To protect Britain’s public toilets
meyes A magnificent crapper. Push the door of the gentlemen’s toilets under London’s Wesley Chapel and you’ll find yourself in some of the oldest and grandest loos in the city. The sinks are marble; the cubicles are paneled wood and everywhere – on the seams, on the ceramic pull chains, on the toilet bowls – is the name of the man who made them: “THE GOSPEL THOMAS CRAPPER.” These are sanitary and social reminders: such pride is rarely found in toilets today.
British toilets are no longer crapper; they are worse. The country that gave the world S– loop, the U-bend, the internationally used origin of “toilet”, and rebuilding his capital city according to its sewers, increasingly unable to offer usable public toilets to its residents. In the past two decades, 2,000-odd public loos—a third of the total—have closed in England and Wales; historic toilets are neglected or converted into wine bars; those remaining facilities are increasingly inconvenient and often dirty. Campaigners are cross: the Royal Society of Public Health published a paper on “Decline of the Great British Public Toilet” entitled “Taking the P***”. Britain’s public toilets, once among the best in the world, are now – a parable in porcelain – at best a quagmire.
It used to be so different. In the Victorian era London began what is known as the sanitary revolution. Like most, this one came from the bottom up. London has never been a clean city: in 1660 the diarist Samuel Pepys went into his cellar and “put my foot in a great deal of turf” brought in by a neighbour; by the Victorian era, there were 2m people in London and an even deeper problem. In 1855, the scientist Michael Faraday traveled on the Thames and found that “the whole river was a black, pale brown liquid”, broiling with visible bits of “feculence”. Something, wrote Faraday, must be done.
Therefore, as now, BPthey were reluctant to talk about the toilet. As Raymond Martin, head of the British Toilet Association, says, “No one wants to be the Minister of Poo.” But the unusually hot summer of 1858 focused both on Faraday’s wild river and BPminds: some were seen stumbling out of Parliament, “each with a handkerchief in his nose.” Within a few months, Parliament had passed a law and, given London’s wealth and influence, 265km of cellars were soon built. As Adolf Loos, an architect with a pleasant name, said in sanitation “the English really are the leaders”.
The early history of women’s liberation is often described using fancy abstract nouns like “emancipation” and “equality” but women’s liberation, then and now, is made possible by more humdrum concrete ones : with the pipe, bank accounts and – before those – toilets. In the Victorian era women, trapped by the “urinary leash”, had to either return home for toilets or, like noble trucks, use strange glass bottles that they slipped under their skirts.
In 1893 the first women’s toilets appeared on the Strand. When Selfridge’s opened in 1909 it offered toilets to customers: allowing women to “spend a penny” made it easier for them to shop longer. This, says Clara Greed, professor emerita of inclusive urban planning at the University of the West of England, Bristol, is “almost revolutionary”.
The bottom line
A visitor to these revolutionary toilets is met today with a rusty chain on a wrought iron gate. “This facility is now closed” reads a sign from the council, Westminster. He is within his rights to do so. Since 1848 councils have been allowed to provide public toilets, but the law does not compel them to do so. Many have closed, because it is expensive for councils to keep toilets open: Healthmatic, a company that builds and manages public toilets, puts the price of a busy public toilet at £60,000 -80,000 per annum. Although that may be cheaper than the alternative: Westminster spends £950k a year cleaning up after public urination.
The lack of loos leaves many – pregnant women, those looking after small, non-dangerous children – feeling desperate. Women are disproportionately affected, but not exclusively. One 1937 report by Mass Observation, a social research unit, records how its author, unable to reach the loo on a crowded train, “gradually relieved himself into my trousers and hoped for the best”. Builders, taxi drivers and lorries all suffer, says Gail Ramster, researcher and co-creator of the Great Britain Public Toilet Map. When she studied toilet use “most of the public toilets in London had far more male users than female users”. Litter pickers complain about the numbers of yellow beer bottles at roadsides.
There are no toilets in Britain: Ms Ramster’s map lists more than 10,000 “publicly accessible toilets” in shops, restaurants and pubs, paid for with coffee or sheep sight. As Selfridge knew, sanitation can be symbolic: McDonald’s is almost as welled for its regularly checked loos as its regular fries; the pub chain JD Wetherspoon has been praised by toilet experts such as Mr Martin for providing clean, spacious facilities. The chain’s founder, Tim Martin, credited them with competing on crowded high streets. Toilets, he thinks, “are a big percentage of the appeal of pubs.”
UK Plc seems less concerned. In many countries, neat toilets are still a source of pride. But while toilet academics talk wistfully about facilities in China and Japan, English ones attract adjectives such as “not clean”. Britain, says Professor Greed, “is going backwards. “■
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