Virtual Lavatory  
Chain of Events: a brief history
History of the WCLavatorial LinksHow the WC worksWords for the looAbout this site

There are many misconceptions about the development of modern sanitation, not least that Thomas Crapper both invented the loo and added his name to the English language. This page traces the development of sanitation over the last few thousand years.

BC to AD

The Greeks, Romans and Minoans all had surprisingly sophisticated sanitary arrangements, and many survive today. Roman conveniences included foricae, communal public lavatories. Where towns were blessed with efficient sewers and good water supply (and not all Roman towns were) foricae consisted of rows of seats with keyhole shaped apertures about two feet apart, over a channel of flowing water. In front of these seats would be a further channel of water and bowls of brine for the washing of hands and the sponge-sticks used in place of paper. Such conveniences were lively areas for debate and discussion, rather than privacy, and were sometimes decorated in grand styles, with marble and expensive murals. The Romans introduced such public facilities to Britain, and a fine example is on view at Housesteads on Hadrian's Wall.

Oddly, the public laundries offered relief to the public too, since they collected urine for use in the fulling process for bleaching and starching linen. Laundries provided pots outside their works for the use of the public. The emperor Vespasian taxed these facilities, which became known as vespasianii. The French still call their gents' urinals vespasiennes two thousand years later!

Domestic arrangements in classical times were generally more primitive, and only the most wealthy could afford flushing lavatories. The excellence of the public facilities also discouraged the spread of domestic latrines, but most houses would have some form of privy within their bounds, often in the kitchen.

Once the Roman Empire faded, so too did sanitation. Arrangements became desperately primitive and remained so until the Elizabethan age. The only glimmer of sanitary light came from the Monasteries, particularly the Cistercian orders who believed that physical cleanliness is a manifestation of spiritual cleanliness. As a result their monasteries included drainage and privies (Fountains Abbey boasted no fewer than twenty-seven), usually sited over a watercourse. The general public simply retired to the woods in the countryside or used buckets in the towns; these 'pisse-pots' were emptied into the street. In Scotland it became customary to cry "Gardez l'eau!" (mind the water) as pots were emptied. This became corrupted to "Gardy loo", but it is not clear whether the British euphemism 'loo' stems from this. There were also some limited provisions for public lavatories; Henry III paid for London's first public latrines since the Romans, and Dick Whittington also set about reforming public sanitation when Mayor. However, sanitation showed little progress for centuries.


   First British WC

Sir John Harington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I, published 'The Metamorphosis of Ajax', a description of his new device- a flushing privy. Harington's closet consisted of a seat over a brick tank, with a cistern of water which could be directed into the privy by opening a valve. A second stopper in the base of the brick tank- protected from tampering hands by a cover- could be pulled up with a special key to discharge the contents of the closet to a cesspool. Harington recommended that the whole device be emptied once a week. Only two are known to have been made.


   First patent for a water closet

Alexander Cumming, watchmaker, took out a patent for a flushing closet. It consisted of a pan with a sliding valve at the bottom to hold water in the bowl until the user released the contents. A water supply was provided fom a cistern, controlled by a separate tap.


   Bramah refines valve closet

Joseph Bramah, a cabinet maker and locksmith, patented an improved valve closet. The outlet valve and water supply were joined to allow the closet to be flushed with a single pull of one handle. The valve was redesigned to pivot rather than slide, improving the reliability and reducing soiling.


   'Stink Trap' patented

Whilst the valves on Cumming's and Bramah's closets reduced odour, gas still penetrated the rudimentary seal. John Gallait patented a trap to provide a water seal for drains. These were swiftly incorporated into water closets. These "stink traps" were very similar to modern bottle traps, but had no facility for cleaning and tended to collect dirt.


   Spending a Penny at the Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition in London featured both displays of water closets and the world's first public convenience with individual flushing lavatories. The closets were 'Monkey Closets' designed by George Jennings, which were the forerunner of wash-out closets. Those wishing to use the conveniences were required to pay 1d for the privelige. This remained the standard charge for public lavatories until decimalisation, when the 2p piece became the necessary coin.


   First underground public loo

George Jennings built the world's first underground public convenience outside the Royal Exchange in London in 1854. This space-saving idea remained common until the late 20th century, when disabled-access requirements made the design fall out of favour. Many such conveniences still exist, although Jennings' lavatory was demolished in the mid 1980s. Shame on the authorities!


   The Great Stink

In 1858 the stench of the River Thames in London became so bad that Parliament considered abandoning Westminster.

Until the mid nineteenth century London was drained by a disparate network of sewers and drains into the Thames and cesspools (open pits of sewage). The pollution of the Thames posed a serious problem, particularly as the river also provided London's water supply. Many areas of the city, particularly the East End, were effectively supplied with raw sewage if they were 'lucky' enough to have running water, or drew water from contaminated wells.

The situation became so bad that London suffered the 'Great Stink' during the long, hot summer of 1858. Rampant disease and the intolerable state of the Thames forced change that was long overdue.


   Moule's earth closet

As a serious contender to the water closet, the earth closet (E.C.) needed to be improved over the 'hole in the ground'. The Reverend Henry Moule patented a self-contained E.C. which distributed a measured amount of sifted earth over each user's waste at the pull of a handle. He also designed an improved version which released the earth when the user rose from the seat.

1859 - 1865

   London's sewers reborn

In the 1860s the first serious efforts were made to drain the city that was then the world's largest, London. Under the guidance of Joseph Bazalgette, a vast network of intercepting sewers was built to take sewage from all over London to trunk sewers by the Thames and thence east away from the city.

The Thames Embankment in London was built purely to disguise Bazalgette's massive trunk sewers as they run alongside the river. The whole of Bazalgette's network was built with care and precision, with a gradient of no less than two feet per mile and sewers shaped like eggs, with the point at the bottom, to ensure that flow is constant even when little water passes through. Bazalgette's sewers still provide the backbone of drains for London today, despite London's population increasing beyond Bazalgette's wildest nightmares.


   Metropolis Water Act

The Metropolis Water act of 1872 unified the local water regulations in London. One of the aims of the act was to limit the water used by growing numbers of water closets. The act led to the development and enforced use of "waste water preventers", devices which prevent the owners of water closets running water through their lavatories continually. The Act stopped Britain's WCs becoming the water-guzzling devices so demonised by environmentalists.


   Twyfords launch first pedestal WC

Until 1875 lavatory pans had always been boxed-in to hide the complicated mechanisms of valve closets or unsightly joins in early earthenware 'hopper' or 'monkey' closets. The free-standing, one-piece pan that is now standard was first manufactured by Twyfords in 1875, and revolutionised the lavatory.


   Loos on the line

Britain's first ordinary passenger railway coach to have a lavatory was introduced by the Great Northern Railway in 1881. The loo discharged onto the tracks, an arrangement that is still common today- hence "Do not use in stations"...


   The First Super-loo?

At the Health Exhibition of 1884 tests were carried out to find the WC with the most powerful flush. An undisclosed cistern attached to a "Jennings' Pedestal Vase" pan successfully cleared 10 apples of average diameter 1.7 inches, 1 sponge 4.5 inches in diameter, 3 small air-filled packages, plumbers' grease smeared over the pan and 4 pieces of paper stuck to the grease- all in a single flush!


   The pissoir arrives in France

Cast iron urinals on city pavements are often considered typically French. Certainly the street urinal, or pissoir, fully open to the public's gaze save for a small screen at waist height is a very continental sight. But enclosed pissoirs were actually a British invention, and British foundries shipped the devices across the Channel. Many British towns still boast pissoirs, often painted either green or, in the case of one-man buildings, pillar-box red. Bristol, for example, has a typical pissoir on Blackboy Hill, and an amazingly ornate example at the end of Gloucester Road. Needless to say, the lack of facilities for women has led to pissoirs falling out of fashion, although a growing problem with public urination in city centres has led to calls for the pissoir to be reintroduced.


   The modern WC at last

The launch of the 'Beaufort' closet marked the arrival of the modern lavatory. Unlike all pedestal WCs produced before, the Beaufort was a 'wash-down' closet. This means that the pan consisted of a funnel-like interior leading down to a water trap, all manufactured in one piece. Previous pedestal closets had been 'wash-out' closets, with a shallow basin at the back of the pan and a drain at the front into which the contents of the basin were washed when the closet was flushed. The wash-down closet quickly replaced the wash-out pan in Britain, but the latter is still favoured in parts of Europe.


   The Closet of the Century

George Jennings' syphonic WC was awarded the Grand Prix at the Paris Exhibition, and named Closet of the Century. The WC used atmospheric pressure, rather than the weight of falling water, to force the contents of the pan down the drain. The syphonic WC enjoyed limited success in Europe, except for brief popularity in the 1950s and '60s, but remains the standard pattern in North America.

1900 - 2000

   A century of standardisation

The water closet spread worldwide in the 20th century, with nations adapting the basic British design according to their own preferences. 'Squat' type lavatories were also introduced by the British for use around the Empire, and persist in use in many countries today.

In Britain, the WC was spread widely by the railway companies who were keen to introduce modern facilities to their stations. Running water and mains drainage spread slowly throughout Britain's countryside, and earth closets were still in use well into the last years of the century in remote districts. The WC's change from luxury gadget to standard fitting has not been entirely universal- several thousand homes in London alone still have no inside lavatory.

The design of the WC changed little in the 20th century. The end of the Victorian era saw WCs lose their decoration and become white, but coloured sanitaryware reemerged in the nineteen twenties and 'thirties, which also saw the last installations of Bramah valve closets. High-level cisterns of both the bell-syphon and ordinary-syphon pattern were standard issue into the 'fifties, with even tower blocks using them. Low-level cisterns became common only in the 'sixties and 'seventies, and bell-syphon cisterns fell out of favour at the same time. WC pans also became more 'streamlined', with a brief fashion for syphonic closets, and seats changed from wood to plastic- partly since plastic was more resistant to scratching by ladies' suspenders.

As the century drew to a close the WC had its cistern shrunk from 2 gallons to 1.5 in 1990, but sanitaryware headed into a new age of Victoriana, with high-level cisterns, ornate pans and wooden seats becoming the style of choice for millions.


   The first airborne WC

Air services between Britain and the Continent saw the unveiling of the De Haviland DH-34 aircraft, complete with on-board lavatory. Air services in the US began offering WCs in 1927.


   The Superloo

JC Decaux was commissioned to design a unisex replacement for the pissoir. The Superloo, or Automatic Public Convenience (APC) was designed to offer full disabled access to an automatically cleaned convenience. The washdown closet was replaced with a commode which tips into the wall to be scrubbed clean, and an automatic wash basin was included.


   The Vacuum WC

In 1982 Boeing unveiled its vacuum-waste system for its aeroplane WCs. The system used a vacuum to suck the contents from the WC pan and high pressure jets to clean the pan with a tiny amount of water. The WCs proved revolutionary, not just for aircraft, but for ferries, trains and portable lavatories.


   The death knell for the British lavatory?

In 2000 a shake-up of the water regulations led to the reduction in the permitted volume of water used for flushing WCs in Britain from 1.54 gallons to 1.32 gallons and, significantly, allowed the reintroduction of 'flap-valve' cisterns rather than syphonic water waste preventers. These continental-style cisterns are now growing in popularity largely because they allow 'push button' flushes rather than projecting levers, which suits the current trend towards streamlined sanitaryware.