At Your Convenience: A Lavatorial Walking Tour
Welcome to the Loo Tour
Loo Tours Presents: At Your Convenience- A Lavatorial Walking Tour
Performed by the Loo Lady
Sponsored by Thomas Crapper & Company
Have you ever stopped to think about a simple question and found the answer to be much more complex and wonderful than you ever could have imagined?
And that that answer leads to yet more questions?
This was precisely my situation when I moved to London.
I was a drama student, a perpetual tourist, and a person who needed to do what we all must and use a toilet.
I often found the toilet door barred by a 30p entry charge, and I would sometimes spend hours trying to avoid this. I started to learn the work-arounds and the secret free toilets in London. Why, after all, should I pay for something that’s a perfectly natural function?
Then one day I started to wonder about the politics of paying to pee. Where does the money go? Why is it free in some places and not others? Should it be a human right?
These questions started to open up new avenues and I found myself plunged into a whole new world.
I became the Loo Lady and toilets became my life.
Today I’m going to take you on a journey around my London and share my stories with you.
In order for us to keep up with each other you’re going to need to follow some simple rules:
Once you start walking keep going straight on until I tell you otherwise.
The next track should play automatically . But if it doesn’t you can manually play the next track.
Let’s give this a test run…
Face the river.
Now turn left.
If you do it right you’ll hear my voice again when you get to the steps of the bridge.
Jonathan Routh and the Royal Festival Hall
Are the steps of the bridge to your right? Well done! You’ve passed the first test
Turn left and start walking along the side of the Royal Festival Hall.
The building is not only a world-class venue for the arts, but has six floors of toilets to choose from!
In the Good Loo Guide of 1988 Jonathan Routh wrote:
"The Loos of the Royal Festival Hall: All these loos were opened by HM King George VI accompanied by her majesty Queen Elizabeth on 3rd May 1951. They have worn well. Working upwards from the Ground or Box Office level we have a gents with a machine dispensing 50p books of stamps at its entrance. And inside, accommodation for 5 toileteers seated, 8 standing and 8 ablunting in the midst of much black marble."
Routh will be a friend for much of our journey. Though many of the loos he described in his books have changed or closed the book still makes for an excellent read.
Royal Festival Hall Steps
Keep walking down the stairs.
Routh goes on to describe all the other 6 floors of loos. My pro tip here, especially for the Ladies, is to head down to the cloakroom on the basement where there is never a queue.
The Royal Festival Hall opened, as Routh said, on 3 May 1951 for the Festival of Britain. The festival was proposed by the Royal Society of Arts to commemorate the Great Exhibition of 1851.
George Jennings and The Great Exhibition of 1851
See the bridge on your right? Turn towards it and start walking.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a chance for Britain to show off its splendors to the rest of the world. Architects, Manufacturers and Engineers came together to create The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.
A Brighton born sanitary engineer named George Jennings proposed a set of Public toilets to be open to the public in the Crystal Palace.
The idea was met with great skepticism and Jennings later wrote “I was told no one would come to the Crystal Palace to wash their hands.”
But in the end perseverance paid. The conveniences, which Jennings called “Monkey closets” received 827,280 visitors during the course of the exhibition and raised £2441, 15 shillings and 9 pence due to their penny entry fee. To this day “spending a penny” remains a popular English euphemism for visiting the toilet.
Jennings’ Success sparked an entrepreneurial interest in the idea of providing potentially profitable public conveniences, and the remainder of the 1800’s became a golden age of the public toilet.
Modern Toilet Providers have argued that when you account for inflation, 50 pence today is approximately the same value as a 1851 penny. However it’s highly unlikely that a lot of our modern conveniences live up to the standards of Jennings’, which were beautiful brass and marble, and where you could often get a shoe shine in addition to attending to your other business. However the next toilet I’m going to show you is one that I think is well worth the entry fee.
The next part of our journey begins when you get to the entrance to the Jubilee Gardens.
The Jubilee Gardens
Turn right into the garden and follow the winding path. Take every right turn and fork available to you, and you’ll soon see what we’re after.
This garden was done up to Celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee. The Eye, which was meant to be a temporary structure was built in 2002 to celebrate 50 years on the throne, and more improvements were made in 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee.
In 1953 when Queen Elizabeth II had her coronation all of the facilities at Westminster Abbey were updated to accommodate the number of elderly guests expected to attend who might have a greater need than most for the toilet.
Once they had been installed someone was struck with the terrible thought: what if, at a vital point in the ceremony, all of the toilets were to be flushed at once? and what if those flushes could be heard in the Abbey? What an embarrassment would it be for the British empire!
In order to make assurance double sure they called in the guards. Along with sound technicians from the BBC who stood up and down the aisles with decibel meters they ran a drill to ensure that if all the toilets were flushed at once this would not be a problem. History remains silent on the subject of flushes during the ceremony, which we must take to mean that the drill was a success.
See the Green building on your right? Stop in front of it.
This is the Jubiloo. It was erected in 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee. It is run by Healthmatic, a private company, and receives no public funding, so your 50p entry fees go towards the running and building costs.
However, here you’re not just paying for a toilet but for an experience. It is no exaggeration to say that this is Britain’s most patriotic toilet. The décor is union jack themed, from the mirrors to the rubbish bins toilet seats. This is the only country I know that would put its flag on a toilet seat, but it’s kind of fun.
This is also the only toilet I know to have its own facebook page, so if you enjoy your visit you can become a fan and stay up to date on what goes on.
Go ahead and walk round the front of the building. You’re going slightly to your left. Find the bench with an inscription on it.
[AJAY] “Hi, I’m Ajay, the Healthmatic regional manager responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Jubiloo Public Toilets located on the South Bank in Central London. Healthmatic specialize in the design and management of public toilets. Our services range from full public convenience design, access systems, installation and management through to the day-to-day cleaning and maintenance of existing facilities. In building the Jubiloo, Healthmatic have become the first public convenience provider to design, build and operate a commercially viable public toilet.
“The Jubiloo was designed by Mark Power Architect, built by Healthmatic, and were opened to the public by Kate Hooey MP on the 24th of May, 2012. The Jubiloo is a wonderfully light contemporary building based between the Southbank centre and the London eye, located on Queen’s Walk beside the Jubilee Gardens. The building is glass clad, reflecting its surroundings, and unified by a projecting canopy with a lapped timber-boarded soffit, and a gold aluminium roof. Inspired by its river setting, the Jubiloo takes the form of a vessel, temporarily moored, in alignment with the historic shoreline of the Thames. The canopy’s dramatic boat shape recalls the roman galley remains discovered in 1911 beneath the neighboring County Hall, and has been designed to collect rainwater to help flush the loos.
“The Jubiloo has 11 unisex cubicles and 6 Urinals, which are open from 10am to 10pm every day during the summer, and 10am to 8pm in the winter. The building is attended full time by four perminant members of staff, who at this time are Gerrard, Luke, Gerogina, and Winsome. All the water used in the flushing of the toilets, urinals and the cleaning of the floor is grey-water, either from the roof collection or from the Southbank Centre’s borehole. An atrium across the span of the toilet provides natural light with views of the London Eye and reduces lighting [costs]. If you ever have the pleasure of using the Jubiloo please do take time to give us your comments on the Jubiloo’s very own Facebook Page.
“Remember, nobody funds this facility. It’s your desire to spend a penny that keeps the Jubiloo going!”
We are going to head on now… but if you need a loo break this is one of the best chances on the tour. If you mention the loo lady to the attendants some of them may even still remember me! And always remember to thank your toilet attendant. It’s a tough job making people pay all day to pee!!!
When you’re done head to the foot of the steps by the Bridge to your left for our next adventure.
Climbing the Bridge
We’re going to step back in time.
Start walking up the steps.
Have you ever thought about why we need toilets? In the forest animals go happily out in the open, yet you don’t step in it while you’re out hiking.
Our bodily waste is a natural part of the recycling loop, releasing the nutrients our bodies consume. But this recycling process takes time. When human societies become to big for nature to keep up we have to start thinking of alternatives.
And this often brings us to rivers.
Rivers and Romans
Water is vital to life, and many early civilizations sprung up around rivers. They soon figured out that doing their business in the river meant it could be washed away without the need to touch it. This was hugely helpful, as we are an incredibly lazy species when it comes to disposing of our excrement.
But societies continued to grow and expand away from rivers. By now they were used to what we call “waterborne sanitation” so they started to develop the technology to bring the river to them.
Stop. Go to the railing on your left and look down at the river.
In all of history the Ancient Romans hold one of the most notable places for harnessing water in their aqueducts and baths. But along with these public baths they had fabulous flushing public toilets!
At its peak, there were 144 public facilities in Rome.
Roman Toileting, like Roman bathing was a communal activity. 30 or 40 people might have sat together on a long stone bench with keyhole shaped seats. If they were very wealthy their slaves would have sat there first to warm it up.
Once they had done what they needed to do they would take the communal sponge on a stick to wipe their bottoms. This is where we get the phrase “the wrong end of the stick.”
But then the Roman Empire fell. Britain was invaded by waves of Eastern European immigrants: The Angles and the Saxons, who were to become the English.
They had no interest in waterborne sanitation or didn’t know what it was for, so began tearing down the old structures to make way for their fortresses. They brought with them cesspits, gardrobes, chamber pots, and plunged Great Britain into what one historian termed “The Lavatorial Dark Ages.”
Start walking across the bridge. As we go I’ll take you through the history of the water closet.
Dick Whittington and his Toilet
The 1300’s: Richard Whitington, Mayor of London, financed a toilet on the banks of the Thames which is flushed by the tides. Today Brits know him best as the lovable Pantomime character of Dick Whittington and his Cat.
During this era the hygienic practices of hand washing and organized sanitation were kept alive largely thanks to the monasteries who preserved not only classical teachings of arts and literature but also of the sciences and health.
1541: Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. These storehouses for classical knowledge disappeared, and along with them the last vestiges of the flush toilet were gone for a time.
1596: Sir John Harrington, the saucy godson of Queen Elizabeth I invented the first mechanized flush toilet, which he names the Ajax.
He only ever built two in his lifetime… one for himself and one for his godmother. He then got banished from court for his writings which critiqued the aristocracy. A prolific poet, he wrote many epigrams including this:
“To keep your house sweet mend privy vaults
To keep your souls sweet mend privy faults”
With his banishment the flush toilet disappeared for almost 200 years more.
S Traps and U Bends
1775: A Scottish Watchmaker named Alexander Cummings filed for the first patent for a water closet… the S trap.
1778: Joseph Bramah improved the design, inventing a hinged valve and an improved cistern… creating the design that was to become the benchmark of the next century.
The Crystal Palace
1851: The Crystal Palace exhibition… remember George Jennings and his monkey closets? This put waterclosets in the public eye more than ever before, and the toilet as we know it today had its glorious birth. Twyfords, Royal Dolton, Jennings and of course Thomas Crapper were the great names of the day.
The Great Stink
Stop. Look out over the Thames again on your left.
Imagine we have come through the “lavatorial dark ages” into the 1800’s. At the turn of the century there were just under a million people in London. Fifty years later that number had more than doubled. Twice as many people doing their business. And most of that business is ending up in London’s water ways.
By the year 1858 it all became too much, and London had what came to be known as “The Summer of the Great Stink.” It was a very hot June, and the river began to smell so bad that people started to flee the city.
It was a problem for the politicians in the newly refurbished houses of parliament, which of course stands right on the water. You can see the iconic tower of Big Ben in front of you. Meetings could only be held behind very heavily curtained windows while the politicians held scented handkerchiefs over their faces to keep out the smell.
But that is how you get the attention of politicians… because once the Great Stink hit it took them all of two weeks to approve plans for a new sewer system.
Start walking again. You’ll need to head down the steps.
The man they called on to design the sewers was Joseph Bazalgette. He was the Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of works. Because he had already made designs for a sewer prior to the Great Stink he was able to hit the ground running, and London’s Sewer Network became one of the wonders of the modern world. Bazalgette was a very forward thinking man, and built generously to allow for population growth, but it is unlikely he could have imagined that 150 years later his sewer would still be the main artery of London, serving a population of over 8 million!
At the bottom of the bridge down here you’re going to make a sort of a Ubend to your right and walk back parallel to the bridge.
If you look across the street at that concrete plinth you’ll see the head and shoulders of a man. He’s there just to your right. That’s Joseph Bazalgette.
The Latin inscription reads Flumini vincula posvit: “He Put the River in Chains” This is the only memorial to Bazalgette in Cental London. Other than, of course, the one hard at work under our feet. A humble tribute to a great man.
Stop and look at the statue for a moment. Bazalgette’s lineage lives on in his great great grandson Sir Peter Bazalgette, who is not only chair of Arts Council England, but also the Television producer behind Big Brother. They say of the Bazalgette family heritage: “Joseph Bazalgette pumped shit out of London and Peter Bazalgette pumps it back in again.”
Start walking again and head towards the left of the bridge support. Mind the wobbly cobble stone there! That one gets me every time!
You’re going to turn left under the bridge and keep walking straight on.
This is the pigeon toilet part of the experience.
You’re usually safe, so don’t worry about it too much. Besides, bird poo is meant to be good luck!
I always wondered where this idea came from. I found a few possibilities.
1) It’s a thinking man’s joke “It’s good luck because horses can’t fly!” (In other words: thank god it’s just pigeon poo!)
2) It’s good luck because the chances are slim… by being hit you are marked as someone who fate singles out and should start investing in lottery tickets.
3) It’s such a disgusting thing to have happen to you that there must be some bright side to it!
Anyway, enough about bird poop for now though! We are nearly to the next stop… when you see a sign that says “toilets” you’ll know you’ve found it.
CityLoos and Changing Places
Stop outside the gates and look at the sign on the right of the entrance.
You’ll notice, these are Award Winning Toilets. The Loo of the Year Awards have been held in Britain since 1987 to encourage high standards in toilet provision.
Sadly, you’ll have to cough up 50p to visit these particular award winners… or any others in the borough of Westminster.
Over the past 10 years in Britain it is estimated that 40% of all public toilets have been closed. They have, during this time, been handed down the social food chain to Local Authorities, who have no legal obligation to provide you with a public toilet.
This is why you’ll see vastly different things going on in different London boroughs.
In August 2012 Westminster council ceased to operate any public toilets. They were contracted out to Carslile Cleaning Company… Trading under the name City Loos, a subsidiary of the Impellam Group owned by the billionare and former Conservative Party treasurer Lord Ashcroft. So he’s the one you can write to if you want to complain about the 50p charges in place at all of Westminster’s public toilets.
You might remind him of his own saying: “Those who can afford to help others have a moral duty to do so.”
Speaking of positive social change, we can’t leave this building without looking at the rather unusual unit on the left.
That is a changing Places Toilet. These facilities are designed for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities or other physical conditions which mean they need the support of a carer to help them change.
Inside there is an adult sized changing table, a tracking hoist and plenty of space for everybody who may need to in there.
The name “changing places” comes from the fact that for the people who need them these toilets are the difference between leaving your house for more than a couple hours, by which time you’d have to return home to change in a clean environment, or else be changing on a grotty restroom floor somewhere.
To me they highlight how important toilets really are: while for most of us it’s a minor inconvenience to pay 50p they do affect some people’s lives drastically.
Continue along the street now in the direction you were going. You’re looking for a garden gate on your left.
Victoria Embankment Gardens
Turn Right into the garden gate and walk straight on.
See that stone arch on the far side of the garden? That’s where we’re headed.
This garden that you’re walking through was once part of the River Thames. After the Great Stink in 1858 the Metropolitan Board of Works was faced with a choice: dig up the expensive houses along the strand or else reclaim some land from the river.
The second option had the additional advantage of causing the river to flow faster, helping to carry away the refuse that was already there. In fact, many architects had been saying since the 1600’s that the embankments should be built.
The new land also provided space for the lovely garden that you’re standing in now, which has, from its first moment been here to stand on top of sewage. Ever wondered why the grass is so green? Well that’s not actually why. But that doesn’t change the fact that you are currently on top of 8 million people’s waste!
Stop in front of the gate.
This gate was once a river gate belonging to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. It was landlocked in the building of the sewer, and they never got round to moving it back to the river’s edge.
From here, turn left and follow slightly winding path. I am about to show you what I consider to be one of the weirdest things on the modern public toilet scene. It may require some imagination and you get major bonus points if you can spot it before I tell you what it is!
Turn Right. See that staircase on your left. Go up and back down the other side. When you’re there, look for a circle on the ground and stand on top of it.
You are currently standing on a Urilift: one of London’s nocturnal pop-up urinals. At night they rise from the ground and stand approximately 7 feet high… a silver column with three open air urinals round it.
The Urilift was invented in the Netherlands as a solution to the problem of on-street urination by people drunkenly stumbling out of pubs. It can be put up at night and lowered during the day so as not to be an eyesore. London introduced them in the early 2000’s. Westminster council estimates that every year approximately 10 thousand gallons of urine is at risk of ending up on the streets!
I have a particular bone to pick with these… they are for men only! It is the end of a long line of gender inequalities in the toilet, which we’ll talk more about as we go.
Start heading up the hill.
You’ll want to try and stick to the right for the moment, because while it may not look it this is actually a road.
The fact that men can pee standing up has long been an evolutionary advantage. Even the clothes we wear… the fly front zips on our trendy jeans are designed to accommodate this. And this has meant they always save a penny. At the Crystal Palace Exhibition when the toilets raised £2440-some over £2000 was from women. You can’t charge a man to have a wee!
He’ll just find somewhere else to do it! So urinals were provided completely free of charge.
In some ways this remains true today. In addition to the Urilifts, plastic urinals are dropped throughout the nightlife areas of Soho. Some public conveniences still have coin operated locks on the cubicle doors rather than a general entrance fee.
The modern convenience which I am by far the most bitter about, petty though it may be, are the Wee Controlled video games. If you’re a man and you go to certain bars across the city you will find a screen above the urinal… it plays a commercial until you approach it, at which point it senses your presence and says “Pee to Start the Game!”
As a woman this was as far as I could get. But boys, as you wee you can shoot penguins while you ski down a slope! When you get to the end it gives you your score, and you go drink more so you can play again. It’s great for everybody… except women who are “anatomically challenged” according to Captive Media, the game’s creators.
The Royal Society of Arts/ John Adam Street
Pause for a moment here at the end of John Adam Street.
Down at the far end you can just make out the headquarters of the Royal Society of Arts, who have been so involved in the advancement of public toilets throughout the years. It is thanks to their keen watch that we have the figures for the Great Exhibition, and that efforts were made after that time to improve the state of London’s Loos. I’ll tell you a bit more about them later on.
Carry on walking up the hill. See the steps in front of you leading down into the underground? Walk to the top and meet me there.
Toilets (or not!) in the Underground
Head down into the underground.
Now you’re at the bottom of the stairs turn left. You’re in Charring Cross station. There are 30p toilets upstairs in the mainline station, but nothing in the Underground.
In fact, less than half of the 270 stations served by the London Underground have toilets. In Central London that drops to less than a quarter.
Turn right and start heading upwards. Past the paddle gates on your left.
Station toilets are overseen by the various train operating companies. They decide whether to charge you or not and how pleasant of an experience to make it.
There was much toilet controversy over the new Crossrail, who declared that they had no intention of adding toilets to their stations. Local campaigners painted a horrific vision of the major transport hubs flooded with stranded customers having to depend on street corners and bushes.
On your right is Mad World Fancy Dress. Stop by the Window. It’s not a toilet, it’s just kind of interesting. I think that this is the most bizzarely placed costume shop in London… in case you just happen to step off the tube at Charring Cross and realize you forgot your fancy dress…?
Turn around. Across the hall is a fitness equipment shop. Again rather bizarre
… you know, in case you need to pick up a treadmill on your way home or anything like that.
Continue walking down the passage. On some days ahead of you you’ll see street dancers practicing in the corridor. Speaking as a former drama student, I know how precious London space can be.
Take Exit 7 on your left… back up to ground level. I’ll meet you again at the top.
Butterfly Urinal and St Martins in the Field.
As you come out the exit, to your left you’ll see a butterfly urinal… so called because the designers believe that when it is open it looks like a graceful butterfly spreading its wings to shelter needy toilet goers. Go have a look at it… but make sure there’s no one using it first! Unlike the Urilift it is here constantly… but like the urilift it’s for men only. So ladies have to hunt yet farther afield…
Before you carry on walking towards the church, take a moment to admire the back window. I think it’s a rather cool feature. It was designed by Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary. The window depicts an abstract cross… as though reflected in the water. It is felt my some to symbolize the Church of England’s shifting attitudes on race, gender and sexuality.
Start walking again. Continue on towards that glass cylinder alongside the church. When you get there walk round it and stop by the automatic doors in front.
Churches have a long history of interest in sanitation.
Our first ever reference to organized sanitation actually comes from the bible… it didn’t quite make the ten commandments, but later on in the very same speech on the mount to the Israelites Moses says:
“Thou shalt have a place also without the camp whither thou shalt go forth abroad. And thou shalt have a paddle upon they weapon. And it shall be when thou wilt ease thyself abroad thou shalt dig therewith and turn back and cover that which cometh from thee.”
Modern translation: Go outside the camp and bury it.
St Martin In The Fields
St. Martin in the Fields is the self-proclaimed “Church of Ever Open Toilet Doors”… if you don’t believe me pop into the ladies toilets which are down the glass entrance to the crypt and through the café.
A sign in the ladies suggests that if you are visiting the church merely to sample the facilities you might consider making a small donation in the box provided towards the £32,000 a year cost of keeping these toilets available to all.
As a general rule if you’re exploring London, churches are either brilliant because they have a strong sense of community and welcome… or else they are rubbish because they were built before the age of indoor plumbing and haven’t updated sufficiently.
The good facilities at St Martin in the Fields are actually a relatively recent addition.
"The crypt of this famous church is a strange, dark, untidy place, but stranger still is to find loos in it! The Ladies you can’t get in because the door is jammed- Let’s hope not with Toileteers who’ve been there for an age behind it. In the Gents there’s much water on the floor, 3 stalls, 2 hand-basins without soap or towels, and 4 cubicles, one with no seat, one with no paper, one with no seat or paper, one with a seat but not attached to the basin, and no chain or paper. I suspect this is all temporary because there were a lot of work men milling around, meaning playing cards and drinking tea, and one of them said he thought they were turning the place into a restaurant."
Look across the street. The National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square… you have so many options for toilets here! I get irrationally excited about this, and never know which ones to use.
Head towards you’re right, away from the Church. You’re aiming for the Zebra crossing Just past the statue of Edith Cavell, a First World War nurse who was shot by the Germans.
Before you cross look up the street to your left. See the big round ticket booth there? That was once a ladies toilet.
On the final leg of our journey we’re going to fill in that gap between the Great Exhibition and the toilets of the modern age and talk about the subterranean toilets of London and what has become of them.
Street Crossing/Underground Toilet
Before you cross look up the street to your left. See the big round ticket booth there? That was once a ladies toilet.
On the final leg of our journey we’re going to fill in that gap between the Great Exhibition and the toilets of the modern age and talk about the subterranean toilets of London and what has become of them.
You can cross now… take your time and be careful.
This is where traffic may start to get a little hairy, so proceed with caution! The taxis and busses don’t actually want to kill you because it makes a lot of paperwork for them to deal with, but it doesn’t mean they won’t threaten to.
Crossing the street
Once you’re across turn right and cross the street again
Turn left immediately before you pass the Chandos pub and start walking up the street.
Keep an eye out for a gap in the wall on your right.
Stop when you get to the gap in the wall, barely big enough to squeeze into.
This is Brydges Place is the Second Narrowest Alley in London, at least according to the internet. It’s also described as “A prime spot for late night piddlers.”
Start walking down the ally. Can you tell what it’s normally used for? Some days it is more multisensory than others… for which I am very sorry!
One the wall to your right there may be some interesting graffiti. There used to be a bit that said “Sorry for Pissing Here so much: Blame Maggie.” I was very sad the day they painted that over.
While this reflection on Maggie Thatcher’s reign was probably an impulsive nod to the low status of bodily functions rather than a cleverly thought out statement on Thatcher’s legacy in the field of toilets, it might be considered the privatization of the water companies in 1989 lead to an increase in prices… including the cost of flushing a toilet.
If 8 million people in London flush the toilet 4 times a day, that’s 12 million toilet flushes… over 19 million gallons of water assuming they are all the regulation 1.6 gallon flush. The UK flushes approximately one third of its clean drinking water down the loo.
Various celebrities have spoken up about this from the American president Teddy Roosevelt who said
“Civilized people should be able to dispose of their sewage in a better way than putting it in the drinking water”
to Prince Philip who said in 1965:
“This is the biggest waste of water in the country by far. You spend a pint and flush two gallons.”
A Failed Toilet Project
At the end of the alley cross the street again and keep walking towards The Lady Magazine which should be looming up in front of you.
This is the site of another early public toilet. In 1852, the year after the Great Exhibition a group of Entrepreneurs including Samuel Morton Peto, who built Nelson’s Column, and Henry Cole who was better known for designing the first commercial Christmas Card got together to finance a ladies toilet on the corner of Bedford Street. The corresponding Gents was about a mile away on Fleet Street. They distributed 10,000 handbills and placed advertisements in the Times.
During the first month they had only 24 visitors to the ladies. That continued to drop until finally 8 months later the project was declared a failure and the toilets closed down. On-street conveniences, it seemed, were not, after all, a viable option.
Stop! Look across the street to your right. The Blue Plaque on the side of the building that is now TGI Friday’s marks where a young Charles Dickens once worked.
Here’s his great great great granddaughter Lucinda Hawksley who can tell you more about him than I can:
[Lucinda] “When Charles Dickens was 12 years old his father, mother and younger siblings all ended up in a debtors prison, in the Marshalsea in Southwark. Charles Dickens was working in a factory right here (before it was a TGI Fridays) and every morning he would leave his lodgings in Camden Town, walk here, then walk across the river to see his family in Southwark before walking all the way back again, a journey of about 8 miles every day.
“This made him very interested in the conditions of London’s poor, and one of the things that he became interested in was sanitation. When he was older, when he was writing his first novels and still working as a campaigning journalist, his younger brother Alfred Dickens became a sanitary engineer. From him, Charles Dickens learned a great deal about the need for clean water and good sanitation in London and elsewhere. Charles Dickens worked closely with contemporaries of Bazalgette and campaigners such as Henery Mayhew. He championed Sanitation for the labouring poor, and his name appears on several petitions for the improvement of public conveniences.”
Start walking again… cross the street towards the Lad Magazine. Remember what I have told you about taxis!
Turn left and walk up the street.
In this area you’ll see a lot of cycle rickshaws going by. I rode one for awhile which was great fun, until toilets took over my life.
The London Cabbies run a tight ship. They are legally known as Hackney Carriages and are the only taxis legally allowed to pick up passengers on the street.
Rickshaws get round this through an archaic loophole in the law whereby they operate as ‘stage coaches’. This means they have to charge per passenger and the price has to be agreed before you start your journey. This is useful to know if you ever end up haggling with a rickshaw rider!
The Actor's Church
Cross the street again and turn right.
We’re heading into Covent Garden now.
You won’t be able to see it yet, but on your left behind these building’s is St. Paul’s Church, not to be confused with St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is better known as the Actors church, due to the visitors from Covent Garden. The story goes that when it was built the Duke of Bedford who owned the area was not wild about the idea of a church and said to Inigo Jones, the architect “I would not have it much better than a barn”. Jones replied “then you shall have the handsomest barn in all England!”
Carry on to the end of the block, where you’ll see more cycle rickshaws waiting on your right more likely than not. When you get there I’ll give you your next instruction.
Turn left into Covent Garden. Find the portico next to St. Paul’s Church. You’ll see Ladies toilets on the right and Gentlemen on the Left.
Jennings petitioned to be allowed build underground toilets similar to these as early as 1958. He wrote a letter:
“To the Honourable the Commissioners of Sewers for the City of London
“Gentlemen, I observe in 'The Times' that certain matters of a Sanitary character have been referred to your Engineer.
“I think it only right to call attention to the efforts I have made to prevent the defilement of our thoroughfares and to remove those Plague spots that are offensive to the eye, and a reproach to the Metropolis.
“Having provided, and fixed the Sanitary appliances at the Exhibition of 1851 and the Dublin Exhibition of 1852, and also those in the present Crystal Palace, I can bear testimony to the Public application of conveniences, suited to the advanced stage of civilization.
“I know the subject is a peculiar one, and very difficult to handle, but no false delicacy ought to prevent immediate attention being given to matters effecting the health, and comfort, of the thousands who daily throng the thoroughfares of your City.”
He went on to describe his plans for underground conveniences and finished:
“If you consider my arrangements bear the stamp of common sense, I offer through you to supply and fix in any part of the City every Sanitary appliance shown in my drawings free of any charge.
“If the cost of Gas-lights Water Supply and respectable Attendants capable of understanding and answering a question, should be considered an expense too great to be encountered, I am willing to take every expense on myself, and carry out every detail, under your Engineer's direction, provided the attendants I furnish are allowed to receive a small gratuity for use of Towels &c. as at the Crystal Palace.
“If this (which many would turn a speculation) should prove commercially valuable, I shall be quite ready at any time to resign my trust, or retain it, using the proceeds for the establishment of similar conveniences.
“I have the honour to be My Lord & Gentlemen,
Your obedient Servant,
In fact it wasn’t until two years after Jenning’s death that these underground toilets finally caught on. They fit Victorian sensibilities of decency and discretion, often being located in the middle of roads.
These ones now cost 50p as we are still in Westminster… but they are open 24 hours so you know you'll always have somewhere to go!
Turn away from these toilets now. Head through the covered market area all the way out the other side.
The first underground toilets, like the ones we have just seen, were installed in Bank Station near the Royal Exchange in the City of London. Jonathan Routh printed a poem reportedly written to commemorate their opening:
"I'front the Royal Exchange and Underground,
Down Gleaming walls of porc'lain flows the sluice
That out of sight decants the Kidney Juice,
Thus pleasuring those Gents for miles around,
Who, crying for relief, once piped the sound,
Of wind in alley-ways. All hail this news!
And let the joyous shuffling queues
For Gentlemanly Jennings' most well found
Construction, wherein a penny ope's the gate
To Heav'n's mercy and Sanitary wares
Received the Gush with seemingly, cool obedience,
Enthroning Queen Hygeia in blessed state
On Crapper's Rocket: with rapturous ease men's cares
Shall flow away when seated at convenience!"
As you come out of the market you’ll pass a stall selling hats, scarves and socks. This is one of my most regular shopping places… the signature striped stockings of the Loo Lady all came from here! Since I believe toilets should be clean, classy and even fun places I always try to reflect that in my style.
Walk down Tavistock Court by the London Transport Museum. Don’t worry… it’s nothing so narrow as Brydges Place.
RADAR Keys & Deviant Behavior
You’ll see Covent Garden’s accessible toilets here on your right. They require a radar key. The radar key scheme started in 1981 so that people with disabilities could "go in peace, and quickly, without the indignity of asking someone if they can have a wee, please.”
Today in the UK there are approximately 9,000 toilet doors listed as being RADAR accessible including public toilets and those in private businesses. RADAR stands for the Royal Association of Disability and Rehabilitation.
Stop here in the alley.
“Why are the disabled toilets kept locked? you might wonder. They are large and private spaces which lend themselves to a number of activities other than their intended use.
Sam Cady is an academic currently researching deviant behavior in toilets:
[Sam] “Fundamentally, toilets are spaces in which privacy is blurred, and the tension between public and private space is highlighted. The Victorians, who paved the way in terms of sanitation constructed the first public loos, and many of their inherent fears transpire in our familiar toilet architecture. The location of loos was often such that facilities were sited in the middle of roads or underground, positioned so that Gentlemen, and later Ladies, were unable to see each other entering, thus conserving modesty, but also building a wall of silence between users. Even today we generally try to avoid contact or even notice the existence of others in the bathroom, although perhaps a display of British prudery this does have its used for those seeking to engage in deviant behavior, and in some instances toilets become the only space in which these off-bound activities can occur. Think back to when you were at school. Did you ever sneak off to the bathroom for a cheeky cigarette? It is exactly this kind of deviant behavior we’re talking about. Toilet spaces offer opportunities like this because they offer freedom from observation, and so they are perfect deviant spaces."
Cross the street and turn left. We’ll hear more from Sam on the other side.
Follow the curve of the road around Burleigh Street.
[Sam] "Perhaps the first to write about deviant behavior was the grandfather of toilet academia Alexandra Kira. In his raunchy 1976 study “The Bathroom” he discusses and photographs the uses of the loo from everyday expulsion of waste, to using the loo to hide from responsibility (mainly work), drugs and sex… which some might say is all of the best things in life in one book!"
Turn Left onto Exeter street. The curb here is quite steep, so take care stepping down as you cross.
[Sam] “Of course, ‘off bound spaces’ occur all over the city and often extend further than the toilet door, but intermediate spaces, like these back alleys, have also enabled deviant toilet behavior. During the 1960’s when one had to be covert, these streets would have been the perfect arena to cruise, eyeing up by passers as potential partners, and if successful, quickly darting back for a jolly in the near by loos. This act was known as cottaging in Britain, and ‘Tea Rooms” in the US. This area, the Stand, is very much a transitory space, based on movement, with heavy footfall and an abundance of hotels thoroughfares and back alleys it is architecturally a non-space, and a prime location for cruising.”
Alternative uses and liberation
Turn right and head down Wellington Street.
[Sam] “In fact cottaging not only provide interesting anecdotes of deviant behavior in off-bounds spaces, but also helped in the revolution and liberation of sex and sexual minorities.
“Once again, like many deviant activates sex in toilets, particularly same sex, thrived in these off bound space which for many provided the ability to ’step out of the public eye’. This was especially important prior to1967 when being gay was still illegal.”
Pause under the colonnade of the Lyceum Theatre.
[Sam] “In this period deviant toilet behavior actually enabled gay men to create gay spaces and form communities hidden from the view of an unsympathetic society. Now, however, cottaging is often seen as a somewhat bizarre aging and even nostalgic fetish… a gay subculture rather than the means for gay men to get their socks off.
“So I’ll leave you with this thought: Although some of the more menial deviances may ‘piss off’ genuine toilet users, they allow us to find common ground in discussion about our toilet activities. They provide us with anecdotes and histories that are slightly more appealing than the tales of personal toilet habits and genuine uses. They provide a framework for self expression, exploration and identification for both mainstram and countercultures, and that surely has to be a good thing.”
Look to down the street to your left. See that glass structure just across the bicycle path? That is our final destination. Start walking towards it.
The Cellar Door
This was once the most infamous gents in theatre land! This former toilet alleges to have been the former haunt of the likes of Oscar Wilde, Jo Orton and John Guilgud… and other male theatricals who would come cruising. Wilde carried on his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas not too far away in the Savoy hotel. He was later tried and prosecuted for “Gross Indecency.” Guilgud’s career came to a temporary standstill in 1953 when he was arrested in a Kensington toilet.
This space now plays host to a different sort of deviant activity, and is one of London’s most unusual Cocktail and Cabaret bars. It was converted in 2006, leading the trend of making use of these underground spaces.
In addition to being in a former toilet this bar has amazing toilets of its own. The doors are completely clear, until you lock them, at which point they frost over. One of the great joys in life is watching people who don’t know what they are in for heading back to the toilets and looking in horror at the doors.
Toilets have changed dramatically over the past century, and are likely to continue to do so. They come and go and turn into other things moving with cultural attitudes, priorities and taboos. But no matter what the era they always have and always will contain fascinating stories for those brave enough to lift the lid.
This is where I leave you for today.
If you want to get back to where we started cross Waterloo Bridge back to the Royal Festival Hall. Or stay and have a cocktail in the Cellar Door. It’s well worth the experience! And don’t forget to visit the loos… whether you need it or not!
I hope you have enjoyed the tour.
You can find out more about this and other Loo Tours projects at lootours.com or on twitter @londonlootours.
Our theme was composed by Paul Freeman and played by Julie Groves and Nadia Wilson.
We would like to thank the many generous backers who gave their support to make this project happen: Particular thanks to:
Myles de Bastion
WC Wine & Charcuterie in Clapham Common
And, of course, thanks to our sponsors Thomas Crapper and Company.
I’m the Loo Lady.