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The History of Thomas Crapper

Thomas Crapper was born in Yorkshire in 1836, into a family of modest means. At 14 years of age he was apprenticed to a Master Plumber in Chelsea, London. After serving his apprenticeship and then working as a journeyman, he set up in his own right in 1861 as a plumber in Robert Street, Chelsea.

Five years later he moved to larger premises, Marlboro' Works, in nearby Marlborough Road. He quickly gained a singular reputation for quality and service; the company expanded and by 1907 had established a flagship store on the King's Road opposite Royal Avenue.

It is popularly thought that Mr. Crapper invented the W.C., and that the vulgar word for faeces is a derivative of his name, but neither belief is true. However, etymologists attest that the Amercian word, "crapper", meaning the W.C. is directly from his name. He relentlessly promoted sanitary fittings to a somewhat dirty and sceptical world and championed the 'water-waste-preventing cistern syphon' in particular. Indeed, he invented the bathroom showroom and displayed his wares in large plate glass windows at the Marlboro' Works. This caused quite a stir and it is said that ladies observing the china bowls in the windows became faint at this shocking sight!

Early Thomas Crapper advert

Mr. Crapper's inventiveness was well known; he registered a number of patents, one of which was the 'Disconnecting Trap' which became an essential underground drains fitting. This alone was a great leap forward in the campaign against disease. Amongst others was one for a spring-loaded loo seat which, as the encumbent arose, leapt up pulling rods which automatically flushed the cistern! This was rather less successful. Over time, the rubber buffers on the underside of the seat began to perish, and became sticky. This caused the seat to remain down, attached to the loo pan for a few seconds as the user got to his feet. Seconds later the seat, under stress from the powerful springs, would free itself and sweep violently upwards - striking the unfortunate Victorian on the bare bottom! The device became popularly known as the 'Bottom Slapper', consequently was not a commercial triumph.

By the 1880's, Crapper & Co.'s reputation was such that they were invited to supply the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) at Sandringham. Subsequently, Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey all benefited from Crapper goods and services. Today, the Crapper manhole covers in the Abbey are popular for brass rubbings! Crapper & Co. remained by Royal Appointment to Edward when he became king and was also warranted by George V, as Prince of Wales and once again as king.

Thomas Crapper died in 1910 and was buried near the grave of the cricketer, W.G. Grace, in Elmers End Cemetery. The company continued under the guidance of his old partner Robert M. Wharam, his son Robert G. Wharam and Mr. Crapper's nephew George Crapper. However by the late 1950s, after the demise of the original partners, it was evident to Robert G. Wharam that with no Crappers or Wharams left to run the business, the sale of the company was becoming inevitable. In addition, perhaps people cared little for quality and tradition during that period. In 1963 came the end of an era; Thomas Crapper & Co. became the property of a rival, Messrs. John Bolding & Sons, Ltd..

Subsequently this distinguished firm endured fallow years - BUT SURVIVED - and is now an independent company once again. Having held four royal warrants and having existed through five reigns over 148 years, Thomas Crapper & Co. is once again manufacturing the finest bathroom fittings.

History of Thomas Crapper

Thomas Crapper Disconnecting Trap

Historical Note:

Wash-hand Basins / Washbasins / Basins were originally referred to as 'lavatories', from the Latin, 'lavare', meaning 'to wash'. People began euphemistically to say that they were "going to the lavatory" (i.e. to wash their hands) when in truth they intended to visit the W.C.. By the mid-twentieth century, the word had become so synonymous with the Water Closet that since then most people have considered 'lavatory' the correct term!

Hence in our early catalogues, washbasins are found under the subject heading 'Lavatories'. Even more confusingly, the W.C. is often referred to as a 'Pedestal basin'! However, in America, 'lavatory' is still used for the Wash-hand Basin. The W.C. is still called a "W.C." although many in the U.S. call it a "Crapper", after our founder!

For a number of other similar, little known facts, see here. 

Detailed History of Crapper & Co.

Thomas Crapper, 1836-1910; Sanitary Pioneer. Manufacturer, supplier and installer of sanitary goods (bathroom fittings, W.C.s etc.) plumbing and drainage. Improver and promoter of the 'Water Waste Preventer' (the syphon fitted in British cisterns); promoted plumbed-in bathroom fittings and brought them 'out of the closet'; inventor and patentee; Sanitary Engineer and supplier of goods to kings, princes, the nobility and gentry; founded Thomas Crapper & Co. in 1861; successful entrepreneur, self-publicist, Mason and member of the Royal Horticultural Society.
Thomas Crapper

Thomas Crapper was born in Waterside, a hamlet near the Yorkshire town of Thorne, in 1836. The exact date is unknown but it is thought he was born in September. His family were of modest means although his father, Charles, was a steamboat captain. When he was around 14 years of age he was apprenticed to a Master Plumber in Chelsea, London. After serving this apprenticeship and working for three years as a 'journeyman plumber', in 1861 he set up his own company at Robert Street, Chelsea.

Subsequently in 1866 he moved the expanding business to the Marlboro' Works, in nearby Marlborough Road. (Much later the name of the street was changed to become part of Draycott Avenue, as the General Post Office complained there were too many roads in the capital named after the war hero, the Duke of Marlborough).

Mr. Crapper took a partner, Robert Marr Wharam (pronounced 'Wareham') who brought financial and accounting skills to the enterprise and together they built a sizeable firm with an ever-greater reputation.

In the 1880s Queen Victoria purchased Sandringham house, in the county of Norfolk, and gave it to her son, Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) for his principal residence. After a few years he demolished the old house and began construction of a new royal palace. Crapper & Co. were invited to supply and install their finest wares for the bathrooms, cloakrooms and indeed all the plumbing and drainage for the project. Thomas Crapper thus gained his first Royal Warrant.

During a tour of inspection of the work with the Prince, His Royal Highness asked Mr. Crapper for a light for his cigar. Our founder did not smoke and so could not oblige - but from that day forward he habitually carried a gold matchbox in his pocket! The firm received another warrant from Edward when he became king and another from George V when he was Prince of Wales. A fourth was granted (just after Mr. Crapper's death) in 1910 when George V ascended the throne.

Of course, such royal approval helped business greatly and Crapper fittings were rightly considered the finest of the time. Many commissions were received for sanitaryware for all manner of buildings, both grand and not so grand. The list includes Park House, where (much later!) Princess Diana was born and even Westminster Abbey. Victorian Crapper goods are still doing reliable service in private and public buildings all over Great Britain and abroad. The manhole covers of Westminster Abbey (inscribed 'T. Crapper & Co., Sanitary Engineers') are popular with tourists for wax-crayon rubbings as mementoes of their visit! Some Crapper W.C.s were recently discovered as far away as New Zealand. We are contacted regularly by people who have antique Crapper wares in their homes and we are pleased to assist with spare parts and restoration when required.
The Royal Crest

However, the company mainly prospered because of their famed quality, attention to detail and service. Every item was checked and tested before it left the works and only the best apprenticed engineers were employed. From the earliest days a repairs workshop was installed next to the foundry. The company could hardly conceal their glee when regularly asked to repair broken sanitaryware produced by less-fastidious competitors. It is doubtful that any other firm offered such a service.

All the hard work paid off and Mr. Crapper enjoyed the fruits of his labours and acquiredthe trappings of wealth: property, land and chattels. He and his elder brother, George (who helped him when he first established the business) drank in the Finborough Arms, in Kensington. Regularly, they would begin the working day in the tavern with a bottle of champagne - a tradition the current managing director would dearly love to revive, but his staff would not stand for it.

The Show Room

Thomas Crapper effectively invented the concept of the modern bathroom show-room. Bathroom fittings and especially Water Closets were hardly discussed in society due to the crushing prudery of the time. Crapper & Co. promoted sanitaryware to a largely dirty and sceptical public, many of whom thought it unhygienic to have a W.C. indoors!

Even those who were convinced by the argument found the subject beyond the pale. Clients would discuss the matter discreetly with their architect or plumber, who would arrange for a salesman to call. The representative of the sanitaryware firm would arrive with a selection of miniature loos, washbasins and baths in his bag. The clients would have to imagine how the full-size version would appear and make their choice.

Mr. Crapper caused a sensation when he installed large plate-glass windows at pavement level in Marlborough Road. The goods were comprehensively displayed within, but shockingly, they were also gloriously apparent on stands in the windows. It is said that genteel ladies would faint away at the sight of the gleaming china W.C. bowls!

Did Thomas Crapper invent the W.C.?

Thomas Crapper was an innovator and inventor and held nine patents, but he did not 'invent' the Water Closet; it evolved over many hundreds of years. Stone-built privies survive around the world, built by ancient civilizations from Scotland to Turkey, but none really qualifies as a 'water closet' as we understand the term. The more advanced versions were simply multi-occupant stone latrines which were sluiced at intervals by diverting a nearby stream.

Arguably, the first W.C. was invented in 1592 by Sir John Harington, of the town of Bath in Somerset. His device had a seat, a bowl and behind it a cistern of water for washing away the contents. He called it the 'Ajax' and built one for himself and one for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I. The invention was then comprehensively ignored for over a hundred years!

The next mechanical flushing loos were introduced in the 1730s and from 1775 new patents came regularly. The loo gradually developed until pioneers like Mr. Crapper and his contemporaries, such as George Jennings, Thomas Twyford, Edward Johns and Henry Doulton began producing W.C.s much as we know them today.

That word:

Thomas Crapper original cistern

'Crap' was an ancient word for rubbish or chaff which had fallen out of use in Britain by the end of the 16th century, therefore in Victorian times there was nothing amusing about the surname 'Crapper'. However early English settlers to America took the word with them and so in the U.S.A. it has been used continuously, although always considered a rather vulgar word.

In 1917, American servicemen stationed in London during WW1 were hugely amused to see the name emblazoned on cisterns and W.C. bowls (although their English friends could not see the joke) and so they began to call the whole W.C. apparatus "the Crapper". This phrase caught on in America on their return, presumably because it made sense to those who were aware of the vulgarism 'crap'.

Due to American cultural influences upon Great Britain and Europe the word 'crap' is now widely used and the humour inherent in the surname is universally appreciated.

Thomas Crapper retired in 1904 and passed his newly-incorporated firm to his partner, Robert Marr Wharam and Thomas's nephew, George. Mr. Crapper was a member of the Royal Horticultural Society and he tended his plants in his greenhouses (which still exist) at his last home, 12, Thornsett Road, Anerley, on the border of Kent and London.

He died on the 27th January 1910 and was buried on the 31st at Elmer's End Cemetery nearby. Today the cemetery is known as Beckenham Crematorium and Mr. Crapper's plot is 4165, V4. He was interred with his wife, Maria, who died in 1902. The grave is near those of W.G. Grace, England's greatest cricketer and Frederick Wolseley, producer of the first British motor-car and inventor of the sheep-shearing machine. Mr. & Mrs. Crapper had only one son, who died in infancy.

Post Thomas Crapper

In 1907 Robert Wharam and George Crapper acquired a new flagship store, 120, King's Road, a very grand address opposite Royal Avenue and near Sloane Square. The company continued to prosper and large extentions were added to the building, giving even more showroom and storage space in addition to the manufactory at Marlborough Road. The 1920's and 30's saw the arrival of Art Deco in the bathroom and Crappers led the way with outlandish designs in the new mode. Bold colours had arrived in sanitaryware in the 1930's and the firm sold many "modern" suites in shades of green, blue, pink, yellow, ivory, amber and even black.

Robert Wharam and George Crapper

However, the second World War intervened and like many British firms, Crappers suffered from shortages and the enormous changes in society. By the late 1950's Robert G. Wharam (Robert M. Wharam's son) was solely in charge. The firm was long-established and still successful but the Marlboro' Works had been sold and all operations were based at 120, King's Road. Mr. Wharam was advancing in years and wished to retire so eventually he sold the firm in 1966 to nearby rivals, John Bolding & Sons.

What happened next shocked the whole industry. Despite assurances to the contrary, Boldings mercilessly 'asset-stripped' the company and sold the premises at an enormous profit. They moved Crapper & Co. to Bolding's buildings in Davies Street and continued to trade for a few years until they received their just deserts for their behaviour. In 1969 Boldings went into liquidation and all their assets were sold - including Thomas Crapper & Co. Ltd..

Recent History

Thomas Crapper Pull to Flush handle

The new chairman owned Crapper & Co. for the next twenty-nine years but did little with the business. Thankfully he kept it alive until it was acquired by its current owners Simon Kirby and Warrick Knott, English enthusiasts with a passion for the great heritage of the famous old firm. Simon, an historian of the bathroom industry and (believe or not) a collector of antique loos, basins, taps and even baths, explains that for him Thomas Crapper & Co. is the ultimate prize!

The current owners have gathered around them like-minded, committed individuals with their own separate specialities and their joint aim is to treat the company and reputation with the respect deserved.

Now based at Shakespeare's Stratford-on-Avon, the traditions of quality, attention to detail and service are maintained as strictly as they ever were. Exact re-creations of the sanitaryware of 100 years ago are produced, mostly by hand and all in Great Britain as in the past.

At the base in Warwickshire, there are a few products on display, but not everything, as Crapper & Co. now sell through a network of specialist retailers both at home and abroad, as well as by 'mail order' through the printed brochure and the web-site.

There are always a few restored, antique W.C. pans available for sale; rare and beautiful Victorian creations covered with ornate, coloured transfer decoration. There is also a large private collection of some extraordinary antique sanitaryware, including Crapper goods, various manufacturers' catalogues and tiny salesmen's samples. Pride of place, of course, is the original company seal and the leather-bound account books and minute books. Some of these contain Thomas Crapper's own delightful 'copper-plate' handwriting.

All involved with the company hope that Thomas Crapper would be greatly pleased to see his company prospering and creating such fine and exclusive products in the twenty-first century, even though he would probably consider everything to be rather old fashioned.

Thomas Crapper Ledgers

But, after all, that is the point! These are a few of the original accounts from our archives, some of which date from the establishment of the firm in 1861.

The leather-bound, gold-tooled ledgers contain entries in Mr. Crapper's 'copperplate' handwriting. Also shown are several of the founder's Victorian patents (bottom left), a few old catalogues and the company's official seal (centre left). The latter is still used for endorsing documents and share certificates.