910. He was buried in Elmers End Cemetery.

In 1966, the company was sold by then-owner Robert G. Wharam (son of Robert Marr Wharam) on his retirement, to their rivals John Bolding & Sons. Bolding then went into liquidation in 1969. The company name fell out of use until 1998, when it was acquired by Simon Kirby, a historian and collector of antique bathroom fittings, who relaunched the company in Stratford-upon-Avon, producing authentic reproductions of Crapper's original Victorian bathroom fittings.

Crapper and the syphonic flush toilet

Common myth has it that Crapper invented the flush toilet. He did indeed hold nine patents, three of them for water closet improvements such as the floating ballcock, but none were for the flush toilet. Thomas Crapper's advertisements implied the syphonic flush was his invention — one having the text "Crapper's Valveless Water Waste Preventer (Patent #4,990) One moveable part only" — but patent 4990 (for a minor improvement to the water waste preventer) was not his, but that of Albert Giblin in 1898.

His nephew, George Crapper, did improve the siphon mechanism by which the water flow is started. A patent for this development was awarded in 1897.

The words "crap" and "crapper"

The noun crap is old in the English language, one of a group of words applied to discarded cast offs, like "residue from renderings" (1490s) or in Shropshire, "dregs of beer or ale", meanings probably extended from Middle English crappe "chaff, or grain that has been trodden underfoot in a barn" (c. 1440), deriving ultimately from Late Latin crappa, "chaff."

The word fell out of use in Britain by the 1600s, but remained current in the United States. The meaning "to defecate" was recorded in the US since 1846 (according to Oxford and Merriam-Webster), but the word did not hold this meaning at all in Victorian England. The connection to Thomas Crapper is conjectured by Hart-Davis to be an unfortunate coincidence of his surname.

The occupational name Crapper is a variant spelling of "Cropper". In the US, the word crapper is a dysphemism for "toilet," although it is not clear if this has anything to do with Thomas Crapper. The term first appeared in print in the 1930s. It has been suggested that US soldiers stationed in England during World War I (some of whom had little experience with indoor plumbing) saw many toilets printed with "T. Crapper" in the glaze and brought the word home as a synonym for "toilet" — a sort of back-formation from "crap."

Yet another purported explanation is that Crapper's flush toilet advertising was so widespread that "crapper" became a synonym for "toilet" and people simply assumed that he was the inventor.


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