History, Health & Hygiene: Part 3

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



Part 3 takes you from the front gates of the British Museum to the Princess Louise Pub.


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.

Turn right.

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.”

Stand up.

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:

Chris Smallwood
Dave Coles
Hamish Balfour
John Erickson
Jane Stenmark
Mark Ralf
Myles de Bastion
Sam Smith
Thomas Lehmann
WC Wine & Charcuterie in Clapham Common

And, of course, thanks to our sponsors Thomas Crapper and Company.

I’m the Loo Lady.

Happy Toileteering!


from At Your Convenience: Health, History & Hygiene, track released November 25, 2014
Guest Voices: Lucinda Hawksley, Rudi Grace


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