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Sir John Harington - The First Flushing Loo?

One of the unsung achievements of the Elizabethan age was the creation of a water closet years ahead of its time. The closet was designed by Sir John Harington in 1594, and installed in his home at Kelston near Bath. Urged to published details of his invention for the public benefit, he produced in 1596 "A New Discourse of a Stale Subject called The Metamorphosis of Ajax" in the hope that others would copy his ideas.

The book is full of allusions and dreadful puns. "Ajax" for example is a pun for "a jakes" a common word in those days for a privy. However the book also gives practical advice on how to construct his toilet. Gladstone Pottery Museum has followed these to make the replica, which is on display in the Flushed With Pride Exhibition. Gladstone's replica is probably only the third Harington closet made, and neither Harington's own, nor the one he made for Queen Elizabeth I have survived.

Harington was born in 1561, and was the son of an illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. He was also godson of Elizabeth I. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he was a gentleman, scholar and wit. Remembered chiefly today for his water closet he died in 1612.

In publishing his design Harington offered it to the nation for the improvement of cottages, cities and palaces alike. The book caused a sensation and rapidly ran through several editions. It also caused a scandal at court, infuriating the Queen and leading to his expulsion from court. Two years later Harington's cousin writing from the court remarked "your booke is almost forgiven".

The trouble was that nobody seemed to take Harington's idea seriously. The Queen (who was eccentric enough in her sanitary requirements to take a "bath once a month wether she need it or no") "did like the marrowe of the book". When Harington was forgiven she had him install a closet for her at Richmond Palace. Otherwise the device was ignored and forgotten. Fashion turned away from the draughty privy shaft towards the chamber pot.

It was not until the early 18th century that plug or valve closets of the Harington type appeared in advanced households and started the slow progress towards the modern water closet.

Harington's water closet represents the missing link between the medieval privy shaft and the Victorian valve closet. It has a good case to be called the first true water closet, as it used water for three functions - to suppress the smell, to clean the bowl and help in removing the contents. Though Harington called his closet a "privie in perfection" it was not a masterpiece in operation or hygiene. It was however in advance of anything else at the time.

The closet has a cistern, but it did not flush like a modern toilet. It was in effect an improved privy shaft with a lead pan at its head to hold six inches of water to prevent smells. Lifting a rod-plug from the inside of a rectangular cistern filled the pan. Water then flowed down a pipe into the pitch-covered lead pan under the seat. This pan, of oval section, had a sloping bottom with a plughole in the lowest part. The plug for this was at the end of a long rod which a handle key was attached. Raising the iron rod empties the pan, and the water flowed out taking the contents with it, down the privy shaft. Only then was it topped up with fresh water from the cistern.

In Tudor times water was either pumped or carried up from a well, or collected as rainwater on the roof, it was not taken for granted. When water was scarce the closet could be locked to prevent unauthorised emptying. When water was plentiful 'the oftner it is used and opened, the sweeter' wrote Harington. Emptying twice a day was recommended but once a day is enough …..though twentie persons should use it.