Reducing water waste
LATE 19TH CENTURY
(Picture: Granger Historical Picture Archive/Alamy)
Over the years following the Metropolitan Water Act 1871, various local authorities issued regulations intended to reduce water waste from flushing toilets, which was a growing problem as more water closets were installed nationwide. Waste-preventing cisterns had been produced since the 1850s, and became more reliable with the introduction of siphonic mechanisms like this one.
(Picture: Hugh Sainsbury/Crossness Engines Trust)
This cut-through model shows a typical 1870s mechanism controlling the flush and water refill of a toilet cistern. Pulling the chain (not shown) tips the flush lever at top right, lifting the iron bell within its well at the bottom. This draws water into the central chamber and primes a siphon action; releasing the lever allows the bell to drop, forcing water into the central standpipe and setting off the siphonic flush discharging water into the toilet bowl below. A floating ball connected to a second lever closes the mains inlet when the cistern is full.
Water closets rely on a plentiful, reliable supply of water. Early designs in particular needed a large volume to wash away the waste, which wasn’t available in most houses till the mid-19th century. At that time, private companies and municipal providers began large-scale supply of piped water to Britain’s expanding towns and cities. The number of water closets installed rose along with (and stimulated demand for) provision of such supplies.
Flush mechanisms in early water closets were linked to the valves at the bottom of the pan; the handle that opened the valve also discharged the flush. Some simple water closets were flushed with water direct from a tank or mains pipe by simply opening a tap or valve. Both types were prone to enormous wastage of water, either from leaky valves or when users preferred to leave water running to keep the pan clean.
From the 1850s, with the advent of valve-less toilets such as Jennings’ monkey closet, manufacturers produced cisterns to hold water for the flush, with various arrangements to prevent constant flow and wastage of water.
(Picture: Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Metropolitan Water Act 1871 decreed that water closets should be served only through a cistern, not connected directly to the mains, and that each should be fitted with a waste-preventing apparatus limiting the flush to a maximum of two gallons. The first such waste preventers used valves that often leaked. Siphonic cisterns such as those produced by Thomas Crapper (pictured above), many of which were patented from the 1850s, proved reliable and effective, though not always capable of completely cleaning wash-out pans. A pull of any duration was enough to start a complete flush discharge of the cistern.
Interestingly, though there’s no truth in the myth that Thomas Crapper invented the flushing toilet – and even the patent mentioned on his advert wasn’t in his name – he was among the most successful in marketing domestic sanitary equipment. His products became well known after he opened a showroom in Chelsea in 1861.