Tag Archives: London toilets

Caught short

What is the connection between these numbers?

2 and 4 at the same time, then 3; 3574; C395ZY; 2088; and 1975

Here’s a clue: The numbers are all useful in the Tottenham Court Road area should you have an urgent need to use them.

When as a cab driver of advancing years, much of my thinking time was taken up looking for these facilities which these numbers allow access.

A young pressure group have produced an essential Twitter feed, and considering their needs would be far less urgent than we septuagenarians, they should be applauded.

Apparently, any establishment with an alcohol licence is mandatorily required to allow anyone to use their toilets, and offer a glass of water, isn’t stipulated in what order. This stipulation, of course, is never complied with.

How many times have you gone into an establishment to find a sign reading “For patrons use only”, or my favourite “Out of order, awaiting Plummer”, and if that is the case, just how to their employees take a comfort break or maybe they are not allowed to take a break during their working hours.

@LDNloocodes with nearly 7,000 followers aim to give everyone who gets caught short a selection of entry codes to the local toilets.

The five locations and their codes are:

Change Please, above the Halifax Bank, corner of Tottenham Court Road; Pret, New Oxford Street; Waterstone’s, Tottenham Court Road; Pret, Centre Point; Five Guys, next door to the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road.

108 years down the drain

Readers of a delicate disposition should log off now for today’s post is about well . . . spending a penny.

IMG_0077 With a surname like Crapper you would have thought another choice of vocation would have been preferable, for apparently the derivation of the vulgar verb, is not taken from Thomas Crapper’s surname, as many believe, but comes from Middle English word crap itself a derivation from the Dutch Krappe.

This year marks the 108th anniversary of Thomas Crapper’s death, the man one could argue, who has improved all our lives immeasurably with his invention of the floating ballcock (another inappropriately named device), and although he did not invent the ceramic toilet he revolutionised the public attitude to toilets with the first bathroom showroom.

[T]HOMAS CRAPPER came to London from Yorkshire at the age of 11 in 1848, first setting up shop as a sanitary engineer on what is now Draycott Avenue, but later his firm that became celebrated for their water closets opened at for business at 120 King’s Road [see picture], his showroom alas is now an empty clothing shop.

Before Crapper, most of London lavatories relied on turning a simple tap on to flush the loo, the problem was that people forgot to turn off the tap, or left it to run as a trickle of water did not make for a particularly hygienic flushing system. As a result a dramatic loss of pressure in London’s water system.

Crapper’s system of course stored the water and then discharged the tank with enough force to flush away the solids. So convinced was he of his loos that he invited a bemused public into the works to see how a particular loo and cistern combination could flush away a dozen apples or several potatoes. Visits became one of the highlights of Saturday afternoons in Chelsea; it seems Edwardians were easily entertained.

Throughout history our ancestors have found ingenious ways to use them and we apparently spend three years of our lives sitting on them, so how did we get on without Thomas Crapper?

The Romans viewed going to the toilet as a social affair, they would discuss the news and gossip of the day and maybe even negotiate a business deal whilst they were there, the City wine bar of its day. Not surprisingly, toilet paper had yet to be invented; instead a piece of sponge fixed to a short wooden handle was used and shared by everyone.

In the Middle Ages, the wealthy built ‘garderobes’, little rooms jutting out from the walls of their homes. Garderobes, to ‘guard’ the ‘robes’ were also used to store clothes, as the smell kept moths away. It’s this medieval loo that we take the word ‘wardrobe’ from, but not everyone had such a luxury, many would have used chamber pots during this period, throwing their waste out of a window, shouting ‘gardy loo’ – Gardez l’eau is French for ‘watch out for the water’. In fact the City would fine householders if the detritus reached above a certain height outside their city homes.

The Tudors would happily ‘pluck a rose’ (as they called it) anywhere: in chimneys, corners of rooms or in the street. Toilets by then were often referred to as ‘the jakes’. Then in 1596, Sir John Harrington invented the first water closet with a proper flush. Queen Elizabeth I used it and was so impressed that she had a ‘john’ built at her palace, hence the expression of ‘going to the john’, however, it was not widely used elsewhere as it was expensive to install.

By the 1700s, the most likely place to keep your chamber pot was in the dining room, often in a sideboard. Chamber pots and commodes were commonplace even into the 1800s and if staying at a wealthy house, in your bedroom you could pull out the drawer and inside find a metal bowl ‘pee pot’, one for the man and another for the lady, which could be used and then emptied by the chambermaid in the morning.

It wasn’t until 1775 that Alexander Cummings invented the first modern flushing toilet, but later into the 19th century and the height of the British Industrial Revolution, the population in towns and cities increased, but the number of toilets didn’t. Neighbouring families would often have to share an outside privy, the ‘necessary house’. It wouldn’t be until 1910 that the toilet was changed to the closed water tank and bowl that we all know and love.

If you really want to know – here are some toilet facts

Gongfermors were the people who removed human excrement from privies and cesspits (gong being another word for dung). They were only allowed to work at night.

Royal loos were scrubbed out by workers called gongscourers.

In 1760 George II expired on the toilet.

People would tip ash from fireplaces and nearby coke furnaces on top of sewage to stop it smelling.

The normal charge to use a public toilet was a penny. People spoke of ‘spending a penny’ as a polite way of saying they were going to the loo.

Before toilet paper was invented people would use leaves, moss, stones, grass, rags, and oyster or mussel shells bits of broken pots or bunches of herbs. Wealthy ladies would use goose feathers.

The first loo paper was used in Britain in 1857. It was sold in chemists from under the counter because people were embarrassed to see it on display.

Toilet rolls were not sold until 1928 and coloured paper wasn’t introduced until 1957.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 28th May 2010

Listed London Loos

In an age of ever more automated – and expensive – public toilets a few early examples of late Victorian and Edwardian conveniences remain in London.

The Regency Place urinal is one of the few ’open air’ pissoirs and much used by cabbies.

Now unused and recently sold as storage for the refurbished adjacent £4.4 million house is a Grade II Listed urinal in Star Yard.

[A]n archive photo from Historic England shows the toilet open for use in 1986, with what looks like the remains of a gas lamp bracket mid-way along the back wall.


This green rectangle of cast iron with open lattice for ventilation proudly displays the manufacturer’s logo (McDowall Steven & Co – Milton Iron Works). Once common on London’s streets, this example with its attractive panel designs was featured in a episode of Rumpole of the Bailey when the late Leo McKern is seen to enter its portal.

Another listed early loo is South End Green which had a pop idol connection. The toilets also appear in the comedy film Make Mine Mink from about 1960, Terry Thomas is being chased by the Police after a robbery, enters the toilets at one end and exits at the other in a different outfit to effect his getaway.


The Jewel Tower must be one of the least known royal buildings in London. The ‘Privy Palace’ as it was dubbed is a precious survival from the medieval Palace of Westminster, the residence of the medieval kings and their families from 11th to 16th century. It was well supplied with garderobes [toilets], with one on each of the three floors. But its main function was not as an elevated khazi but as the tower that securely housed the royal treasure.

Toilet trivia

The more observant among you might have seen that recently I’ve been reading The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis by Stephen Halliday. In it the author paints a pretty disgusting picture of London before Mr Bazalgette’s sewers.

The old curmudgeon and diarist Samuel Pepys gave us a flavour, if that is the right word, of life in 17th century London, writing:

. . . and going down into my cellar to look, I put my foot into a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me . . .

Mr Turner, the diarist’s neighbour, had let his ‘house of office’ overflow, presenting Pepys with some poops.

[A]part from the Romans, London it would appear was the trailblazer when it came to defecation aids. The perforated loo roll, it is claimed originated in – ah – Hackney Wick. On White Post Lane there is a blue plaque proudly announcing the birthplace of the modern loo roll, although others dispute this claim.


One indisputable fact is the origins of Andrex. Created in 1942 (I suppose with bombs raining down from above toilet rolls were in demand) gets its name from a Walthamstow street where it was first made – St. Andew’s Road. Originally called Androll (St. Andrew’s made roll); it was later changed to Andrex.

I would have though that most dogs in Victorian London were feral with very few owners going walkies armed with a dog poop bag. At that time the streets weren’t paved with gold or dog poo for that matter. Colloquially known as ‘pure’, collectors would scour the streets for dog do-dah to sell to the leatherworkers in Bermondsey for tanning the hides.

The same can’t be said of human excrement with the banning of cesspits, due to the occurrences that Mr. Pepys experienced, London’s effluent was taken by rudimentary sewers and discharged in the Thames.

The result was that the sludge wasn’t discharged into the sea but merely slopped back and forth causing the Great Stink of 1858 and galvanising MPs to authorise the building of Bazalgette’s sewer system.

Twenty years later the Thames was still being used as a dumping ground, 650 drowned or choked when the Princess Alice collided with the coal-carrying Bywell Castle shortly after 75 million gallons of effluent had been discharged from nearby Barking and Crossness treatment works.

In today’s sanitised world we forget just how big the problem really is. Matt Brown at the Londonist has been busy with his slide rule. He has calculated that a day’s total dump would, if laid end to end, go round the M25 four times.

Photo: Blue Plaque Diamond Geezer (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)