The invention of the flush toilet (at least in England)
Toilets are not new, they have been around since the Stone Age, and flushing toilets are old enough that history doesn't record their invention.
But then things fell apart after the Roman Empire fell apart. Flushing toilets on a modern design were finally re-invented in England a little before 1600, wrapped up in some royal court intrigue. Read on for the details!
Toilets are not new
Toilets have been around at least since 3,500 BC. For example, see the Stone Age toilets of Skara Brae in Orkney, off the northern coast of Scotland. There was a drainage system to remove waste, although there are no clear signs of active water flushing.
Waste plumbing and water flushing are not new
The cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley Civilization had flush toilets in most homes connecting to a common sewage disposal system as early as 2600 BC.
The Minoans on Crete and Thera had flushing toilets starting around 1800 BC.
The Hittite Empire's capital of Hatuşaş had public waste disposal plumbing around 1200-700 BC.
The Greeks on the sacred island of Delos had large-scale public plumbing in addition to private latrines flushed by running water in the period from 900 BC to 100 AD.
So, toilets, sanitary plumbing and water-flushed toilets have been around for more than 4,000 years, maybe at least 5,500 years if those at Skara Brae had some form of active flushing.
However, the state of the art in plumbing technology entered a long decline in Europe starting with the collapse of the Roman Empire. By the time the Spanish explorers reached the Americas, they were astounded to find enormous cities with highly effective waste disposal systems. Meanwhile their streets back home were open sewers.
Sir John Harington
Sir John Harington was born in 1561 in Kelston, Somerset, in southeastern England. His mother was a gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber of Queen Elizabeth I.
The Privy Chamber was the most influential operating department within the English royal household. Control of the Privy Chamber meant control of the ruler. What had simply been the Chamber of the King had been divided under King Henry VIII (ruled 1509-1547) into the Privy Chamber, the Presence Chamber, and the Great Hall, working out from the innermost private space. The Privy Chamber included the ruler's bedroom, library, study and toilet.
As King Henry VIII grew older and fatter, the position of Groom of the Stool became ever more influential. Meanwhile, the work involved remained rather unpleasant. The Groom of the Stool, more formally titled the Groom of the King's Close Stool, was in charge of the royal excretion and was tasked with removing the excrement and cleaning the King's anal area after defecation.
Paper was an expensive and uncommon material until industrial production reduced its cost in the 1800s. Royalty would be cleaned with cloth made from wool, cotton or hemp. For further details on post-toilet cleaning, see the Wipe or Wash? page for more detail.
The title comes from Close-Stool, a portable commode in the form of a wooden box with a lid, containing a pewter or earthenware chamber pot. The word stool coming from the Old English and Norse stol or stoll meaning a chair.
Grooms of the King's Close Stool under Henry VIII were:
- Sir William Compton, who died in 1528 during the Sweating Sickness, a mysterious and highly virulent disease striking first England and then continental Europe in a series of outbreaks between 1485 and 1551. It often killed its victims within a few hours, and is thought to have possibly been a form of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome. The poor sanitation and sewage-contaminated water supplies of the era are thought to be at least partly to blame.
- Sir Henry Norris, who was beheaded in 1536 for High Treason
- Sir Thomas Heneage, who died in 1546
- Sir Anthony Denny, who died in 1547
- Sir Michael Stanhope, who was beheaded in 1552 for High Treason
Kat Ashley was appointed the First Lady of the Bedchamber by Elizabeth I in 1558. The office was "neutralized" in 1559, meaning among other things that English royalty now had to clean themselves. A position with similar title but very different tasks survived until 1901.
The childless Queen Elizabeth I accepted John Harington as one of her 102 godchildren, through the connection of his mother's position in the Queen's Pricy Chamber.
Harington was educated at Eton and at King's College at Cambridge, where he studied law. He hung around the royal court, where his poetry and unusually free-spirited nature drew Queen Elizabeth's notice. She encouraged him to write, which led to a series of episodes emphasizing the need to be careful what you ask for.
Harington was always giving offense with his readings of his somewhat risqué pieces. Then he attempted a translation of the Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso, set during the wars between Charlesmagne's Christian paladin forces and the Saracen army attempting to invade Europe. The epic focused on the paladin Orlando's unrequited love for a pagan princess.
Harington's partial translation went beyond his usual level of raciness, and the angry Queen banished him from her court until he had translated the entire poem. As it's 38,736 lines long, one of the longest poems in European literature, she thought she was rid of him.
Much to everyone's surprise, he returned in 1591 with the entire epic translated into English, naughty bits and all. He was praised, first for completing the task, and then for the quality of his translation which is still read today. Since he was just doing what the Queen had commanded, he was back in good standing in the royal court.
In 1596 he wrote what today is his best-known work, A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, ostensibly a description of a newly designed flush toilet installed at his home in Kelston, but actually an allegorical attack on Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester.
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester
Dudley, a nobleman and the favorite of Queen Elizabeth throughout her reign, was involved in both domestic and foreign politics. As a young man he had escaped execution after leading a force of 300 men in support of Lady Jane Grey over Mary Tudor as the successor to King Edward VI in 1553. Dudley, his father, and four brothers were imprisoned in the Tower of London and condemned to death, his father and one brother were executed.
Elizabeth, the future Queen, half-sister to Mary and childhood friend of Dudley, just happened to be imprisoned in the Tower at the same time. Dudley and his surviving brothers were released after a little over a year in prison. Meanwhile, Dudley's family had befriended now-Queen Mary's husband Philip of Spain. As long as King Philip was around, Dudley and his brother were welcome at court, but when Philip wasn't there, they were just a couple of suspected conspirators.
Elizabeth I succeeded Mary on 18 November 1558, and Dudley became Master of the Horse that same day, putting him into an important position with close access to the ruler. The next year the Spanish ambassador was describing Robert Dudley as one of the three people running the country, and Philip II said:
|Lord Robert has come so much into favour that he does whatever he likes with affairs and it is even said that her majesty visits him in his chamber day and night. People talk of this so freely that they go so far as to say that his wife has a malady in one of her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert ... Matters have reached such a pass ... that ... it would ... be well to approach Lord Robert on your Majesty's behalf ... Your Majesty would do well to attract and confirm him in his friendship.|
Dudley's first wife, Amy Robsart, died in 1560 when she fell down a flight of stairs and broke her neck. This left Dudley available to marry the Queen, but persistent rumors that he had arranged his wire's death interfered with that. He remarried in 1578, but didn't inform the Queen. Nine months later his competitors at court told the Queen. She was enraged, labeling Dudley a "traitor" and his new wife, Lettice Knollys, a "she-wolf" permanently banished from the court.
Domestically, Dudley supported the Puritan movement while trying to mediate between the Puritans and the Church of England. He was also a major supporter of Francis Drake and other explorers, and was in overall command of the English ground forces during the conflict with the Spanish Armada.
A document titled The Copie of a Leter wryten by a Master of Arts of Cambrige appeared in 1584, laying charges that Dudley was a sinister "master courtier" and a corrosive figure in the court of Elizabeth I. It has since been interpreted as Roman Catholic propaganda against the Puritan sympathies Dudley had fostered within Elizabeth I's regime. Dudley was described as am amoral opportunist "of almost satanic malevolence" involved in a number of murders, starting with that of his wife and then continuing with the poisonings of the Cardinal of Chatillon, the Earl of Sussex, the Earl of Essex, and several others. He supposedly had a "monstrous sexual appetite" and he and his wife were involved in various episodes of adultery and abortions. Plus, he had hired a mathematician to cast black magic spells. Eventually the tract came to be retitled Leicester's Commonwealth.
Metamorphosis of Ajax
Well, Harington's 1596 publication of Metamorphosis of Ajax was just piling onto an already beleaguered Dudley, and the Queen was outraged. Ajax was a variant of a jakes, a slang term possibly of French origin for "toilet". The book criticizes the "stercus" or excrement associated with "a jakes", but this really was an allegorical attack on state-sponsored torture and conspiracies against Harington's relatives, actions blamed on Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester.
Harington had published the Metamorphosis of Ajax under the pseudonym of "Misacmos" but it was pretty obvious that he had written it. This got him banished from the court of Queen Elizabeth I for a second time.
The illustration of the monk sitting on a monastic reredorter is accompanied by some verse.
A godly father, sitting on a draught,|
To do as need and nature hath us taught
Mumbled (as was his manner) certain prayers
And unto him the devil straight repairs!
And boldly to revile him he begins,
Alleging that such prayers are deadly sins;
And that he show'd he was devoid of grace,
To speak to God from so unmeet a place.
The reverent man, though at the first dismay'd
Yet strong in faith, to Satan thus he said:
Thou damned spirit, wicked, false and lying,
Despairing thine own good, and our envying;
Each take his due, and me thou canst not hurt,
To God my prayer I meant, to thee the dirt.
Pure prayer ascends to him that high doth sit,
Down falls the filth, for fiends of hell more fit.
Well, let's skip past the allegorical criticism of Elizabethan court figures. Here is the core of the Metamorphosis of Ajax, the detailed description of how to metamorphosize your ajax:
WHEREIN BY A
Tripartiate Method, is plainly, openly, and demon-
stratively declared, explained, and eliquidated,
by Pen, Plot, and Precept, how unsavory
Places may be made sweet, noisome
Places made wholesome, filthy
places made cleanly
THE COMMON BENEFIT OF BUILDERS, HOUSEKEEPERS,
BY T. C.
TRAVELLER, APPRENTICE IN POETRY, PRACTISER IN MUSIC,
PROFESSOR OF PAINTING;
THE MOTHER, DAUGHTER, AND HANDMAID OF ALL MUSES,
ARTS, and SCIENCES
Invide quid mordes? Pictoribus atque Poetis,
Quidlibet audendi semper fiut aequa potestas.
IMPRINTED BY RICHARD FIELD,
DWELLING IN THE BLACKFRIARS.
TO M.S.E. ESQUIRE
My master having expressly commanded me to finish a strange discourse that he had written to you, called the Metamorpho-sis of AJAX, by setting certain pictures thereto; there came unto my mind a tale I had heard, perhaps more merry than mannerly, how a plain or rather pleasant serving-man, waiting on his master at the Pope's court, happened to be present one day when the gentleman, after long attendance and great means, had obtained the favour to kiss his Holiness' foot. The man seeing what his master did, first stole out of the chamber, and then ran out of the house, hiding himself for a pretty space: the gentleman hearing of it, pitied his mans simplicity (who perhaps was crafty knave enough for all that), and asked why he went away? Alas! sir, said he, when I saw that a man of your worth and worship, in so public a place, might kiss but his toe, I doubted they would have made me have kissed him in some homilier place; and so I might have been shamed for ever.
If that serving-man had cause to run out of the house,
methinks I may seem to have more reason to run out of
my wits, to have so strange a task appointed me:
for when the very face and head, or title of the book,
seemed so foul and unsavoury, what might I think
the feet or tail thereof were like to prove?
Wherefore, I would gladly have shunned so base
an office; but having my masters example,
joined to his commandment, I took heart to me:
and first, I read over the discourse, to see what was
promised therein on my behalf (viz. certain pictures).
But I assure you, in the reading of it, whether it
were the well-handling of the matter, or my partial
opinion (a fault that I am seldom charged withal),
my mind was altered; and I compared the homely
title of it unto an ill-favoured vizor, such as
I have seen in stage plays, when they dance
Machachinas, which covers as sweet a face sometimes
as any is in the company.
And even presently therewithal, as if I had been
inspired with the spirit of AJAX, methought I
durst have adventured with my pen and pencil
upon any thing.
For as the saying is,
Painters and poets, claim by old enrolment,
A charter, to dare all, without controlment.
|Or to a toad, or a snake made in sugar, that looks unsightly, but tastes sweetly.|
Wherefore, by the privilege of this charter (as also
by a patent I have of serving two apprenticeships),
I will go somewhat beyond the bare words of my
commission, and yet not swerve much from the charge
that is laid upon me.
For, sir, I would you knew it, though I never
troubled the schools at Oxford with any disputes
or degrees, yet I carried there a good scholars
books after him; and I trust I got some quaint
phrases among them; as namely, instead of
praying the cobler to set two patches on my shoes,
I could have said,
Set me two semicircles upon my suppeditals:
with much other eloquence beyond the common
And yet, notwithstanding all these great vaunts,
I will not take upon me, that I am able to say
so much of the Metamorpho-sis, the etymology,
and the reformation of Don AJAX house, as my
master hath said; or to defend the words,
illustrate the matter, and dilate of the form,
as he hath done; for who can stand against such
an army of emperors, kings, magistrates, prophets,
poets, all-hallows, and all prophanes, even from
the Bible to the Bable, as are by him brought for
enobling of his arguments?
Yet for anatomizing as it were of the shape and body
thereof because he hath handled that point
(in M. Plat's opinion) somewhat too briefly
for common understandings, I must here a little
better open it: for as the old saying is
(bonum quo communius eo melius),
and the old verse is,
Scire tuum hihil est, nisi te scrire hoc sciat alter.
Goodness is best, when it is common shown:
Knowledge were vain, if knowledge were not known.
|M. Plat in his book against famine, fol. ultimo penultimo.|
|Wherefore now, seriously and in good sadness, to instruct you and all gentlemen of worship, how to reform all unsavoury places of your houses, whether they be caused by privies or sinks, or such like (for the annoyance coming all of like causes, the remedies need not be much unlike), this shall you do.||If that which follows offend the reader, he may turn over a leaf or two, or but smell to his sweet gloves, and then the savour will never offend him.|
|"In the privy that annoys you, first cause a cistern, containing a barrel or upward, to be placed either behind the seat, or in any place either in the room or above it, from whence the water may, by a small pipe of lead of an inch, be conveyed under the seat in the hinder part thereof (but quite out of sight); to which pipe you must have a cock or a washer, to yield water with some pretty strength when you would let it in.||This cistern in the first plot is figured at the letter A; and so likewise in the second plot. The small pipe in the first plot at D, in the second E; but it ought to lie out of sight.|
|"Next make a vessel of an oval form, as broad at the bottom as at the top; two feet deep, one foot broad, sixteen inches long; place this very close to your seat, like the pot of a close-stool; let the oval incline to the right hand.||This vessel is expressed in the first plot H, M, N; in the second H, K.|
|"This vessel may be brick, stone, or lead; but whatsoever it is, it should have a current of three inches to the back part of it (where a sluice of brass must stand); the bottom and sides all smooth, and drest with pitch, rosin, and wax; which will keep it from tainting with the urine.||The current is expressed in the second plot K.|
|A special note.|
|"In the lowest part of this vessel, which will be on the right hand, you must fasten the sluice or washer of brass, with solder or cement; the concavity or hollow thereof, must be two inches and a half.||In the second plot I, L.|
|"To the washers stopple must be a stem of iron, as big as a curtain rod; strong and even, and perpendicular, with a strong screw at the top of it; to which you must have a hollow key with a worm fit to that screw.||In the first plot G, F; in the second F and I.|
|"This screw must, when the sluice is down, appear through the plank not above a straws breadth on the right hand; and being duly placed, it will stand about three or four inches wide of the midst of the back of your seat.||In the first plot between G, I.|
|"Item, That children and busy folk disorder it not, or open the sluice with putting in their hands without a key, you should have a little button or scallop shell, to bind it down with a vice pin, so as without the key it will not be opened.||This shows in the first plot K, L; in the second G; such are in the backside of watches.|
|"These things thus placed, all about your vessel and elsewhere, must be passing close plastered with good lime and hair, that no air come up from the vault, but only at your sluice, which stands close stopped; and ever it must be left, after it is voided, half a foot deep in clean water.||Else all is vain.|
|"If water be plenty, the oftener it is used and opened, the sweeter; but if it be scant, once a day is enough, for a need, though twenty persons should use it.|
|"If the water will not run to your cistern, you may with a force of twenty shillings, and a pipe of eighteen pence the yard, force it from the lowest part of your house to the highest.||These forces, al also the great washer, you shall buy at the queen's braziers in Lothbury, at the boar's-head.|
|"But now on the other side behold the Anatomy."|
Here are the parts set down, with a rate of the prices; that a builder may guess what he hath to pay.
|A the cistern; stone or brick. Price||6||8|
|b, d, e the pipe that comes from the cistern, with a stopple to the washer. Price||3||6|
|c a waste pipe.||1||0|
|f, g the stem of the great stopple, with a key to it.||1||6|
|h the form of the upper brim of the vessel or stool-pot.|
|m the stool-pot, of stone||8||0|
|n the great brass sluice, to which is three inches current to send it down a gallop into the Jax.||10||0|
And lest you should mislike with this phrase, I had it in a verse of a grave author, that was wont to walk up and down the court with a forest bill; I have forgot how it began (like a beast as he was), but it ended in rhyme:
O that I were at Oxenford, to eat some Banbury cakes.
i the seat, with a peak devant for elbow-room. The whole charge thirty shillings and eight pence: yet a mason of my masters was offered thirty pounds for the like. Memorandum. The scale is about half an inch to a foot.
A the cistern
b the little washer.
c the waste pipe.
D the seat board.
e the pipe that comes from the cistern.
f the screw.
g the scallop shell, to cover it when it is shut down.
H the stool pot.
i the stopple.
k the current.
l the sluice.
M, n the vault into which it falls: always remember that ( ) at noon and at night empty it, and leave it half a foot deep in fair water.
And this being well done, and orderly kept, your worst privy may be as sweet as your best chamber.
But to conclude all this in a few words, it is but a standing close-stool easily emptied. And by the like reason (other forms and proportions observed) all other places of your house may be kept sweet.
Your worships to command.
What became of Harington and his invention?
His Metamorphosized Ajax did not catch on in England. Wash-down bowls were a bit too, well, metamorphical for the English. Queen Elizabeth I did have one installed in her palace at Richmond, but probably out of curiousity or favor to her godson than anything else. English royalty stuck to the "close stool" for at least another two centuries. Harington's design was reasonably successful in France where it was called the Angrez.
Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 and James VI of Scotland claimed the English throne as James I of England. Harington was not as successful in the court of her successor. Harington's cousin had become involved in 1603 in two plots to kidnap or depose James I.
The Bye Plot was a conspiracy by Roman Catholic priests and Puritan leaders to kidnap the king for a variety of reasons, including a demand for toleration for their denominations. English citizens were subject to fines if they did not attent Church of England servcies.
The Main Plot, a conspiracy developed in parallel during that busy summer of 1603, was allegedly led by members of the royal court and financed by Spain. It intended to replace James on the English throne with his cousin Lady Arabella Stuart.
Harington's cousin Sir Griffin Markham was somehow involved in both of these rather far-fetched schemes. This led to his being arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death. His execution was waived in return for a massive fine of £4000 and exile. Markham left for exile in Europe and his cousin Harington was stuck with paying his fine.
Harington couldn't pay the fine without selling his own property, which he did not want to do. He escaped custody in October of 1603, but James I had already created him a Knight of the Bath in recognition of his loyalty to the English throne, and also transferred all of cousin Markham's property to him, so Harington once again wiggled out of trouble.
Sir John Harington later became the tutor to Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, the older son of King James and Anne of Denmark. Before Henry Frederick died of typhoid fever at the age of 18, Harington had translated Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum or the Health Regimen of the School of Salernum. This was a medieval collection of health tips, no doubt almost entirely outdated by the time Harington started the project, but his translation of them into English verse was a success.
Harington died in 1612, soon after his pupil Henry Frederick. He is remembered for his writings on plumbing and sanitation and also for his political observation: "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason."
Alexander Cummings was a Scottish watchmaker and general mechanic and tinkerer born in Edinburgh in 1733. In 1775 he was working in London when he obtained the first English patent for a flush toilet design.
Cummings' innovation was an S-shaped double bend in the waste pipe. Water would remain in this bend, called a "trap", forming an air lock that isolated the air near the toilet from the sewer gases down in the main sewer pipe. Most all plumbing fixtures today have a similar drain line trap, shaped variously like an S, a U, or a J.
Cummings went on to write books about watch and clock design, about the relationship between carriage wheel rim shapes and the road wear they caused, and about gravity. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society, one of the scientists and engineers from the UK and Commonwealth who have "made a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science".
Joseph Bramah was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1748. He became an inventor and locksmith. He is best known for inventing the hydraulic press, but he also made a significant improvement to the design of flush toilets.
Bramah was installing flush toilets built to Cummings' design when he observed that the current model tended to freeze during cold weather. Bramah's employer, a Mr Allen, had replaced the standard slide valve with a hinged flap sealing the bottom of the bowl. But Bramah obtained the patent for Allen's design in 1778.
He set up a factory to manufacture the new design, and they were produced well into the 1800s.
George Jennings, born in 1810 in Hampshire, England. He started working as an apprentice to his grandfather's glass and lead business, and then moved to his uncle's plumbing business in Southampton. In 1831 he became a plumber with a firm in London where his father had previously been a foreman.
The sanitary plumbing business was given a boost by the 1848 Public Health Act which required every new house to have a "water closet, privy, or ash-pit, furnished with proper doors and coverings", while also placing the supply of water, sewerage, drainage, and paving under the authority of a single local body. That same year, 14,000 people died of cholera in London, 55,000 throughout Britain. Jennings came to specialize in designing toilets intended to be "as perfect a sanitary closet as can be made", and to apply these designs to the first public flush toilets.
Jennings' design of the subterranean "public convenience" included entrances with illuminated arches and elaborate metal railings. The interiors were initially finished in slate, but he then switched to ceramic tiles.
His most famous public toilet installation was when he installed his "Monkey Closet" design in the "Retiring Rooms" of the Crystal Palace during the Great Exhibition of 1851. During the Great Exhibition, May 1st through October 15th of 1851, 827,280 exhibition visitors paid one penny to use the Retiring Rooms. That penny got them the use of a clean toilet seat, plus a shoe shine and the use of a towel and a comb.
Jennings was awarded a patent in 1852 "For improvements in water-closets, in traps and valves, and in pumps." This included the pan and trap of the water-closet being constructed as a single piece, "so formed that there shall always be a certain quantity of water retained in the pan itself, in addition to that in the trap which forms the water-joint." He also improved the drain and the valve.
He designed the first public underground toilet at the Royal Exchange, opening in 1854.
In 1855 he became in involved in a very significant modern sanitation project. The British government appointed him the head of the sanitary commission sent to the Scutari Barracks, what the Turks called the Selimiye Kişlası, in the Üsküdar district on the Asian side of İstanbul. Florence Nightengale, who was founding modern military nursing care, had asked for his participation. Her work there with Jennings during the Crimean War made her a heroine.
Jennings went on to build up a booming business, exporting high-end plumbing to foreign royalty (an elaborate mahogany shower cabinet for the Khedive of Egypt, a copper bath for Empress Eugenie of France) and installing it for domestic royalty (the public facilities installed at Saint Paul's Cathedral in London for a thanksgiving service celebrating the Prince of Wales' recovery from typhoid).
Thomas Crapper came along later, only opening his plumbing business in 1861. See the detailed page on Thomas Crapper for details on what Crapper did and did not do.