Why Do We Call a Toilet a “John”?

220px-Sir_John_Harington_by_Hieronimo_Custodis Sir John Harington was a courtier, translator, a not so successful poet of the Elizabethan era. Harington’s father married an illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. His second wife was attendant to Princess Elizabeth, and Queen Elizabeth I stood as godmother to John, who was educated at Eton, Cambridge, and Lincoln’s Inn. Despite all these accomplishment, Harington’s fame came from inventing the flush toilet.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth banished Harington from her Court because he translated a lewd tale the 16th century Italian poet Ariosto. The ladies of the Court complained to the queen of the nature of the tale. Elizabeth sent him away until he could translate the whole of Ariosto’s epic poem, Orlando Furioso. She chose this punishment rather than actually banishing him, but she considered the task so difficult that it was assumed Harington would not bother to comply. Harington, however, chose to follow through with the request and completed the translation in 1591. His translation received great praise, and is one of the translations still read by English speakers today.

During his ‘exile’, 1584-91, he built himself a house, and devised and installed the first flushing lavatory, which he named Ajax. Eventually Queen Elizabeth forgave him, and visited his house at Kelston in 1592. Harrington proudly showed-off his new invention, and the Queen herself tried it out! She was so impressed it seems, that she ordered one for herself. His water-closet had a pan with an opening at the bottom, sealed with a leather -faced valve. A system of handles, levers and weights poured in water from a cistern, and opened the valve.

In spite of the Queen’s enthusiasm for this new invention, the public remained faithful to the chamber-pot. These were usually emptied from an upstairs window into the street below, and in France, the cry ‘gardez-l’eau’ gave warning to the people below to take evasive action. This phrase ‘gardez-l’eau’ may have been the origin of the English nickname for the lavatory, the ‘loo’.


Waste disposal: Harington’s flush toilet describred in ‘A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax’, 1596

Around this time, Harington also devised Britain’s first flushing toilet–called the Ajax (i.e., a “jakes”—jakes being an old slang word for toilet). It was installed at his manor in Kelston. He also installed a flush toilet in Queen Elizabeth’s palace at Richmond in Surrey. In 1596, Harington wrote a book called A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax about his invention. He published it under the pseudonym of Misacmos. The book made political allusions to the Earl of Leicester that angered the Queen. The book was a coded attack on the stercus or excrement that was poisoning society with torture and state-sponsored “libels” against his relatives Thomas Markham and Ralph Sheldon. After the publication of this work he was again banished from the court. The Queen’s mixed feelings for him may have been the only thing that saved Harington from being tried at Star Chamber. The work itself enjoyed considerable popularity on its publication in 1596.

In 1599 he went on a military expedition to Ireland, winning a knighthood. His barbed epigrams and wanton writings gave too much offense, particularly under James I, to advance him beyond a reputation as Elizabeth’s “saucy godson.”


Cumming’s water closet patented in 1775 (source:http://www.theplumber.com/closet.html) It was almost two hundred years later in 1775 that a flushing water-closet was first patented by an Alexander Cummings of London, a device similar to Harrington’s Ajax. In 1848 a Public Health Act ruled that every new house should have a ‘ w.c., privy, or ash-pit’. It had taken nearly 250 years for Sir John Harrington’s water closet to become universal …it cannot be said that the British embrace all new inventions with enthusiasm, despite Royal Approval!

And just because it is Friday, let us get your blood churning. Here is an FYI: Kit Harington stars on “Game of Thrones” as Jon Snow. In numerous interviews, he’s revealed that his ancestor is Sir John Harington, the inventor of the first flushing toilet in Britain in the 16th century. Not only is Kit Harington the relative of  Sir John Harington, but he suggests that same ancestor might be the very reason we call a toilet “the John.” 



“The erudite courtier, and inventor of the flush water closet, died on November 20th, 1612.” History Today 

“History of the Flushed Toilet,” Toiletology 

“John Harington, Writer,” Wikpedia 

“Sir John Harington, English Author,” Britannica 

“The Throne of Sir John Harrington,” Historic UK  


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, Elizabethan drama, poetry, real life tales, Tudors and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Why Do We Call a Toilet a “John”?

  1. vvaught512 says:

    How interesting! Thanks for the links.

  2. Vesper says:

    As an English women I have never called it a John, and I think the house I was born in must have been built before the 1848 a Public Health Act, as we didn’t have an indoor toilet or hot running water.

  3. Gerri Bowen says:

    That was interesting, Regina.

  4. Anji says:

    Well that definitely raised a smile on my face! To think that Jon Snow is descended from the man who invented “the john”! Thanks for yet another fascinating article Regina. As another Brit, it’s never been a “john” to me either. When I was growing up, it was always “the bog” in our house (don’t know if that’s a Leicestershire expression or not). As I grew up “the loo” was also used but my Nana always called it “the lavvy”.

    Actually, if he were taller (he’s only around 5ft 9″, I believe) I’d quite like to see Kit Harington have a go at playing Darcy. He’s about the right age (he’s 30 now) and can do brooding very well!

    • Anji, you should check out Mark Easton’s Britain, Etc.: The Way We Live and How We Got There. He has a whole section on toilets. It goes A is for Alcohol, B is for Boobies, etc. Needless to say, T is for Toilet. You can read parts of it online as a Google book

  5. JanisB says:

    Well that was a fun read. Always preferable to laugh while you’re learning!

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