We take toilets (and most other sanitary fixtures) for granted... but there is nothing pre-ordained or natural about them. They reflect deeply ingrained cultural norms. This walk through Bloomsbury dives into the history of toilets and how we came to appreciate them, from the Great Stink of 1858 and London's cholera outbreaks, to modern development work... and of course tales of toilet greats, like the the epyphonous Thomas Crapper.
This tour is designed as a site specific audio guide from Euston Square Station to the Princess Louise Pub.
released November 25, 2014
Performed by Rachel Erickson (The Loo Lady),
Music by Paul Freeman
Musicians: Nadia Wilson and Julie Groves
Loo Tours Presents: History Health and Hygiene.
Performed by the Loo Lady
Sponsored by Thomas Crapper & Company
I get super excited about toilets!
Chances are you don’t think about them very much. The average human spends 11minutes a day… 1.5 years in a lifetime using the toilet. It’s a private space, a thinking room a seat for great philosophizing… or a place to compose that perfect text or just finish your Sudoku.
But have you ever stopped to appreciate the form that you are sitting on or wondered how it got to be that way?
The toilet is a portal that connects you to your city… intimately. A magic looking glass that reflects volumes about the society in which you live.
Let’s go on a journey together and look deeper.
In order for us to keep up with each other you’re going to need to follow some simple rules:
Once you start walking keep going straight on until I tell you otherwise.
If you’re listening to the MP3 version of this tour you may sometimes need to pause the recording, and restart it when you reach your destination.
Let’s give this a test run.
Turn so you’re facing across Gower Street towards the hospital.
Now turn to your left.
If you do this right you’ll hear my voice again on the other side of the street.
Hello again! Well Done.
I’m the Loo Lady, by the way. Toilets became an obsession when I moved to London and had trouble finding a free one. I started to ask questions… which is always a dangerous hobby! Once you start thinking about toilets you can’t stop.
You have been warned. You could run now. But it will be more fun if you follow me.
Keep walking along this road until you reach the front entrance of University College London.
Turn left and go into the main gates of UCL.
Welcome to the Godless Institution of Gower Street, or the Radical Infidel College.
When the college opened its doors in 1828, courses cost between £2 and £5. One of its radical founding principals was that religion would neither be a requirement for entry nor would it be taught. This set it quite apart from Oxford and Cambridge, and lead to all the derogatory nicknames which many of the students still wear quite proudly today.
But on the flip side of this, the college has had a longstanding interest in the hard sciences, social sciences and critical analysis of the world in which we live.
Walk to that tree in front of the Chadwick building.
This building is named for Edwin Chadwick, a great sanitary reformer of the 1800’s. In 1842 Chadwick lead an enquiry into the Sanitary Conditions of the Laboring Population and wrote a number of groundbreaking statements; most shockingly that:
“That the annual loss of life from filth and bad ventilation are greater than the loss from death or wounds in any wars in which the country has been engaged in modern times.”
Chadwick went on to author a public health act which required all new dwelling places to have suitable sanitary accommodation and promoted a newfangled invention:the water closet, or flushing toilet.
Turn Left. Start walking towards the big white portico.
There were a few problems with Chadwick’s measures. The most prevalent was that in the 1800’s people commonly believed disease to be spread through ‘miasma’ or bad air. While Chadwick’s regulations convinced people of the need to remove human waste from their dwelling places they didn’t quite make the connection that putting it into their sources of drinking water would still be a problem. This was to have significant consequences later in the century. We’ll talk about that later on.
Stop here. If you like you can sit on one of those benches in front of the patio.
The Parkes museum was an exhibition of sanitary appliances, which opened in 1879. The museum commemorated a certain Doctor Edmund Alexander Parkes who had been the Chair of Hygiene at the school. The project was spearheaded by William Jenner, who had this to say for his friend:
“Dr. Parkes […] was one of the most amiable men that ever lived. I think he was the nearest to perfection that I have, in my long experience, been acquainted with. He was not only amiable, but he loved his race, and desired on all occasions to benefit others. He thought little of himself, and devoted the last years of his life to the study of hygiene and how it could be applied for the public good, and died deeply regretted by all who knew him. When he was dead the profession thought how they could best honour his memory-what memorial we could erect to so excellent, so good, so honourable, so great a man; and we thought of busts and pictures and various other modes of keeping alive, so long as those who knew him were here, his memory. We loved him too dearly to require to see his picture before us. We dismissed that, and then we thought of scholarships, thinking they would be of some service, but not much. There are a great many scholarships, and many of them of little service; and we did not see how they would accomplish what he, good man, would wish; and so it was determined to found a Museum for the purpose of spreading abroad the knowledge of those principles of hygiene to which Dr. Parkes had devoted the energies of his latter days. And so we joined together to found the Parkes Museum.”
This toilet museum was no small project. The Lancet reported on the opening night gathering on 5 July, 1879:
“THE ceremony which took place at Gower-street on Saturday last was one of great interest and of no small importance, and we hope it may be regarded as an earnest of a brilliant future for the useful institution which it inaugurated.
“The meeting was large and influential, and included illustrious representatives of all classes- peers, legislators, Church dignitaries, architects, engineers, doctors, manufacturers, and philanthropists ; and if the various sections of the community which were represented prove willing to bear their share in supporting the Parkes Museum, its permanence in the future is assured.”
This gathering of great and good were lured in by the arguments of the importance of good sanitary conditions… and most especially that disease does not discriminate. It was not just a charitable project, but an effort that would be of immediate benefit to their own lives. This was driven home by another part of Jenner’s speech. He said:
“I happened to come (by) in the middle of the work (in my home), and the foreman pointed out to me that he had fixed a D - trap to a certain pipe, and I said I would not have a D - trap. He said it was a model thing. When I turned upon him, and said, "A D-trap ; I call it a double D-trap, for it will deal out disease and death."
“D-traps always require inspecting. The fact was that these so-called intelligent workmen were desirous of doing what was right, but were ignorant how to do it.”
The motto of the museum was “The people perisheth for lack of knowledge”
Turn to your left.
In two years of researching toilets I have found that toilet people are some of the best people. No one goes into the industry for the glory or the fame. They do it because they care passionately about humanity.
See that ramp in front of you and slightly to the left? You’re going to go up there to the door at the far end.
We’re going to meet another passionate man in his filed.
Turn Left into the building.
Push the access button to your left and the door will open automatically.
Walk straight on towards that wooden chest at the end of the room.
In this box is Jeremy Bentham. He is considered by many to be the spiritual father of UCL. Though he was never involved in the college many of the founding members were his colleagues and students including our friend Edwin Chadwick who was Bentham’s secretary.
When Bentham died he donated his body to science. His friend Thomas Southwood Smith dissected the body (as you do) and then kept it in his house for a long time. Stories differ as to whether he eventually moved and had to downsize or whether his wife finally said “You have got to get rid of that thing!” but one way or another Bentham’s body was donated to the college and sits here in this case for all to admire.
The head is wax, as his own was a bit shriveled and tended to scare people, but if you want to see the real thing have a look through the slides on that screen to your left. If you do this, pause the tour until you are ready to continue walking.
Head through those doors on the opposite wall to the screen and down the staircase.
Bentham never directly contributed to the world of sanitation. But he had two theories for which he was particularly famous, both of which have strong links to our subject.
The first was Utilitarianism: the search for the greatest good for the greatest number of people. As the founders of the Parkes museum argued, sanitation certainly fits that briefing.
Stop at the bottom of the steps.
Bentham’s other theory was the slightly more sinister idea of Panopticon: The more closely people are observed the better they will behave. In toilets surveillance is a particularly difficult business, as it’s generally considered to be a private place. But there are almost too many stories to choose from. In February 2014 Electronics manufacturer Hitachi unveiled a monitor that tracked employees every move… including the amount of time they spent in the toilets!
Of course, if the 2013 report that “27% of Britons hide in the toilets at work to pass the time” is accurate then perhaps employers see it as a justified measure.
Before you move on you’re near the site of the most secret toilet in London.
Take a look at the door on your left. The one that says ‘executive toilet’ on it. Even I don’t know what is inside! I asked the estates manager of UCL about it and he said “we have an executive toilet?”
Head out the doors into the larger hall and turn to your left. Everyone else who is not an ‘executive’… students, teachers, faculty, staff share the same facilities: gents on the left ladies on the right.
If you need to go on the tour this is a good place to do it. If you don’t they’re still worth a look… walk all the way to the back and you’ll find a washing area. This is for the ablution practices of their Muslim students, in recognition of the international student body of UCL.
Stop when you get to the far end of the hall.
[Barbara] “Hello, I’m Barabara Penner. I’m a senior lecterer in Architectural history. Universities in general, because they serve such a diverse student body, and particularly here because we’ve got an incredibly international student body, I think universities are places where they really need to think very carefully about how you cater to different cultures, different religions in terms of toilet facilities, and I think the ablution stations are a good example of how UCL is trying to respond. But these kinds of spaces can be quite controversial as well. Not so much here perhaps, but when there are instances or experiments where they try to install squat toilets, say, in public places to serve a Muslim community or a Hindu community there’s often a lot of backlash against that. “
Go up the staircase to your left.
You might notice there’s an accessible toilet to your left as you go up. It’s usually out of order though. Is it working today?
Writers on toilet planning often complain that we seem to think that there are three genders; “Male, Female and Disabled” when it comes to toilets
Continue straight out of the building. I’ll meet you again on the outside.
Turn right and start walking. You’re in the heart of the UCL campus now.
Turn left by the Print Room Café, and continue under the arch at the Institute of Physiology.
Have you ever celebrated World Toilet day?
It’s the 19th November, though most people don’t know that. The date was chosen to commemorate the first meeting of the World Toilet Orgaization, or ‘The Other WTO’ as they like to call themselves. The organization was set up by Jack Sim, a Singaporean Entrepreneur, who, having made his fortune, turned his attention to worldly matters, and discovered the overwhelming need for safe sanitation. Jack Sim now goes by the name Mr. Toilet.
In 2013 the United Nations recognized World Toilet Day as an official UN holiday, acknowledging the urgent need for solutions to the world’s sanitation crisis. In 2002 the United Nations launched a set of Millenium Development Goals.
Initially Sanitation was not considered at all, but later Target 7C was added:
“Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”
This goal remains the most off track, with 2.5 billion people, or 40% of the world’s population still lacking access to basic toilet facilities as of 2015.
Stop outside the Institute of Making.
“The Institute is a multidisciplinary research club for those interested in the made world: from makers of molecules to makers of buildings, synthetic skin to spacecraft, soup to diamonds, socks to cities.”
In 2013 UCL hosted a toilet festival to celebrate the college’s heritage. For two weeks they ran lectures, films, exhibitions and even a couple of my loo tours. It was called the UCLoo festival.
[Tse-Hui] “Hello, my name us Tse-Hue The. I’m a lecturer in Urban Design and Planning at University College London. The UCLoo Loo Festival last year was born out of a crazy idea to install a working alternative sanitation toilet in the middle of the UCL quad, and that was the seed of the idea, and then from there it just sprouted all these additional ideas which became the festival.”
[Barbara] “As we started to dig a little bit deeper into UCL’s own history we realized that it had this long and very honourable tradition of researching sanitation and hygiene and we wanted to draw attention to that fact and make people at UCL aware of this longstanding interest.”
[Tse-Hui] “One of the most important parts of the festival was that we were trying to consider alternative sanitation in the context of the developed world rather than something that needs to be used for the developing world.”
During the UCLoo Festival the college hosted a Make-a-Thon for students to invent a waterless toilet suitable for an urban environment like London. The brief:
“Envisioned as an environmental toilet prototype that could be piloted within the UCL sanitation network, the designed toilet must be waterless or low-flush. The toilet's power source may be connected to UCL's grid however it is essential that the toilet uses minimal power; ideally the unit will be energy neutral. The toilet may be connected to the existing sewerage network but it should be designed for nutrient recovery. The toilet must also comply with acceptable levels of hygiene and comfort in relation to smell and cleanliness. The toilet should be accessible and be easy to maintain.”
[Tse-Hui] “The Make-a-thon was just a fun event that tried to draw in new types of minds and new types of people to reconsider and reconceptualize what this new type of toilet could be. So it was a very quick event actually. It was over a week, and they started off with a lot of workshop training first, so we got a lot of interesting ideas out of that with water recycling as well as composting units… it was just a lot of fun.”
[Barbara] “I think also, the point of the make-a-thon is that architects in particular tend to be very hands off when it comes to toilets and sanitation and bathrooms, and we really wanted to set up an event that would make architets- and other makers as well – engineers too – get their hands dirty and really get hands on again with the design of toilets.”
[Tse-Hui] “It was very hard to get a working toilet in a week. There’s a lot of challenges to making a new toilet, so the make-a-thon was really about imaginative ideas rather than trying to get working models out of it because, after all, people spend their lifetimes designing toilets.”
As examples the students learned about designs that are already in prototype or in action. A personal favorite was the Tiger Toilet, which uses common garden worms, also known as red worms, red wrigglers, manure worms or tiger worms. This toilet allowed fecal matter to be digested by the worms, generating vermicompost which is valuable as a fertilizer. Students also learned interesting phrases like “worm density” which is measured in pounds of worms per square foot.
Continue now along the path towards the back gates.
[Tse-Hui] “People don’t often think of toilets as being particularly cultural, because we do it all the time every day and we just expect that everyone does it the same as the way we do, but actually everyone does it slightly differently, and because we have those cultural taboos against talking about it you never really find out.”
Track Name: History, Health & Hygiene: Part 2
At the end of the path go out the back gates. If it’s the weekend you may only be able to use the little gate on the side. Once you’re out turn left and walk to the Zebra crossing. We’re going into Bloomsbury now. It’s an area which was developed by the Russell Family in the 17th and 18th Centuries, and is known for its large numbers of educational and healthcare institutions.
Stop at the Zebra Crossing to your right and check for traffic.
Once the coast is clear, cross the street.
There should be a Waterstones on your right and the UCL Student Union to your left.
Continue straight on.
You’re walking down Malet Place which is in between two major landmarks… Russell Square a couple blocks to your left and Tottenham Court road to your right. I like this street… it’s a hidden gem in the midst of the chaos of London. I have met life long Londoners who told me that they had never been down this street. Which is a pity as it has many wonderful things to offer.
As you walk, let’s go back to Chadwick and miasma for a moment.
In the first half of the 19th century the population of London more than doubled. The city went from supporting just under a million people to over two million. Because of the new regulations many of them now had water closets, which flushed into cesspits or directly into the rivers.
By the year 1858 it all became too much and England had what became known as the Summer of the Great Stink: a very hot June when the Thames heated up and smelled so foul that the problem could no longer be ignored. The government sprang into action, and within 15 years London had one of the mightiest sewer systems in the world.
It was a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. They intended simply to clear up the smells, and by succeeding in that the source of disease was also dealt with.
An understanding of Germ Theory was to come later in the century.
Perhaps the most famous epidemiologist was a physician named Doctor John Snow, who took an interest in one of the most deadly killers: Cholera.
Cholera is an intestinal disease that causes diarrhea and vomiting. Death can occur within hours of the first symptoms.
The first outbreak was reported in the UK in 1831. Snow started to take an interest in the disease and began to theorize that miasma was not correct, and that Cholera was, in fact, ingested usually through water.
In August 1854 a dramatic outbreak of Cholera in Soho killed 550 people within two weeks. Snow saw the chance to test his theory and began to map the cholera deaths and interview local people. He traced each case back to a single pump in Soho. On the 8th September he convinced the authorities to break the handle off the pump, and the cholera began to clear up as quickly as it had come.
Despite Snow’s practical demonstration it was still nearly two decades before scientific proof of Germ Theory became widely accepted.
Stop here for a moment and look across the street.
That is the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This school was founded in 1899 in recognition of all the exciting diseases that were being brought back to the UK as a result of British Imperialism… cholera, typhoid and malaria among many others.
Today London is free of most of these diseases thanks to the work of men like Snow and Chadwick. But much of the developing world still has to deal with them on a daily basis. In fact, Victorian London is not so dissimilar. Chadwick’s call for better sanitation in 1842 and Snow’s observations could be understandably be taken for observations on the modern developing world.
The seminal book on the subject of human waste is “The Big Necessity” by Rose George. She makes an eloquent point that we have many water charities, and people are quite happy to talk about clean water. We refer to Cholera and typhoid, for example, as Waterborne diseases. She says this is only half the story. What people fail to discuss is that it is not the water, but what is in it, that causes the problem. These are shit related diseases.
Start walking again the way you were going. Keep an eye out for an imposing building on your left.
On your left is Senate House Library. It’s very practical place to know if you’re ever in need of a quiet café or a toilet in this area! It is allegedly the building Hitler coveted as his London headquarters when he took over England. This, we’re told, is why it was never bombed in the war.
It also served as the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984. Big Brother is watching you. Bentham’s idea of panopticon used in a sinister way to inspire fear through the very real knowledge that somebody probably was watching.
Cross the street on your right.
Turn left and cross again. See the wall on the other side? I’ll meet you there.
Look at the wall. See those stumps of iron running along it? Here is Artist and Architect Catalina Pollak to tell you more about them.
[Catalina] “Can you see the iron stumps that have been left here on top of this wall of Mallet Street Gardens? They are the remains of actually an existing iron fence that was removed back in the 1940’s during the second world war. It was a strategy to encourage civilians to give up the railings for the war effort, but it was also seen, as George Orwell says it, as a democratic gesture, which means that most of the private squares in Bloomsbury - in England - suddenly became public overnight. So imagine what we understand as public space: private space became public.
“So follow me. Do you hear that sound? What we’re doing now is we’re actually walking along a sound sculpture called Phantom Railings. It might be that it’s not there while you’re walking, but it was here, and it’s trying to recreate the inexistent fence through sound. So, while you’re walking it’s like if you were banging the railings, same as a child would do with a stick.
“So it’s just working in that diffused limit between the blurriness between public and private space to create awareness, to give a critical look to railings in the city in a place where they’re actually absent.”
Start walking again to the corner.
Cross the street to your left, back to the side you were on before. Continue walking down Montague Place.
Cross once again to your right. Be careful here as there is no cross walk and you may have to navigate through large tour busses. Take your time and keep an eye out for traffic. I will meet you again by the back door to the British Museum
We’re at the back door of the British Museum.
They sometimes want to do bag searches in here, so just smile and go with it, unless you have something to hide. In which case don’t say I didn’t warn you! Go ahead and make your way in.
At the far end of this room you’ll see the head of a man. Make your way over there.
Edward VII was the eldest son of Queen Victoria. He’s also the monarch with possibly the strongest lavatorial connections. When he was still Prince Bertie in 1870 he contracted Typhoid… one of our Imperialist water or shit borne diseases.
Thanks to our friend William Jenner (remember Jenner of the “D Traps of Disease and Death?”) he was cured. But the experience left him with an acute awareness of the importance of sanitary accommodation.
When his mother gifted him the Palace of Sandingrahm he hired none other than Thomas Crapper to re-fit the place.
While Crapper did not, contrary to popular belief, invent the toilet he was a prestigious manufacturer and salesman. Crapper was born in Yorkshire in 1836 into a large family of modest means. At 14 he moved to London where he was apprenticed to a Master Plumber. By the age of 25 he set up his own business in Chelsea, and by the end of his life he held four royal warrants and regularly drank campaign in hid favorite pub.
Head up the staircase to your right.
Crapper and Company are, happily still in business, having survived a dormant period in the late 20th century. Today they manufacture what might be termed a ‘new’ range of ‘old’ bathrooms with exact replicas of Victorian and Edwardian sanitary-wares.
At the top of the staircase turn right and enter the room in front of you.
This is the Living and Dying room. Its artifacts explore how people throughout the world deal with the tough realities of life and what it means to be human.
Walk to that glass case. “Cradle to Grave” is a specially commissioned art installation by Pharmacopoeia. The work explores the British approach to health with a lifetime supply of prescribed medications knitted into a tapestry.
If you’re a woman start walking along the right side. If you’re a man walk along the left. These are your respective timelines. We’re going backwards today from death to birth.
Your journeys will be different. As you can see already, the woman in our story lives a long healthy life while the man dies of a stroke at 70. He takes as many pills in the last ten years of his life as the first sixty-six. Her intake is more regulated, though it shifts from contraceptive pills as a young woman to hormone replacement therapy in middle age. Each tapestry contains over 14,000 drugs. This does not include over the counter pills, which would amount to closer to 40,000 pills each.
Stop at the end of the case.
This exhibit interests me in the context of our tour today because of modern questions of sewage treatment. Everything we ingest must subsequently be excreted. If urine tests are a reliable way to detect drug use, this means that those drugs come out with it, and end up in the wastewater.
They say that by the time water comes out your taps in London it has already passed through seven sets of kidneys.
Pharmaceutical residues in the water are therefore a growing concern and sewage treatment plants are continually working to explore the effects of this. Before you panic and pledge to drink beer the rest of your life, The good news for you is that these trace amounts are not dangerous to humans. In order to intake a low-dose tablet you would need to have drunk 25,000 litres of untreated water in one go… enough to fill approximately 100 bath tubs. The real concerns lie in the potential environmental impacts to ecosystems.
Start walking again into the main hall of the British Museum.
Once inside the main hall. Turn right and start walking counter-clockwise around the central tower.
The British Museum was designed in 1823 by an architect named Sir Robert Smirke. Smirke loved Grecian revival architecture, which is all about long clean lines purity and reverence… a place where rational thought can take place.
In the mid 1800’s one thing that was considered extremely counter productive to rational thought was the presence of women, and one way their absence was enforced, whether purposefully or accidentally, was through a lack of toilet facilities.
An essay details the problem:
“Until the 1840’s there had been no public toilets at the museum, although there were toilets provided for all the Male curatorial staff. This lack of access to toilets was far more prohibitive for women, since men could visit nearby inns or go outside, which by the nineteenth century were not options to female visitors. In 1842 when the matter was raised at a Trustees meeting, Robert Smirke remarked that he ‘did not know how any such accommodation could be provided that… would not be in many respects objectionable.’”
It was suggested that the store room in the Greek deparment might suffice if its curator did not object. But Henry Ellis had his own thoughts on the matter:
‘The proposed appropriation was objectionable on the score of delicacy and the provision of such conveniences might be deferred for the present, if not entirely dispensed with’”
By now you should be in front of the museum. Stop. You’ll see elegant staircases circling round the central tower.
The battle of the sexes raged on. It extended to the reading room in front of you. The debate survives in opinion pieces of the late 1800’s, many of which echoed the sentiments of this author, who in 1886 wrote in the Saturday Review:
“woman makes the Reading Room a place where study is impossible....woman talks and whispers and giggles beneath the stately dome...she flirts, and eats strawberries behind folios, in the society of some happy student of the opposite sex. When she does read, she is accused of reading novels and newspapers, which she might better procure somewhere else.”
Toilets or no, women eventually broke through that particular porcelain ceiling and gained access to the museum and the reading room.
Turn now, and head out the front doors of the museum.
Access to toilets, even today, remains a strong means of separating genders, classes and races.
Head down the steps on the front portico.
One strong proponent of Women’s toilets was none other than the playwright George Bernard Shaw.
Have a seat at the bottom of the steps and I’ll tell you more about him.
In 1910 Shaw wrote an essay called “The Unmentionable Case for Women’s Suffrage.” In it he states:
“English decency is a rather dirty thing. It is responsible for more indecency than anything else in the world. It is a string of taboos. You must not mention this: you must not appear conscious of that… And the consequence is that everything that must not be mentioned in public is mentioned in private as a naughty joke.”
He later continued:
“The unmentionable question of sanitary accommodation occupied a good deal of the time of the Borough Council. I invite the male reader to give his mind to this with some care. The sumptuous public lavatories which now provide the poor man with the only palatial luxuries he ever uses meet two requirements, one of which, being frequent and simple, costs him nothing; whilst the other, involving the use of a separate private apartment, costs him a penny. If this charge of a penny were extended to the gratuitous accommodation, which is used perhaps a thousand times for every once of the other, there would be an explosion of public indignation which would bring to its knees at once any municipal authority which dared to impose it.”
In case you didn’t follow that, essentially what Shaw is saying is that men pee standing up. They therefore are allowed to do this for free. He goes on:
“Women had two grievances in the matter under my Borough Council. The first and worst was, that in most places no sanitary accommodation was provided for them at all. But this, at least, was known and understood. The second, which no man ever thought of until it was pointed out to him, was that even where accommodation was provided, it consisted wholly of the separate apartment at a charge of one penny: an absolutely prohibitive charge for a poor woman, and a very serious expense up to that income, well advanced in three figures, at which housekeeping allowances are so generous that pennies cease to have any importance. The moment it became known that I was one of those ungentlemanly and unromantic men who reject the angelic theory of womanhood, I received piteous anonymous letters from women begging me to get the penny charge at least reduced to a halfpenny. These letters, and the reports and complaints as to the condition of all the little byways and nooks in the borough which afforded any sort of momentary privacy, revealed a world of unmentionable suffering and subterfuge.”
Stand up and start walking again towards the exit gates in front of you. Aim for the left hand side if you can.
Shaw illustrates his story with the example of Camden Town’s public toilets. When the project was proposed the councilors called the ladies’ facilities “an abomination” and said that “persons who so far forget their sex should not have anything provided for them at all.” But times were moving on, and they were unable to shoot the project down on moral grounds. They therefore resorted to the classic British technique of “health and safety.”
A railing was built to test the theory that the site would pose an impediment to traffic. That day every vehicle that drove past made a point of crashing into it. Shaw says:
“In the end the thing was so grossly overdone, and the conspirators were so indiscreetly proud of their cleverness in having 'worked it,' that it produced no effect except the inevitable comic one. None the less, the lavatory was not made.”
Track Name: History, Health & Hygiene: Part 3
Exit the gates and turn left
One of Thomas Crapper’s contributions to the toilet world was the Bathroom Showroom. Until the 19th century people had to rely on catalogues or small tradesman’s samples to make decisions about their fittings. It is said that fine ladies of the day would become faint at the shocking sight of the china WCs displayed in the windows.
Crapper and his company invented many small improvements to the toilet. My personal favorite was the “Bottom Smacker Toilet Seat.” In the 19th Century, the common problem was not getting men to put the seat back down when they were finished, but to lift it up in the first place. Crapper came up with what he thought was a genius solution: crate a hinged seat which goes down when the user sits and rises up again when they’re done. All would have been well, except that the rubber stops on the bottom of the seat would become slightly tacky so that as the unsuspecting user stood it would stick for just a moment. When they were half way up it would spring free and whollop them in the backside. The press dubbed it “the bottom smacker, and the invention never caught on.”
Pause when you get to the Zebra crossing near the corner.
Look across the Street to your right. See the Scottish shop?
If you needed the loo in Medieval Scotland you would look for a man with a bucket and a cloak roaming the streets calling “wha wants be for a bawbee?” On paying the man a bawbee (or half penny) you would be presented with the cloak for privacy while you used the bucket.
With the declining numbers of public toilets in the UK perhaps this wouldn’t be a bad practice to re-instate.
Cross the street towards the Scottish shop.
Walk straight on across yet another Zebra crossing and then turn left down Bury Place.
The design of toilets reflects a strong cultural ideology.
The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek says:
“Ideology is at work precisely where you don’t think you will find it. You think you have pure functional objects but every day objects can be objects not only to use them but to think.” His favorite example is the paradox of toilets.
The European cultural trinity of the late 18th century, he says, were the French, the Germans, and the Anglo Saxons.
The French are revolutionary and politically left… in their toilet bowl the hole is in the back, so that when you produce a poo it quickly disappears… quickly liquidated like a guillotine.
The Germans are analytical and their toilets have a shelf so you can inspect your shit for traces of illness.
In the Anglo-Saxon world – especially the United States– the toilet bowl is full of water “so the shit floats in it before it disappears.” Reflecting a laid back pragmatic approach to life.
“I simplify to the utmost,” says Zizek, “but this doesn’t invalidate the analysis.”
This next set of street crossings is a bit of a challenge. We want to go straight but it’s not that simple as the town planners haven’t been good enough to put the cross walk where I want it. Turn right to the Zebra crossing. Press the button and wait for the light.
Once you’re across turn left and double back on yourself.
Take the first right down Bury Place again.
See that statue there? I’ve always thought it looks rather topical for this tour… though I’m told it’s actually meant to be a kidney. But it’s as good an excuse as any to talk about poo! Have a seat if you like, while I tell you a story.
Of the 2.5 billion people who lack access to a toilet, over 1 billion practice open defecation… they just go out on the side of the road or in a field. Just like some giant stone beastie has done here. Even when toilets are built people may not appreciate the health benefits of adopting them. After all, if you’re used to going out in the fresh air the last thing you want to do is go do your business in a smelly little room!
Rose George tells the story of one innovative solution to this problem:
“In the early days of a project, with the latrines built and the water supplied, people were still going for open defecation. They were too used to “Going out there in the open with the wind in their sails.”
“The village council already had the practice of fining people who transgressed village rules in some way. It was easy to set up a new system of open defecation fines. Defecating in the open would cost 51 rupees, on rupee is added to the round number for auspiciousness. The person reporting the offender kept half the fine. The rest went to a village fund. With this fining system a new livelihood of Toilet Spy came into being. People gave up their day labouring jobs because reporting people was more lucrative. Women giggle about it now. For the first three months people would continue to go outside, but we would spy on them because they always carried an aluminum vessel of water. Then, after they were caught they would still try to sneak outside and hide the bottle under their arm. The repeat offenders were caught too, until open defecation was finally banished. No one would dream of doing it now.” (Quoted from ‘The Big Necessity’)
In this story we have Bentham’s theory of panopticon at work again. People have changed their behavior not because they necessarily understand that it is wrong, but because the inconvenience of the punishment is greater than the inconvenience of adapting.
I have spoken to global development workers who don’t like this particular example because they feel it uses tactics of shaming rather than educating. The debate rages on and isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Many women in India still have to get up at 4am and go into the field and take care of their business in private, risking snake bights, violence and rape along the way. Around 2007 the government of India started a rather unique campaign called “No Loo No I Do.” The campaign encouraged young women not to marry into families that did not have a toilet. The Washington Post reported:
"a societal preference for boys here has become an unlikely source of power for Indian women. The abortion of female fetuses in favor of sons -- an illegal but widespread practice -- means there are more eligible bachelors than potential brides, allowing women and their parents to be more selective when arranging a match."
A toilet is increasingly considered, therefore, to be an essential part of domestic life. One woman reportedly told her husband: “if Shah Jehan could build the Taj Mahal to honor his wife, then her own husband can at least build her a toilet.”
Continue along this path towards New Oxford Street.
I have one last thing to show you. For a Loo Tour we have visited remarkably few actual toilets. I haven’t dragged you into all of them because often times a toilet is all to familiar… white and inconspicuous. But London is home to a wide range of fabulous toilets that are not just places for basic physical needs, but experiences in and of themselves… toilets you should go out of your way to see whether you need them or not.
Turn Left onto High Holburn.
One could argue that it is sheer frivolity to spend time on beautifying our toilets while worldwide people die for want of even a simple one. I don’t see it that way. The subject is less taboo than it was even a couple years ago. But there is more work to be done.
The lack of knowledge for which people perished still prevails.
Jack Sim, Mr Toilet, of the World Toilet Organization says:
“If you can make people laugh at you, you can make them listen.
And if you can make them listen, you can make them act.”
So I say we should celebrate the toilet in all its forms. And if there was ever an era when toilets were a symbol of status and class it was the Victorians.
Stop here. Across the street and to your left is the Princess Louise Pub. It’s named after Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise. Here’s Lucinda Hawksley, author of The Mystery of Princess Louise to tell you more:
“Princess Louise, who this pub was named after, was the sixth child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. She was a rebellious child, who knew what she wanted out of life and wasn’t going to let her parents hold her back. She became a professional sculptor and she also became a champion of women’s rights, education reform and health reform. It’s unusual to have a pub named after a living member of the royal family, but when this pub was built in the early 1870’s Princess Louise had just got married. Her marriage was described by Queen Victoria as “The most popular act of my reign.” Princess Louise had become the poster girl for the royal family and it was believed that because of her popularity the monarchy was saved. There were many people who didn’t like her mother, Queen Victoria.
“It’s likely that the reason this pub was named after her was because she was an unusual feisty contemporary princess. She was an aesthetic artist, she hung around with lots of Bohemian people, and she wouldn’t have minded having a pub named after her.
“When Princess Louise was married and she and her husband were living in Scotland she decided to renovate the house next to a local pub. For awhile the locals joked that Princess Louise would be working behind the bar. Her mother, Queen Victoria, soon put an end to all the gossip. “
Cross the street when the light changes and meet me on the other side in front of the Pub.
Stop in front of the pub and look in the windows.
When I first became interested in the history of toilets loads of people told me “You have to go to the Princess Louise! They have gorgeous grade II listed loos.” At the time, of course, I had no idea about historical gender inequalities of the loo, so I happily arrived on a Friday night, to find that while the ladies is perfectly functional it is only the gents that retains its Victorian splendor. Because of course if fine ladies didn’t pee they certainly wouldn’t be peeing in a pub!
Here’s Rudi Grace, one of the management team, to tell you a bit about the pub’s history:
[Rudi] “The Princess Louise pub began life in the early 1800’s as a Gin Palace back when Drury Lane would have been mostly gin palaces in the Covent Garden area. At the time the booths were originally to separate the classes, but also the sexes, so you’d have the front part of the bar with the front two entrances for working class, so they had their own separate entrances, not so much to mingle. Then you’ve got the upper-class gentlemen’s booths, which are the two larger booths. Then you go back again and you have the upper-class ladies booths. This was because back in those days the women that came into pubs were drinking separately. The further you go back the richer you are. There was a small snug on the right hand side of the bar… that’s where the super rich would talk about their business. But the only actual mixed area of the bar was the far back at the left. It had public access to the toilets.
“However in 1920 the booths were actually gutted. This was due to the suffragette movement – the equality for sexes gaining momentum by that point, but also because the class system had started to degrade by that point, so there was no reason for them to have it in booths. It was much more, I suppose, business savvy to have it as an open horseshoe bar.
If you fast forward to about 2006, that’s when Samuel Smith took over the pub and we’ve done about a million pounds worth of restoration work and renovation work, putting the booths back in and restoring the Princess Louise to its former glory, which is absolutely fantastic all the glass work, but also the fantastic toilets, which I’m sure you’re about to see.”
This is where I will be leaving you for today. I highly recommend going in to look around (especially in the toilets, which are through the door on the left hand side.) Do stay on for a drink and a chat with the staff who are highly knowledgeable about its history, and very friendly. And say hello to them for me!
I hope you have enjoyed the tour.
You can find out more about this and other Loo Tours projects at lootours.com or on twitter @londonlootours.
Our theme was composed by Paul Freeman and played by Julie Groves and Nadia Wilson.
We would like to thank the many generous backers who gave their support to make this project happen: Particular thanks to:
Myles de Bastion
WC Wine & Charcuterie in Clapham Common
And, of course, thanks to our sponsors Thomas Crapper and Company.