Earliest flushing water closets

HARINGTON’S AJAX (c1596)

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(Picture: Bridgeman Images)

 

This ‘Ajax’ (a pun on ‘jakes’, Elizabethan slang for a privy) was carefully described and illustrated in A New Discourse of a Stale Subject Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, published in 1596 by Sir John Harington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I. It included the earliest known design for a water closet containing two elements of a modern toilet: a water flush, and a valve to open and close the bottom of the pan. It was also full of rather ribald humour.

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(Picture: Wellcome Collection. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

 

This diagram shows the seat hole above a straight-sided oval ‘stool pot’, which he recommended should be lined with pitch, resin and wax. Its floor sloped to a brass sluice closed with a valve, opened by a turning key set into the seat cabinet to release the waste into the cesspit below. The cistern above was filled with water, which flushed the pot through a lead pipe; the inventor recommended leaving about six inches of water in the pot. If used correctly, he claimed, it would remain smelling “as sweet as your best chamber”.

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(Picture: Chronicle/Alamy)

 

Harington (pictured here) had earlier installed an ‘Ajax’ in his home, the manor house of Kelston just outside Bath, in preparation for a visit by his godmother, Queen Elizabeth. He also installed one in her palace at Richmond. However, neither survives, so we can’t be exactly sure what they looked like, nor how well they functioned.

 

Other designs using water to cleanse a privy were probably attempted before Harington’s, but hadn’t persisted. In the years following his invention, too, it seems that water closets of some kind were installed in the homes of various eminent and wealthy people. Several were mentioned in accounts of British palaces and stately homes from the 17th and 18th centuries, and also in France – where they became known as lieux à l’Anglaise, possibly the origin of the slang ‘loo’.

 

The development and installation of such water closets involved addressing a number of challenges. They required a reliable supply of water for flushing, a place to receive and store the waste, and a barrier between that receptacle and the privy itself, to prevent noxious gases filling the room.