London lav affair goes back a long way. It’s one of the City’s many fine and famous firsts: the first one-way street; the first commercially made jigsaw puzzle; the first sale of a banana in Britain, and the first public flush toilets.
Public toilets are essential in allowing human society to function, but there are fewer of them available every year in London. Some fall into ruin, others have been sold and turned into tiny coffee shops, or even minute art galleries. However, they remain a social necessity and, in many cases, historical monuments. So, in praise of the public pissoir, here are some of London toilet-based tales you didn’t know you’d been waiting for. These are stories of the London Lav Affair.
In 1423, a 128-seat toilet hanging out over the River Thames, at the mouth of the Walbrook stream, was established by London first mayor, Richard Whittington. This “house of easement” was divided into 64 seats for men and the same number for women. It’s believed to be the first segregated-by-sex public toilet in England, and its location meant it was washed out by the tide twice a day.
George Jennings installed self-flushing toilets for London Great Exhibition of 1851. By the time the exhibition closed, more than 800,000 visitors had used the facilities. Jennings then persuaded the organisers to keep the toilets open. They were quite the earner, generating a penny-a-go revenue that amounted to a yearly income of about £1,000 (over a hundred thousand pounds in today’s money).
By the end of the 19th Century, “public waiting rooms” were more widespread, but were overwhelmingly for men. This resulted in the so-called “urinary leash” that impeded women’s access to public spaces. The Ladies Sanitary Association, organised shortly after the creation of the first public flushing toilet, campaigned from the 1850s for “special erections placed in a well-frequented part of the parish” to provide “water closet accommodation for women”. Dr. Stevenson, the medical health officer for Paddington, asserted that women had “the same physical necessities” as men, and that the call for female toilets was “no imaginary want, created by sentimentalism”.
By 1898 the Union of Women’s Liberal and Radical Associations had formed. It demanded a public toilet in Camden, where there was already a similar provision for men. This met with opposition: from people who feared it would devalue nearby property; from men who didn’t want the ladies’ facility to be next to theirs; and from those who claimed it would be a traffic hazard. Inequality continued – even if women could find a public toilet, unlike men using a communal urinal, they usually had to pay for the service; the “water closet” necessary to accommodate a woman and her needs took up much more room and required more maintenance than the simple system for men.
One attempt to get around this was the installation of “urinettes”, which were similar to water closets but smaller, and had curtains instead of doors. Like a urinal, they were automatically flushed and had limited privacy. They were soon removed, partly because of complaints they were being used in an “uncleanly manner”. Presumably unlike the male version, which is well-known for being rather fragrant.
The upheavals of World War One saw women taking over jobs previously done by the men who had gone off to fight. With many fewer men in the factories, women could, of course, make use of the already-installed toilets. After the war, women were expected to return to the domestic sphere, and not “steal” a job from a man. Workplace discrimination on the basis of sex was outlawed in 1919, with the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, but there was no law about providing toilets for either sex. According to the Museum of London, many professions used the fact of insufficient female facilities as an excuse for not hiring women. The 1992 Workplace Regulations Act means that now, not ensuring that men and women employees have separate toilet facilities is unlawful.
Another aspect of London public toilets is not so well known, except in certain circles. It was called “Cottaging”. “Cottaging”, which takes its name from the small brick and tiled toilets built from the Victorian period onwards, saw men make use of the venues to meet other men. The actor Sir John Gielgud was arrested in a “gents” in Chelsea at a time when the law stipulated that a man could be arrested merely for the intent of committing an act of “gross indecency.” Sir John was unlucky enough to encounter an undercover policeman lurking by the urinal he chose. This puts a whole new light on the title of this blog, London Lav Affair.
In 1937, a book called “For Your Convenience” was published, which was a barely veiled “Cottaging” guide to London public toilets. Among other information it detailed the distinctive reputations each site had developed. As one user of such facilities wrote, “If you wanted a “piece of rough” (sic) you’d look round the cottages in Covent Garden. If you wanted the theatrical “trade”, you would visit some of the cottages round the back of Jermyn Street. If you were looking for a good class of “trade”, you would visit the cottage at Waterloo Station.” London Lav Affair goes commercial?
“London Loo Codes” currently maintains an openly accessible database, while organisations such as the British Toilet Association campaign for better provision of public facilities. The Royal Society for Public Health argues that public toilets should be considered “as essential as streetlights, roads and waste collection, and equally well enforced by legislation and regulations”.
Aren’t you glad you now know all this about London Lav Affair?