One of the most famous plumbers in the world, Thomas Crapper was the founder of London-based sanitary equipment company, Thomas Crapper & Co, and a man whose name has become synonymous with toilets (although he was not, contrary to popular belief, the inventor of the flushing toilet).
Crapper was born in the town of Thorne in Yorkshire in 1836, the son of Charles Crapper, a sailor (his exact birthday is unknown but he was baptised on 28th September, so it’s thought to have been around that time).
In 1853, he was apprenticed to his brother George, a master plumber based in Chelsea, and, having subsequently gained his own credentials, established himself as a sanitary engineer in Marlborough Road in 1861 (he had married his cousin, Maria Green, the previous year).
Sometime in the late 1860s, in a move some saw as scandalous, his company became the first to open public showrooms displaying sanitary-related products. He was also a strong advocate for the installation of flushing toilets in private homes.
While not the inventor of the modern flushing toilet (that is often credited to Sir John Harington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I, in 1595, although there are even earlier examples), he was responsible for a number of advances in the field including making design improvements to the floating ballcock, a tank-filling mechanism, and the U-bend, an improvement on the S-bend.
Crapper’s company did have some high profile clients – in the 1880s it supplied the plumbing at Sandringham House in Norfolk for then Prince Albert (later King Edward VII). This resulted in Crapper’s first Royal Warrant and the company would go on to receive others from both Albert, when king, and King George V.
Crapper’s branded manhole covers, meanwhile, can still be seen in various parts of London, including around Westminster Abbey where he laid drains. His name can also be found on what are said to be London’s oldest public toilets.
Crapper retired in 1904 (his wife had died two years earlier) and the firm passed to his nephew George (son of his plumber brother George) and his business partner Robert Marr Wharam (the firm, Thomas Crapper & Company, continues to this day – now based in Huddersfield, it still sells a range of vintage bathroom products).
Having spent some time commuting from Brighton, Thomas lived the last six years of his life at 12 Thornsett Road, Anerley, in south-east London (the house now bears a plaque). He died on 27th January, 1910, of colon cancer and was buried at Elmer’s End Cemetery nearby.
While it is often claimed that it’s thanks to Thomas Crapper and his toilets that the word ‘crap’ came to mean excrement, the word is actually of Middle English origin and was already recorded as being associated with human waste when Crapper was just a young boy.
But there is apparently more truth to the claim that toilets became known as ‘crappers’ thanks to Thomas Crapper’s firm. It was apparently American servicemen who, when stationed overseas during World War I, encountered Crapper’s seemingly ubiquitous branding on toilets in England and France and, as a result, started referring to toilets as such.