The Human Lavatory

Gentle reader one day you will come, as I have now, to a time in your life when finding a toilet becomes not a distraction but a necessity.

London loos, until the 1950s, were famous the world over, but now according to the British Toilet Association (yes, there is a pro-toilet lobby group), a third of the lavatories run by city councils have closed in the last three years.

[W]hile London with a decline of 40 per cent since  1999 is the largest drop in the country. They claim there is now only one public toilet for every 10,000 people in England but only one for every 18,000 Londoners.

London’s magnificent Victorian public toilets were built after The Public Health Act of 1848, called for ‘Public Necessaries to be provided to improve sanitation’. The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851 had toilets for visitors. These were installed by George Jennings, a plumber from Brighton. He felt strongly that there should be decent public facilities. To offset the cost, visitors were charged 1d for using the toilets, giving Mr Jennings a net profit of £1,790 in only 23 weeks and so the phase was coined (sorry for the pun), to spend a penny.

London’s first public on-street convenience was a gents at 95 Fleet Street; it was opened on 2 February 1852. Another, for ladies, was opened on 11 February at 51 Bedford Street. As well as being a public service these ‘Public Waiting Rooms’ had water closets in wooden surrounds. The charge was 2d entrance fee and extra for washing or clothes brushes. They advertised the facilities in The Times and distributed handbills. But unfortunately they had very few users and they were abandoned.

William Haywood started the first municipal underground public toilets in 1855. These were outside the Royal Exchange. The contractors were George Jennings; yes it’s that man again. These toilets charged 1d, a price which remained standard for nearly all public conveniences until decimal currency was introduced in 1971.

George Jennings became a notable campaigner for public toilets, which he called ‘Halting Stations’, hardly surprising after the tidy profit he made at the Great Exhibition. At first he found it hard to convince authorities to adopt them. It was thought a topic which should not be mentioned. Nearly all public conveniences were for men with few provided for women. The logic was that far more men were away from home than women, either for work or leisure.

These limited facilities were far better than in the Middle Ages where people simply used a bucket or pot and then threw the contents into the gutter or the Thames. With the projecting first floors of medieval  London the pot’s contents would be thrown out with gay abandon to the warning of ‘gardyloo’ (a corruption of the French phrase gardez l’eau hence the nickname for a toilet.

In the 12th century if you happened to be walking in London and needed to spend a penny, you could employ the services of, I kid you not, a human lavatory. These were men and women who wore voluminous black capes and carried a bucket. I think you might be ahead of me here, but I will go on. For a farthing you sat on the bucket while they stood above you and enveloped you with their cape, thus protecting your modesty.

In London an Act was passed which allowed cabbies to urinate over the rear nearside wheel of their vehicle, but only if a policeman shielded you from view with his cape. The law has not been revoked, but I have no intention of asking a female police officer if she would help me to relieve myself.

Now over 150 years after those pioneering Victorians built public “Halting Stations” your choice is now limited, do you:
(a)    go to McDonald’s
(b)    illegally use a suitable wall or hedge
(c)    brazen it out, and use a hotel’s facilities; or
(d)    go back to the tried and tested method of a bucket.

Just don’t expect to find a caped crusader.

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7 thoughts on “The Human Lavatory”

  1. As we go out and about a lot, the issue of public toilets is a sore point. I deplore the wholesale shutting of public toilets that has occurred in recent years though I accept that cost and vandalism are problems.

    Compared with this country, Jersey is a toilet paradise: they had public toilets everywhere we went, even on the beach of a quiet bay one evening where there was nobody about but ourselves. They were usually reasonably clean and well supplied.

    Presumably the problem is one of economics: councils cannot afford to staff public toilets and to avoid the costs arising from vandalism and complaints of toilets being used for shady purposes, close them. What is the solution? Is there even a solution?

    That’s why I welcome the introduction of paid toilets on stations and similar places as I will happily pay 20p or 30p for the use of a clean toilet.


  2. As a frequent business traveller finding toilet facilities while on the move is an constant distraction. I waste a lot of time searching for toilets and planning my day around known toilet stops. Yes I understand it’s not a core service for local councils in these cash strapped times. I can’t see a solution either.


  3. Well, thanks for fleshing out one of those “silly laws” myths I kept hearing, that you can pee on your rear wheel. Didn’t know the bit about a policeman protecting your modesty.

    So, is it also true that you can be fined for not having sufficient hay in your cab for a horse for a day?


  4. In Indonesia, cloak-and-bucket services are still common in the big cities. They typically charge one rupiah for “air kecil” (“little water”, meaning Number 1) and two rupiah for “air besar” (“big water”, meaning Number 2).

    Typically, men only provide this service to men, and women only provide it to women, for reasons of modesty. In extreme emergencies, though, they sometimes waive this requirement. One cloak-and-bucket man on the streets of Jakarta let me use his bucket for air besar, as I was suffering from an upset stomach and had no other options. An awkward experience for us both, but I badly needed it and tipped him generously for his trouble.


  5. In many parts of Latin America, the arrangement is similar to the one Anjie described in Indonesia. Here is a comedy sketch from Nicaragua dealing with the subject:
    (A bit of explanation if you don’t know Spanish: the joke is that the last person was defecating, but she said she was urinating so she wouldn’t have to pay as much.)


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