100 years down the drain

Readers of a delicate disposition should log off now for today’s post is about well . . . spending a penny.

IMG_0077 With a surname like Crapper you would have thought another choice of vocation would have been preferable, for apparently the derivation of the vulgar verb, is not taken from Thomas Crapper’s surname, as many believe, but comes from Middle English word crap itself a derivation from the Dutch Krappe.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Thomas Crapper’s death, the man one could argue, who has improved all our lives immeasurably with his invention of the floating ballcock (another inappropriately named device), and although he did not invent the ceramic toilet he revolutionised the public attitude to toilets with the first bathroom showroom.

[T]homas Crapper came to London from Yorkshire at the age of 11 in 1848, first setting up shop as a sanitary engineer on what is now Draycott Avenue, but later his firm that became celebrated for their water closets opened at for business at 120 King’s Road [see picture], his showroom alas is now an empty clothing shop.

Before Crapper, most of London lavatories relied on turning a simple tap on to flush the loo, the problem was that people forgot to turn off the tap, or left it to run as a trickle of water did not make for a particularly hygienic flushing system. As a result a dramatic loss of pressure in London’s water system.

Crapper’s system of course stored the water and then discharged the tank with enough force to flush away the solids. So convinced was he of his loos that he invited a bemused public into the works to see how a particular loo and cistern combination could flush away a dozen apples or several potatoes. Visits became one of the highlights of Saturday afternoons in Chelsea; it seems Edwardians were easily entertained.

Throughout history our ancestors have found ingenious ways to use them and we apparently spend three years of our lives sitting on them, so how did we get on without Thomas Crapper?

The Romans viewed going to the toilet as a social affair, they would discuss the news and gossip of the day and maybe even negotiate a business deal whilst they were there, the City wine bar of its day. Not surprisingly, toilet paper had yet to be invented; instead a piece of sponge fixed to a short wooden handle was used and shared by everyone.

In the Middle Ages, the wealthy built ‘garderobes’, little rooms jutting out from the walls of their homes. Garderobes, to ‘guard’ the ‘robes’ were also used to store clothes, as the smell kept moths away. It’s this medieval loo that we take the word ‘wardrobe’ from, but not everyone had such a luxury, many would have used chamber pots during this period, throwing their waste out of a window, shouting ‘gardy loo’ – Gardez l’eau is French for ‘watch out for the water’. In fact the City would fine householders if the detritus reached above a certain height outside their city homes.

The Tudors would happily ‘pluck a rose’ (as they called it) anywhere: in chimneys, corners of rooms or in the street. Toilets by then were often referred to as ‘the jakes’. Then in 1596, Sir John Harrington invented the first water closet with a proper flush. Queen Elizabeth I used it and was so impressed that she had a ‘john’ built at her palace, hence the expression of ‘going to the john’, however, it was not widely used elsewhere as it was expensive to install.

By the 1700s, the most likely place to keep your chamber pot was in the dining room, often in a sideboard. Chamber pots and commodes were commonplace even into the 1800s and if staying at a wealthy house, in your bedroom you could pull out the drawer and inside find a metal bowl ‘pee pot’, one for the man and another for the lady, which could be used and then emptied by the chambermaid in the morning.

It wasn’t until 1775 that Alexander Cummings invented the first modern flushing toilet, but later into the 19th century and the height of the British Industrial Revolution, the population in towns and cities increased, but the number of toilets didn’t. Neighbouring families would often have to share an outside privy, the ‘necessary house’. It wouldn’t be until 1910 that the toilet was changed to the closed water tank and bowl that we all know and love.

If you really want to know – here are some toilet facts

Gongfermors were the people who removed human excrement from privies and cesspits (gong being another word for dung). They were only allowed to work at night.

Royal loos were scrubbed out by workers called gongscourers.

In 1760 George II expired on the toilet.

People would tip ash from fireplaces and nearby coke furnaces on top of sewage to stop it smelling.

The normal charge to use a public toilet was a penny. People spoke of ‘spending a penny’ as a polite way of saying they were going to the loo.

Before toilet paper was invented people would use leaves, moss, stones, grass, rags, and oyster or mussel shells bits of broken pots or bunches of herbs. Wealthy ladies would use goose feathers.

The first loo paper was used in Britain in 1857. It was sold in chemists from under the counter because people were embarrassed to see it on display.

Toilet rolls were not sold until 1928 and coloured paper wasn’t introduced until 1957.

1984 and all that

1450063426_ee38d4e2e9 It has been 50 years since man has ‘boldly gone’ into space, and what benefits has civilisation gained from space exploration?

Well, apart from SatNavs, accurate weather forecasts, satellite imaging which identifies problem regions on earth, and yes, Teflon frying pans, one benefit to society has emerged that those early space pioneers could never have imagined.

Secret trials by the Home Office are being conducted in Southwark (where else?) on a car monitoring system which tracks your car and calculates its average speed, the cameras achieve this by communicating with each other via satellite.

The hi-tech devices can track a driver’s progress across the capital to calculate the vehicles average speed, combining number plate recognition, similar to that used with the congestion charge with global positioning satellites they can be set up to monitor tens of thousands of cars over a huge area.

Known as SpeedSpike the system allows two cameras from anywhere in the network to “talk” to each other if a vehicle appears to have travelled too far in too short a space of time.

Rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun, who enabled America to reach the moon, was at one time a fully paid up number of the German Socialist Party; if Hitler were alive today he would be delighted at this application of Big Brother, brought about by the genius of von Braun.

London’s crap years

[D]epressed? Worried about the austerity measures promised by our new Political Masters? Before you decamp London for pastures new, consider this if you may, as CabbieBlog gives you the 10 years you really should be anywhere else but in our capital city:

1918Everybody has heard of the Great Fire of London in which only nine people lost their lives, but this one was much worse, leaving 3,000 dead according to medieval accounts. The conflagration led to new laws requiring the use of brick and tile for rebuilding instead of wood and thatch.

1918The wise would have left long before November when the Black Death struck the Capital. With crowded streets and bad sanitation making the contagion spread even faster. By the time it had run its course half the population of England would be dead. Afterwards wages increased due to the chronic shortage of labour.

1918With revolting peasants marching on London, the teenage king Richard II seeking refuge in the Tower of London. Prisoners released, palaces ransacked and burned and the Archbishop of Canterbury beheaded, scores of lawyers were also beheaded, so the year wasn’t all that bad.

1664Call it what you like; dropsy, griping of the guts, wind, worms or the French Pox (we always like to blame the Frenchies), the Great Plague killed 100,000 that year. Manufacturing collapsed as Newcastle colliers refused to deliver fuel to London, and with servants ransacking their master’s empty mansions.


The Great fire destroyed 13,000 houses; 87 churches; 52 livery company halls; 4 prisons; 4 bridges; 3 City gates; Guildhall; the Royal Exchange and Customs House. The City was rebuilt within 6 years, so good news if you were a builder, not your day if you owned the bakery where it started.

1780It started as an anti-Catholic march on Parliament, but after a gin distillery was breached the Gordon Riots turned into an orgy of looting and burning. At the end some 850 people had died, including bankers from the Bank of England, which must have seemed a good idea at the time. Once order had been restored its 21 ringleaders were hanged.

1858It wasn’t until Parliament had to be evacuated because of the smell from sewers disgorging effluent into the Thames that an efficient sewage system was commissioned. After a long dry hot summer and a cholera epidemic caused by the insanitary conditions it was known as the Great Stink.

1918If the Great War wasn’t bad enough, returning soldiers brought back with them the flu virus. Killing more than the war, London was especially vulnerable with its densely packed population transmitting the contagion more effectively. By the time the virus had run its course 220,000 Britons had died.

1940On the night of 29th December Hitler sent hundreds of bombers to destroy London, the ensuring firestorm left 436 dead and ultimately damaging or destroying 3.5 million buildings by the time the Blitz was over. The blackout also caused the country’s highest ever traffic casualty figures.

1952In December sulphur dioxide combining with rainwater and oxygen to form deadly sulphuric acid suspended in a dense fog and lasting for seven days killed 4,000 residents, together with scores of livestock at Smithfield. The Clean Air Act stopped the problem and an excuse for children to bunk off school.

Building bridges

What’s the difference between the public and private sectors, well apart from hours worked, pension benefits, and sick leave taken? The attitude of these two employee groups could not be more starkly highlighted when looking at the East London Crossing. The public sector has prevaricated for a decade now, with various politicians breaking promises made while wringing their hands in helpless submission.

_39718777_thames_gatemay_b_map203 Compare and contrast this with the private sector, having lost patience with our political masters and their minions to reduce the traffic chaos in North East and South East London, recognising that funding for the new crossing IS the problem, they have recently proposed a toll at the Blackwall Tunnel during morning and evening peak flows by using London’s congestion charging that is already in place. By imposing a toll on the Blackwall tunnel, they argue only the people who stand to gain from the new crossing would pay the toll.

[T]hey propose charging £1 to travel north in the morning and a similar amount when travelling south in the evening’s rush hour, with the amount of revenue raised annually easily predicted, borrowing against this revenue stream to commence building the new bridge in the near futue. CabbieBlog would suggest that monies taken from the Dartford Crossing, now that its construction cost have been repaid could also be directed to the new crossing. Unlike the interminable years to pay the toll on the Dartford Crossing, the business group propose charging electronically in the same way as London’s congestion charge is taken.

It’s a pity that London is mired in the climate charge debate and hasn’t the vision and forward planning that Londoners desperately need. It’s this sort of vision and forward planning that London desperately needs if we are to avoid a future of gridlocked roads and poisonous air; at the moment it looks like instead of innovation and conception all we are getting is hesitation and reluctance.

Cornucopia of Curiosities

[T]his contribution to CabbieBlog has a rather fruity flavour to it; with its artificially high climate London can support a wide variety of soft fruit varieties.

Hanged by silk
There stands in the south-west corner of Buckingham Palace’s gardens a testament to hope over adversity, evidence of when King James I decided that England would benefit from an indigenous silk industry and to that end planted four acres of mulberry trees. Alas the Mulberry Garden as it became known came to nothing and just one tree was left producing nothing more valuable than its fruit. Silk is useful for if one is granted the freedom of the City of London and if you are then sentenced to hang for a crime, the execution can only be carried out using a silken rope.

Olive tree in Chelsea Psysic garden Chelsea’s spiff crop
Established in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, Chelsea Physic Garden is home to Britain’s tallest outdoor olive tree; at over 30ft high it was capable in 1970 of producing 7lb of its delicious fruit. The garden is also home to the world’s northern-most outdoor grapefruit tree. Hidden behind towering its brick walls, protected from the city’s sounds and harsh breezes, the most idyllic collection of plants flourish in a unique, carefully created microclimate. The garden at one time was home to London’s only legitimate cannabis plants and predictably scrumpers bunked over the wall and ‘harvested’ the crop.

Great Vine Hampton Court The Gantsville Grape
With a girth of 12ft round its base the Great Vine in Hampton Court Palace garden is the oldest and largest known vine in the world. Planted by the famous garden designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown around 1768 its rods measure an incredible 120ft. The vine produces an average of 600 bunches of grapes a year which can still be bought from the Palace’s shops. In 1933 proceeds of its crop were given to soldiers blinded in World War I. The vine originated from a small cutting taken from a vine in Valentine’s Park at Gants Hill in Essex. Gants Hill is an area now so favoured by London’s cabbies to live in they are known as Gantsville Cowboys.

Nellie Melba Life’s a peach
When Dame Nellie Melba visited London in 1893 the Savoy’s chef Auguste Escoffier created a dish in her name containing the diva’s favourites – peaches, raspberries, redcurrant jelly and vanilla ice-cream – combining the ingredients in such a way as to reduce the impact of cold ice cream on her vocal cords. The hotel once boasted an orchestra led by Johann Strauss, a dishwasher by the name of Guccio Gucci who went on to start the famous fashion brand and its first manager was César Ritz. Now after a complete refurbishment which has cost the equivalent of over £1 million per guest room, will it raise the standard of cuisine again?