Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 
Saturday, 1 April, 2000, 17:20 GMT 18:20 UK
Is the British loo down the pan?

The UK loo could be forced out by its Euro rival
After centuries of tradition, the great British lavatory could be facing its Waterloo.

New regulations designed to save water mean the home-grown loo could soon be ousted by its European rival.

Thomas Crapper: Did not invent the flushing lavatory
The rules stipulate that, from January 2001, all new loos must use only six litres of water per flush, as opposed to the 7.5 litres of most existing British loos.

And although new toilets have been redesigned to comply, the government is also allowing the sale of the continental "valve flush" version - which used to be banned in the UK because it leaked and wasted water.

The new regulations are the latest step in the long and illustrious history of what we now consider one of life's essentials.

How it all began

Archaelogists have found evidence of flushing "water closets" in many ancient civilisations, including those of Egypt, Rome and Greece.

About 4,000 years ago, for example, a loo with a wooden seat and a small reservoir of water was installed at the Palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete.
Regardez L'Eau!
The word "loo" probably comes from "regardez l'eau" (watch out for the water), which people used to shout before emptying their chamber pots out of the door or window
But the civilised convenience was lost to Britain during the Dark Ages, and for hundreds of years the land was one of privies, chamber pots and open cesspools.

The loo as we know it wasn't reinvented until 1596, when Sir John Harrington, godson of Elizabeth 1, designed the "Ajax" flushing water closet for the Queen.

But although she liked it and used it, his device was imperfect. In particular, it allowed sewer gas back into the room and was ridiculed. He never made another.

His invention was largely forgotten until 1775, when London mathematician Alexander Cummings patented a major improvement. This was the "S-trap", a sliding valve which held water in the bowl to trap nasty smells.

Victorian loos could be very ornate
His design was improved upon by various people in the coming years, including Yorkshireman Joseph Bramah, who patented a valve flush system for cisterns in 1778.

In the mid-nineteenth century people began to notice the link between diseases like cholera, and poor sanitation.

The Public Health Act of 1848 made it mandatory to have some sort of private lavatory - privy, ash-pit or flushing WC - and demand for inside loos really took off.
Spending a penny
The first flushing public conveniences were created by London engineer George Jennings for the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851. They cost a penny to use and amazed the public
Shortly after this Sir Thomas Crapper, often mistakenly believed to have invented the flushing lavatory, came on the scene.

The Chelsea plumber and sanitary engineer revolutionised the WC during the 1860s and 1870s with numerous patented improvements.

Until Sir Thomas came along, for example, most British cisterns had been fitted with a valve - basically a large plug which, when pulled from its hole by a yank of a chain, sent water into the bowl (this remains the design in many European loos).

The drawback to this system was that the valve tended to leak after a period of time.
Crapper fact
Experts say the name of Sir Thomas Crapper is not the origin of the obvious slang term. It is thought to have come from the Middle English crappe, meaning a scraping or residue.
Sir Thomas developed the siphon system, where water is sucked through a U-bend in a pipe before being let into the loo so it cannot leak.

He also boosted the move from cast-iron to porcelain after teaming up with potter Thomas Twyford - who also designed the one-piece trapless loo.

Since the days of Twyford and Sir Thomas, the design of the loo has remained pretty much unchanged.

Modern inventors are focusing on such environmental angles such as wind-powered public loos and water-free, jet-flush designs for private homes.

The designers for the water-recycling eco-friendly loos in the Millennium Dome were so excited by their futuristic lavatories that they inadvertently coined a new euphemism for the convenience in their enthusiasm.

"It is a powerful form, like the tepees of the plains Indians," they said. "We wanted literally to create a 'beacon of relief' ".

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
See also:

27 Apr 99 | UK Politics
New rules to save water
28 Feb 00 | UK
Save our loos plea
30 Sep 98 | UK
QPR top loo league
Links to other UK stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories