For those new to CabbieBlog or readers who are slightly forgetful, on Saturdays I’m republishing posts, many going back over a decade. Some will still be very relevant while others have become dated over time. Just think of this post as your weekend paper supplement.
The Human Lavatory (25.05.09)
Gentle reader, 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, was 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. While 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, which 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 phrase was coined (sorry for the pun), to spend a penny.
The 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 that remained standard for nearly all public conveniences until the 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 test method of a bucket.
Just don’t expect to find a caped crusader.