The Heritage Value of Lavatories*

Yes, really.

I had a dinner party last evening and everyone commented upon my loo.  I mean, the company and the food was great, and all, but my loo was the ‘stand out’ talking point.  And, to be fair, it was the feature that initially swung me in favour of buying a house in Ashford: a place where I had no connections.  It gave me a sense – unconsciously, I would say – that people had lived in the house before and had cared about how it functioned and how it looked.  Added to which, loos are a great leveller: we all have to use them: they are everyone’s heritage.

Invictas loo, Johnson Bros, Crapper & Co.

Inside my lavatory bowl is printed “Invictas”.  I had always assumed that it was linked to the heritage of Kent.  Invicta is the motto for Kent and dates back to William the Conqueror.  One story has it that, having just fought a battle at Hastings, William was marching towards London, to collect men and provisions, before he moved onto the English capital city, then Winchester. However, whilst progressing through Kent, local people picked up branches and advanced towards William’s men.  William’s terrified troops immediately fled and found a different route to Winchester.

Swanscombe monument

Another version of the legend is engraved on a monument near Swanscombe in Kent.   “Near this spot by ancient tradition the men of Kent and Kentish men carrying boughs on their shoulders and swords in their hands met the invader William, Duke of Normandy. They offered peace if he would grant their ancient rights and liberties, otherwise war and that most deadly. Their request was granted and from that day the motto of Kent has been INVICTA meaning Unconquered.”

Mahogany seat was a later addition

It has also been suggested that because Dover was not besieged or defeated on William’s march through Kent but, instead,  had agreed to a conditional surrender to him, on its own terms, Kent was therefore not conquered by him. Holding of land in Kent by gavelkind (an inheritance pattern of land tenure, whereby land was apportioned between heirs), rather than the feudal-Norman laws of primogeniture (meaning land was passed on to the eldest son) lasted until the early 20th century, suggesting that the people of the county did indeed acquire some concessions from the Conqueror.

Chain operated flush

However, it turns out that the Invictas “washdown closet” has a different sort of heritage.  It was created by Johnson Bros Hanley, Thomas Crapper & Co in around the 1890s, with no obvious link to Kent.  History doesn’t relate why the original lavatory makers chose the word “Invictas” for this range, but one can appreciate why it has lasted such a long time if its motto means “undefeated”…

*Thanks to Philly, Mark, Pam, Jonathan, Christabel, Bod, Susan and Al, for all their support and scientific research for this particular blog post.

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