History, Health & Hygiene: Part 1

from At Your Convenience: Health, History & Hygiene by Loo Tours



Track 1 takes you from Euston Square Station to the back gates of University College London.


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.

Start walking.

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.

Stop here!

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”

Stand Up.

Turn to your left.

Start walking.

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.”


from At Your Convenience: Health, History & Hygiene, released November 25, 2014
Guest voices: Barbara Penner & Tse-Hue The


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