Plunge yourself into the surprisingly dynamic world of the British Public Toilet. This tour takes you past some of London's most iconic views with a new twist.
Part one takes you from the Royal Festival Hall to the Victoria Embankment.
Loo Tours Presents: At Your Convenience- A Lavatorial Walking Tour
Performed by the Loo Lady
Sponsored by Thomas Crapper & Company
Have you ever stopped to think about a simple question and found the answer to be much more complex and wonderful than you ever could have imagined?
And that that answer leads to yet more questions?
This was precisely my situation when I moved to London.
I was a drama student, a perpetual tourist, and a person who needed to do what we all must and use a toilet.
I often found the toilet door barred by a 30p entry charge, and I would sometimes spend hours trying to avoid this. I started to learn the work-arounds and the secret free toilets in London. Why, after all, should I pay for something that’s a perfectly natural function?
Then one day I started to wonder about the politics of paying to pee. Where does the money go? Why is it free in some places and not others? Should it be a human right?
These questions started to open up new avenues and I found myself plunged into a whole new world.
I became the Loo Lady and toilets became my life.
Today I’m going to take you on a journey around my London and share my stories with you.
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.
The next track should play automatically . But if it doesn’t you can manually play the next track.
Let’s give this a test run…
Face the river.
Now turn left.
If you do it right you’ll hear my voice again when you get to the steps of the bridge.
Are the steps of the bridge to your right? Well done! You’ve passed the first test
Turn left and start walking along the side of the Royal Festival Hall.
The building is not only a world-class venue for the arts, but has six floors of toilets to choose from!
In the Good Loo Guide of 1988 Jonathan Routh wrote:
"The Loos of the Royal Festival Hall: All these loos were opened by HM King George VI accompanied by her majesty Queen Elizabeth on 3rd May 1951. They have worn well. Working upwards from the Ground or Box Office level we have a gents with a machine dispensing 50p books of stamps at its entrance. And inside, accommodation for 5 toileteers seated, 8 standing and 8 ablunting in the midst of much black marble."
Routh will be a friend for much of our journey. Though many of the loos he described in his books have changed or closed the book still makes for an excellent read.
Keep walking down the stairs.
Routh goes on to describe all the other 6 floors of loos. My pro tip here, especially for the Ladies, is to head down to the cloakroom on the basement where there is never a queue.
The Royal Festival Hall opened, as Routh said, on 3 May 1951 for the Festival of Britain. The festival was proposed by the Royal Society of Arts to commemorate the Great Exhibition of 1851.
See the bridge on your right? Turn towards it and start walking.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a chance for Britain to show off its splendors to the rest of the world. Architects, Manufacturers and Engineers came together to create The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park.
A Brighton born sanitary engineer named George Jennings proposed a set of Public toilets to be open to the public in the Crystal Palace.
The idea was met with great skepticism and Jennings later wrote “I was told no one would come to the Crystal Palace to wash their hands.”
But in the end perseverance paid. The conveniences, which Jennings called “Monkey closets” received 827,280 visitors during the course of the exhibition and raised £2441, 15 shillings and 9 pence due to their penny entry fee. To this day “spending a penny” remains a popular English euphemism for visiting the toilet.
Jennings’ Success sparked an entrepreneurial interest in the idea of providing potentially profitable public conveniences, and the remainder of the 1800’s became a golden age of the public toilet.
Modern Toilet Providers have argued that when you account for inflation, 50 pence today is approximately the same value as a 1851 penny. However it’s highly unlikely that a lot of our modern conveniences live up to the standards of Jennings’, which were beautiful brass and marble, and where you could often get a shoe shine in addition to attending to your other business. However the next toilet I’m going to show you is one that I think is well worth the entry fee.
The next part of our journey begins when you get to the entrance to the Jubilee Gardens.
Turn right into the garden and follow the winding path. Take every right turn and fork available to you, and you’ll soon see what we’re after.
This garden was done up to Celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee. The Eye, which was meant to be a temporary structure was built in 2002 to celebrate 50 years on the throne, and more improvements were made in 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee.
In 1953 when Queen Elizabeth II had her coronation all of the facilities at Westminster Abbey were updated to accommodate the number of elderly guests expected to attend who might have a greater need than most for the toilet.
Once they had been installed someone was struck with the terrible thought: what if, at a vital point in the ceremony, all of the toilets were to be flushed at once? and what if those flushes could be heard in the Abbey? What an embarrassment would it be for the British empire!
In order to make assurance double sure they called in the guards. Along with sound technicians from the BBC who stood up and down the aisles with decibel meters they ran a drill to ensure that if all the toilets were flushed at once this would not be a problem. History remains silent on the subject of flushes during the ceremony, which we must take to mean that the drill was a success.
See the Green building on your right? Stop in front of it.
This is the Jubiloo. It was erected in 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee. It is run by Healthmatic, a private company, and receives no public funding, so your 50p entry fees go towards the running and building costs.
However, here you’re not just paying for a toilet but for an experience. It is no exaggeration to say that this is Britain’s most patriotic toilet. The décor is union jack themed, from the mirrors to the rubbish bins toilet seats. This is the only country I know that would put its flag on a toilet seat, but it’s kind of fun.
This is also the only toilet I know to have its own facebook page, so if you enjoy your visit you can become a fan and stay up to date on what goes on.
Go ahead and walk round the front of the building. You’re going slightly to your left. Find the bench with an inscription on it.
[AJAY] “Hi, I’m Ajay, the Healthmatic regional manager responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Jubiloo Public Toilets located on the South Bank in Central London. Healthmatic specialize in the design and management of public toilets. Our services range from full public convenience design, access systems, installation and management through to the day-to-day cleaning and maintenance of existing facilities. In building the Jubiloo, Healthmatic have become the first public convenience provider to design, build and operate a commercially viable public toilet.
“The Jubiloo was designed by Mark Power Architect, built by Healthmatic, and were opened to the public by Kate Hooey MP on the 24th of May, 2012. The Jubiloo is a wonderfully light contemporary building based between the Southbank centre and the London eye, located on Queen’s Walk beside the Jubilee Gardens. The building is glass clad, reflecting its surroundings, and unified by a projecting canopy with a lapped timber-boarded soffit, and a gold aluminium roof. Inspired by its river setting, the Jubiloo takes the form of a vessel, temporarily moored, in alignment with the historic shoreline of the Thames. The canopy’s dramatic boat shape recalls the roman galley remains discovered in 1911 beneath the neighboring County Hall, and has been designed to collect rainwater to help flush the loos.
“The Jubiloo has 11 unisex cubicles and 6 Urinals, which are open from 10am to 10pm every day during the summer, and 10am to 8pm in the winter. The building is attended full time by four perminant members of staff, who at this time are Gerrard, Luke, Gerogina, and Winsome. All the water used in the flushing of the toilets, urinals and the cleaning of the floor is grey-water, either from the roof collection or from the Southbank Centre’s borehole. An atrium across the span of the toilet provides natural light with views of the London Eye and reduces lighting [costs]. If you ever have the pleasure of using the Jubiloo please do take time to give us your comments on the Jubiloo’s very own Facebook Page.
“Remember, nobody funds this facility. It’s your desire to spend a penny that keeps the Jubiloo going!”
We are going to head on now… but if you need a loo break this is one of the best chances on the tour. If you mention the loo lady to the attendants some of them may even still remember me! And always remember to thank your toilet attendant. It’s a tough job making people pay all day to pee!!!
When you’re done head to the foot of the steps by the Bridge to your left for our next adventure.
We’re going to step back in time.
Start walking up the steps.
Have you ever thought about why we need toilets? In the forest animals go happily out in the open, yet you don’t step in it while you’re out hiking.
Our bodily waste is a natural part of the recycling loop, releasing the nutrients our bodies consume. But this recycling process takes time. When human societies become to big for nature to keep up we have to start thinking of alternatives.
And this often brings us to rivers.
Water is vital to life, and many early civilizations sprung up around rivers. They soon figured out that doing their business in the river meant it could be washed away without the need to touch it. This was hugely helpful, as we are an incredibly lazy species when it comes to disposing of our excrement.
But societies continued to grow and expand away from rivers. By now they were used to what we call “waterborne sanitation” so they started to develop the technology to bring the river to them.
Stop. Go to the railing on your left and look down at the river.
In all of history the Ancient Romans hold one of the most notable places for harnessing water in their aqueducts and baths. But along with these public baths they had fabulous flushing public toilets!
At its peak, there were 144 public facilities in Rome.
Roman Toileting, like Roman bathing was a communal activity. 30 or 40 people might have sat together on a long stone bench with keyhole shaped seats. If they were very wealthy their slaves would have sat there first to warm it up.
Once they had done what they needed to do they would take the communal sponge on a stick to wipe their bottoms. This is where we get the phrase “the wrong end of the stick.”
But then the Roman Empire fell. Britain was invaded by waves of Eastern European immigrants: The Angles and the Saxons, who were to become the English.
They had no interest in waterborne sanitation or didn’t know what it was for, so began tearing down the old structures to make way for their fortresses. They brought with them cesspits, gardrobes, chamber pots, and plunged Great Britain into what one historian termed “The Lavatorial Dark Ages.”
Start walking across the bridge. As we go I’ll take you through the history of the water closet.
The 1300’s: Richard Whitington, Mayor of London, financed a toilet on the banks of the Thames which is flushed by the tides. Today Brits know him best as the lovable Pantomime character of Dick Whittington and his Cat.
During this era the hygienic practices of hand washing and organized sanitation were kept alive largely thanks to the monasteries who preserved not only classical teachings of arts and literature but also of the sciences and health.
1541: Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. These storehouses for classical knowledge disappeared, and along with them the last vestiges of the flush toilet were gone for a time.
1596: Sir John Harrington, the saucy godson of Queen Elizabeth I invented the first mechanized flush toilet, which he names the Ajax.
He only ever built two in his lifetime… one for himself and one for his godmother. He then got banished from court for his writings which critiqued the aristocracy. A prolific poet, he wrote many epigrams including this:
“To keep your house sweet mend privy vaults
To keep your souls sweet mend privy faults”
With his banishment the flush toilet disappeared for almost 200 years more.
1775: A Scottish Watchmaker named Alexander Cummings filed for the first patent for a water closet… the S trap.
1778: Joseph Bramah improved the design, inventing a hinged valve and an improved cistern… creating the design that was to become the benchmark of the next century.
1851: The Crystal Palace exhibition… remember George Jennings and his monkey closets? This put waterclosets in the public eye more than ever before, and the toilet as we know it today had its glorious birth. Twyfords, Royal Dolton, Jennings and of course Thomas Crapper were the great names of the day.
Stop. Look out over the Thames again on your left.
Imagine we have come through the “lavatorial dark ages” into the 1800’s. At the turn of the century there were just under a million people in London. Fifty years later that number had more than doubled. Twice as many people doing their business. And most of that business is ending up in London’s water ways.
By the year 1858 it all became too much, and London had what came to be known as “The Summer of the Great Stink.” It was a very hot June, and the river began to smell so bad that people started to flee the city.
It was a problem for the politicians in the newly refurbished houses of parliament, which of course stands right on the water. You can see the iconic tower of Big Ben in front of you. Meetings could only be held behind very heavily curtained windows while the politicians held scented handkerchiefs over their faces to keep out the smell.
But that is how you get the attention of politicians… because once the Great Stink hit it took them all of two weeks to approve plans for a new sewer system.
Start walking again. You’ll need to head down the steps.
The man they called on to design the sewers was Joseph Bazalgette. He was the Chief Engineer of the Metropolitan Board of works. Because he had already made designs for a sewer prior to the Great Stink he was able to hit the ground running, and London’s Sewer Network became one of the wonders of the modern world. Bazalgette was a very forward thinking man, and built generously to allow for population growth, but it is unlikely he could have imagined that 150 years later his sewer would still be the main artery of London, serving a population of over 8 million!
At the bottom of the bridge down here you’re going to make a sort of a Ubend to your right and walk back parallel to the bridge.
If you look across the street at that concrete plinth you’ll see the head and shoulders of a man. He’s there just to your right. That’s Joseph Bazalgette.
The Latin inscription reads Flumini vincula posvit: “He Put the River in Chains” This is the only memorial to Bazalgette in Cental London. Other than, of course, the one hard at work under our feet. A humble tribute to a great man.
Stop and look at the statue for a moment. Bazalgette’s lineage lives on in his great great grandson Sir Peter Bazalgette, who is not only chair of Arts Council England, but also the Television producer behind Big Brother. They say of the Bazalgette family heritage: “Joseph Bazalgette pumped shit out of London and Peter Bazalgette pumps it back in again.”
Start walking again and head towards the left of the bridge support. Mind the wobbly cobble stone there! That one gets me every time!
You’re going to turn left under the bridge and keep walking straight on.
This is the pigeon toilet part of the experience.
You’re usually safe, so don’t worry about it too much. Besides, bird poo is meant to be good luck!
I always wondered where this idea came from. I found a few possibilities.
1) It’s a thinking man’s joke “It’s good luck because horses can’t fly!” (In other words: thank god it’s just pigeon poo!)
2) It’s good luck because the chances are slim… by being hit you are marked as someone who fate singles out and should start investing in lottery tickets.
3) It’s such a disgusting thing to have happen to you that there must be some bright side to it!
Anyway, enough about bird poop for now though! We are nearly to the next stop… when you see a sign that says “toilets” you’ll know you’ve found it.
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