Tag Archives: london’s toilets

Comfort breaks

As I have written about regularly, some might say obsessively, is the need to spend a penny during the day while working as a cabbie. And one reliable destination to take, as the Americans euphemistically say, a comfort break during this coronavirus crisis is a friendly pub.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed but, by law, all pubs must be separated from their toilet facilities by at least two doors. Presumably, this is so that you can’t see blokes standing at the urinals while you’re at the bar sipping on your weak yellow lager.

I’ve noticed, from bitter experience, that there appear to be a few other unwritten laws concerning pub toilets.

  • All pub toilets are poorly signposted. This is so that, when you first feel the need to pay a visit, you haven’t got a clue which way to go, so you head initially in the wrong direction, then have to turn round embarrassingly after you walk accidentally into the alcove behind the cigarette machine.
  • All pub toilets are situated on a different floor to the pub itself. This is to force you to attempt to negotiate a set of narrow stairs whilst in a drunken state, usually downwards, and risk losing your footing and ending up at the bottom in a heap with a bemused smile on your face.
  • All pub toilets have supposedly witty names on the doors, like ‘Ducks’ and Drakes’, or ‘Laddies’ and ‘Gentlewomen’. This is to encourage you to walk into the wrong convenience by mistake, much to your eternal shame, and because the landlord mistakenly believes that these names are funny.
  • Have you noticed that no matter how updated is the saloon bar, their toilets are stuck in the 1950s, with mock Victorian tiles, and a floor that sticks to your soles?
  • Why does every London pub smell of the same cleaning fluids, somebody is making a fortune selling a product to the brewers that nobody would use at home.
  • All pub toilets are cold, damp, poorly maintained, with puddles on the floor and lacking in toilet paper. This is because landlords know that, after five pints, you’ll be so bladdered that you have no choice but to use the facilities provided, however miserable, and so there’s no point maintaining them to an acceptable standard.
  • Whenever you visit the pub toilet, so does the creepy bloke from the bar that you’d rather never be alone with, except that you now are, and you’re standing next to him, and you’d rather be absolutely anywhere else, except that there are important biological reasons why you can’t leave the urinal for the next 45 seconds. This is because life’s a bitch.

Or am I just going to the wrong pubs for my comfort break?

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:



Goldilocks Hotels are just right

The ignominy, being thrown out of a hotel for the second time; it happened to me last week quite unexpectedly. The hotel in question, which uses Scotland’s national flower for its trademark, has decided that cabbies are persona non grata. They are, not unreasonably, fed up with a procession of cabbies traipsing across their foyer to use their own ‘guests’ toilets; but for them the problem they face is that their hotel is a Goldilocks Hotel.

[L]et me explain: Some hotels are too post, and wouldn’t want cabbies rubbing shoulders with their well heeled customers in rest room. At the other end of the scale are the budget hotels whose customers don’t have the luxury of anything beyond their room and in the foyer a showcase of flyers with suggestions on how to spend their time in London after their budget breakfast. Between those polar opposites fall the Goldilocks Hotels, not too cheap, nor too rich; they are just right. Here cabbies can park outside; usually these hotels also have taxi ranks, and gratefully use the toilets facilities.

Once it was a matter of civic pride for a borough council to build public toilets, often with gleaming brass pipes and beautiful tiling, while many toilets would have an attendant on duty to ensure that high standards were maintained.

Now many London Boroughs trying to squeeze as much value from the rates, to justify their manager’s inflated salaries find that maintaining adequate toilets that non ratepayers might use, how can I put it? An inconvenience.

If you need to leave your taxi unattended while answering the call of nature, finding somewhere to park in Central London can prove at best difficult, at night in the West End, impossible.

Overzealous parking attendants, themselves indirectly employed by the self same councils whose toilets you are trying to use. Cameras that are now employed to book you for parking if your stay exceeds the magical two minutes and one second beyond that allotted time allowed for stopping cabs. I would defy anyone to be able to answer the call of nature in that Olympic time. At night, with no parking places available, it makes bladder control a pre-requisite for passing The Knowledge.

Garages would seem united in their inability to find a decent plumber, for most claim when asked, that their toilets are out of order. Some of London’s private squares are covered by CCTV cameras, so fed up are the residents with people using their beautiful gardens as a toilet.

So I (and my bladder) would like to thank all the Goldilocks Hotels who tolerate the cab trade using their facilities, and would like to think my colleagues will always provide those self same hotels’ guests the cabs they might require.

100 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 100th 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.

An In-Convenience Truth

Westminster Council who aspires to become the most anti-social borough in London must be fearful that it is in danger of losing its ranking.

For not content with pursuing a regime of traffic enforcement that the Taliban would like to emulate, they now have turned their attention to a more basic function than motoring parking offences, namely reducing its provision of public toilets.

[O]ver the past few years public conveniences have been closing at an alarming rate, so critical has it become, that London Mayor Boris has even suggested that private shops and restaurants open their doors (so to speak) to facilitate the public’s needs.

Then recently under cover of darkness, in a clandestine operation, Westminster Council filled the public conveniences at Oxford Circus with concrete. But never mind they provide a text-based service providing you with all the information you need to find a toilet in their borough (80097 TOILET at a cost of 25p if you’re interested). I was told at 9.20 in the evening that I would have to walk best part of a mile from Oxford Circus to use one of their toilets.

The more charitable among you might presume that the time chosen to fill these toilets with concrete was so that drivers were not inconvenienced (sorry again about that) by the lorries. But I would remind you that Westminster Council now collects more income from parked cars than from taxpayers, so they are hardly car friendly.

The Council plans to provide a £5 million diagonal pedestrian crossing at this intersection modelled on the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, ignoring the fact that, while Japanese assiduously cross a road at the designated points, in London jaywalkers are knocked down on a regular basis in Oxford Street, completely ignoring the correct crossing points.

Westminster City Council’s Cllr Danny Chalkley said while commendably keeping a straight face:

This new crossing, which will transform Oxford Circus and ensure visitors who emerge from the Tube are impressed by what greets them, is part of a whole series of improvements taking place to ensure the West End looks truly world class in time for 2012.

The developers hope to have the new crossing ready in time for the Christmas lights switch-on in November. It is just a pity no-one will be able to have a pee.

As a footnote, in 200 years time when archaeologists are excavating these Edwardian toilets they might be surprised to find mummified corpses down there encased in concrete, caught having their last ‘comfort stop’ before Westminster poured concrete down the staircase.