The public convenience was once a common sight on the UK’s streets. Even the smallest of towns and villages had one to boast of; but it wasn’t always that way. Prior to the Victorian municipalisation of our towns and cities, where local councils had a surge of providing amenities for the public in the shape of parks, libraries and public toilets, there was very little in the way of handy powder rooms for those who were out and about.
People were forced to use the conveniences in Inns and eating houses. The first public toilet appeared in 1851 at Crystal Palace’s Great Exhibition and the users were charged one penny for the privilege of using them; hence the term “to spend a penny”. For this price the general public got to use a clean, flushing loo as well as being offered a shoe shine and a towel. There was great excitement surrounding this innovation and some scandal as the uptight Victorians disliked the idea of even acknowledging the existence of such a thing – never mind charging for it!
Once the Great Exhibition ended, the toilets were kept onsite and continued to be popular…raking in more than £1000 a year which in those days was a large sum! Following on from their success came a public convenience in Fleet Street which was situated next to the Royal Society of Art. The first public toilets were men only with women’s versions following soon after and whilst the Victorians remained shy about actually discussing these new fangled “water closets” they were almost certainly very grateful to the men who pioneered their building.
Soon, public conveniences began to appear in cities all over the UK and they were generally beautiful to behold with the best in materials being utilized for them. Wrought iron railings, marble and ornate tiles were the norms. As we progressed into the twentieth century, toilets were built in less ornate fashion but they were still to be seen in proliferation, with plenty to choose from in a large town.
Many of the most beautiful examples have been lost over time; knocked down, built-over and consumed by shopping centres and car parks, but some still survive and have unfortunately been sold off for use as kiosks. Many of the more modern public toilets have also suffered a similar fate mainly owing to them often being on land which is worth huge sums of money; cash-strapped councils have sold them off to developers, to the detriment of our high streets.
Until recently Paris had an extensive network of public urinals known as ‘Pissoirs’. You can learn more about them in our dedicated article on the topic.
Of course many towns still have their public conveniences and this is, of course, a good thing; a return to the dark old days of the 19th century when members of the public were forced to seek out generous hoteliers who would allow them to use their toilets would be a bad thing altogether. Public toilets are still being built, especially in areas that attract a good deal of tourists, and sometimes even old buildings are converted into public toilets. So while we may not have many of the lovely early examples, we do have a few left to admire and they are in the main protected and listed buildings so we can be confident that many future generations can enjoy them for some years yet.
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