History, Health & Hygiene: Part 2

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



Part 2 takes you from the Malet Street exit of UCL to the British Museum.


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.”


from At Your Convenience: Health, History & Hygiene, released November 25, 2014
Guest Voice: Catalina Pollak


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