London, United Kingdom

Spending a Penny for the Monkey Closet

George Jennings (10 November 1810–17 April 1882) was an English sanitary engineer and plumber who invented the first public flush toilets.

Josiah George Jennings was born on 10 November 1810 in Eling, at the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire. He was the eldest of seven children of Jonas Joseph Jennings and Mary Dimmock. He was educated at the local school run by his uncle-in-law Joshua Withers. At 14, after his father's death he was apprenticed to his grandfather's glass and lead merchandising business, before moving to his uncle John Jennings's plumbing business at Southwick, Southampton. In 1831 he became a plumber with Messrs. Lancelot Burton of Newcastle Street, London where his father had been a foreman before him.

Jennings specialised in designing toilets that were "as perfect a sanitary closet as can be made". However, he also excelled in public sanitation projects such as the design of the underground 'public convenience'. The entrances to these were elaborate metal railings and arches lit by lamps, with interiors built of slate and later, of ceramic tiles. A beautiful example of a public convenience from a period a little after Jennings's death is the Gentleman's Convenience at Wesley's Chapel, City Road, London built in 1891, by Thomas Crapper, in a manner Jennings would have liked. Jennings' own most famous installation was for The Great Exhibition in the Retiring Rooms of The Crystal Palace but does not survive.

At The Great Exhibition at Hyde Park held from 1 May to 15 October 1851, George Jennings installed his Monkey Closets in the Retiring Rooms of The Crystal Palace. These were the first public toilets, and they caused great excitement. During the exhibition, 827,280 visitors paid one penny to use them; for the penny they got a clean seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine. "To spend a penny" became a euphemism (now archaic) for going to the toilet.

When the exhibition finished and moved to Sydenham, the toilets were to be closed down. However, Jennings persuaded the organisers to keep them open, and the toilet went on to earn over £1000 a year. Jennings said that 'the civilization of a people can be measured by their domestic and sanitary appliances' whilst the objectors had stated that 'visitors are not coming to the Exhibition merely to wash'!

(Thomas Crapper, often mistakenly credited with inventing the flush toilet, was only 14 years old at this point.)

Patent dated August 23, 1852. JOSIAH GEORGE JENNINGS, of Great Charlotte - street, Blackfriars-road, brass founder. For improvements in water-closets, in traps and valves, and in pumps.

1. An improved construction of water-closet, in which the pan and trap are constructed in the same piece, and so formed that there shall always be a certain quantity of water retained in the pan itself, in addition to that in the trap which forms the water-joint.

2. An improved construction of valve for water-closets and other uses, and several arrangements of valves and other apparatus for like purposes. The novelty of the valve consists in its spindle being prolonged downwards, so as to be capable of being acted on by a lever which opens and closes it, and thus admits water without (in the case of water-closets) the use of wires, &c. The other arrangements include a similar valve, but provided with a waste-pipe, and an arrangement of the same with a ball- cock for governing the supply of water to water-closets and their cisterns ; also an improved stand-pipe, and a sluice-valve for steam and fluids, the novelty of which consists in the manner of fitting and fixing the facings against which the slide works.

3. An improved trap for drains, &c., which is merely the ordinary bell-trap reversed.

4. An improved construction of pump for lifting and forcing, in which the use of a branch-pipe and stuffing-box, as ordinarily employed, is dispensed with ; the branch in which the handle works being provided with a vulcanized India-rubber tube surrounding the handle at the joint, so as to prevent leakage.

5. An improved mode of constructing pump-barrels, by casting the inferior metal of which they are composed around a brass tube, which acts as a lining to the barrel, and obviates the necessity of burning or boring the interior.


The opening of the first underground convenience at the Royal Exchange designed by George Jennings.

Spending a Penny for the Monkey Closet