Toilet Caper

[L]ondon’s lost loos, were until the 1950s famous the world over, these magnificent Victorian edifices, both decorative as well as functional, were built in the first place simply that the government saw them as essential to the wellbeing of Londoners.

If you were caught short in London before their construction you would simply relieve yourself in the street. The delicate-minded and, of course, women found this unacceptable and the solution was provided by human lavatories. Men and women wore voluminous black capes and carried a bucket, for a farthing they would shield you from preying eyes while you sat on their bucket. Only one of these heroes for modesty is known: one Thomas Butcher of Cheapside who in 1190 was fined for overcharging his clients. Samuel Pepy’s wife in the 17th century didn’t want to pay for a caped crusader, as he noted in his diary at the time, how his wife squatted in the road ‘to do her business’.

No word in English has changed its meaning more than ‘toilet’. In about 1540 it described a kind of cloth derived from the French ‘toile’ – a kind of linen. Then the term was used for the cloth to used to adorn dressing tables, later for the items upon the cloth, hence ‘toiletries’. The dressing table itself was next to receive that Monica, then the act of dressing, Georgians would use the word to describe the act of receiving visitors when dressing, next came the receiving room or any adjoining rooms, as indoor lavatories arrived that room became the toilet and now we politely call the ceramic bowl a toilet. It explains why in English you can describe something splashed on one’s face as toilet water or the liquid used to flush away faeces. The English noted for the reluctance to talk about such matters have given a plethora of euphemisms to avoid that unmentionable word: spend a penny; smallest room in the house; loo; lav; karsie; bog; john; head; water closet; and for obscure reasons in the 18th century ‘jordan’.

As these fine conveniences in London disappeared new names have sprung up for their modern counterparts, the automatic loos are known as ‘Metal Mickey’s’. These automatic machines perhaps reflect the lack of pride much in evidence in the first half of the last century.

I can vaguely remember a toilet near Chancery Lane station, with its polished brass and mahogany fittings surmounted by a set of superb cut-glass cisterns. The pride of its attendant knew no bounds as he then stocked these cisterns with goldfish, where they lived happily for many years until the local authority decided the public would prefer to use the nearby McDonalds toilets and closed this shrine to civic pride.

One of the last personalised loos to go was a splendid example in Covent Garden next to St. Pauls Church on the piazza. Here the attendant was a keen opera buff who decorated the walls with reproductions of some of the National Gallery’s famous pictures, and played well known operatic arias to his customers.

Illustrated is a map by Paula Simoes of some of the last remaining interesting London conveniences – the London Museum is showing the original in its foyer. She has also written as piece entitled Declining Loos of London to accompany the map for the Museum of London’s blog.

Paul Herringshaw has written a series of spoof histories on individual London toilets, entitled Stall Stories these toilet tales may be found by opening this toilet door:



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