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Flushing out the truth: Jennings, Crapper and the public convenience

George Jennings should be much better known. He, and not Thomas Crapper, invented the flush toilet.

19th century installations bearing the name of both men can still be seen at Wesley's Chapel on City Road in London.

The Gentlemen's toilet at Wesley's Chapel, City Road, London
The Gentlemen's toilet at Wesley's Chapel

Born in Hampshire in 1810, Josiah George Jennings (known as George) spent time as a young man in family businesses in the plumbing, lead and glass trades, before becoming a plumber in London at the age of 21.


In 1838, he set up his own plumbing business in Lambeth and later established a pottery in Dorset to manufacture water closets, pipes, drainage and sanitary ware. The pottery, in Parkstone near Poole, must have been impressive, as it had its own steam engine running on a private branch line from the local railway station.

 

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Jennings' first public flush toilets, installed at the Great Exhibition at The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park in 1851, made a huge impact. For the price of a penny, users were provided with a clean seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine.


More than 800,000 people were the first "to spend a penny" in Jennings' facilities, a phrase that still means "to go to the loo".

George Jennings urinals: a marvel in marble

Jennings pioneered the design of underground public conveniences, opening the first one at the Royal Exchange in the City of London. According to The Sanitary Record, a journal published in the 19th century, Jennings "implored a shocked City of London to accept his public lavatories free", provided that attendants "were allowed to make a small charge for the use of the closets and towels".


He supplied private and public bathroom and toilet products around the world, including to Egypt, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, South Africa, South America and the Far East. A catalogue produced by his firm 23 years after his death listed 36 towns where it had installed public conveniences.


He was greatly admired by Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, and led a sanitary commission to improve the condition of barracks used by British soldiers in the Crimean War. In 1872, Jennings oversaw the public toilets at a thanksgiving service at St Paul's Cathedral to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales from typhoid.

George Jennings: at Her Majesty's convenience

Jennings' motto was 'Sanitas sanitatum'. The Latin word 'sanitas' means both 'health' and 'sanity' and also provides the origin of 'sanitation' and 'sanitary'.


The direct translation of his motto is 'health of healths' or 'sanity of sanities', but it is a play on a phrase from the Bible, 'vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas'. This translates as 'vanity of vanities, all is vanity' and is a declaration of the futility or emptiness of human existence. Jennings' motto stresses the value of sanitation to human existence.


The politician Benjamin Disraeli used the phrase 'sanitas sanitatum, omnia sanitas' in a speech in 1872 when he was Leader of the Opposition, between his two terms as Prime Minister. He used it to emphasise the importance of improvements to public sanitation as a focus for Parliament.


George Jennings died on 17 April 1882 at the age of 72 in unfortunate circumstances. He was driving across Albert Bridge on his way home to Clapham with his son, George Junior, in his gig (a two-wheeled carriage). The horse suddenly pulled up and both men were thrown from the vehicle, breaking George Senior's collar bone. He died four days later after congestion of the lungs set in.


George Jennings is not as well known as Thomas Crapper, who lived from 1836 to 1910. Also a plumber and manufacturer of bathroom and toilet products, the younger man's renown is hugely boosted by his more memorable surname.

Thomas Crapper's logo at the Gentlemen's toilet at Wesley's Chapel, City Road, London
The venerably famous Thomas Crapper

However, contrary to popular belief, Crapper did not invent the flush toilet (that was Jennings). Moreover, the popular slang for human bodily waste does not derive from his name.


The word 'crap', according to any decent dictionary, comes from the Middle English 'crappe', meaning chaff or residue from rendered fat, and the early Dutch 'krappe', meaning a piece torn or cut off. The word really just means 'rubbish'.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of 'crap' to mean 'faeces' was in 1846 (when Thomas Crapper was still only 10).


Crapper certainly contributed to the development of modern sanitaryware. He developed the U-bend as an improvement on the previous S-bend, while his patented inventions include the floating ballcock.


He was the first person to establish public showrooms for sanitaryware, in Chelsea's King's Road, and helped to popularise the idea of having such fittings in private homes.


Thomas Crapper's company developed a reputation for quality and won a number of royal warrants. The company eventually became defunct in the 1960s, but has since been revived as a maker of reproduction Victorian bathroom fittings under the famous name.


George Jennings' contribution to modern sanitation has been downplayed by history, whereas Thomas Crapper's has been overstated. Nevertheless, both helped to make life so much more convenient for billions of people to this day (even if some popular beliefs about Crapper are, well, crap).

Thomas Crapper toilet flush at the Gentlemen's toilet at Wesley's Chapel, City Road, London
Pull the other one!

In his 1872 speech, Disraeli remarked that "the first consideration of a minister should be the health of the people". Both of the men discussed in this post made a huge contribution towards just that.

 

All the photographs in this post were taken at the Gentlemen's toilet at Wesley's Chapel, City Road, London (just north of the City, still in the Borough of Islington). The chapel was opened in 1778 by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.


The Gents' loos were installed in the 1890s by Thomas Crapper, featuring installations from both his and George Jennings' companies (although this was some years after Jennings' death). They can be seen through a side door and down some steps.


The chapel and the toilets can be visited between 11am and 4pm Tuesdays to Saturdays (no entrance fee, not even a penny).

 

Walks available for booking

For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, including three brand-new walks in Upper Street, Clerkenwell and the City, please click here.

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