It's World Toilet Day — a day to raise awareness about all people who do not have access to a toilet — and to mark it, went on a tour of the city's toilets, with London Loo Tours. This is what we learned:
1. The Thames: London’s first sewer
Our first stop, the Thames, was an open sewer until the 19th Century. In the 1850s, over 400,000 tonnes of human waste was dumped in the river each day, with disastrous consequences for public health, including cholera epidemics. Making sanitation a top priority in rapidly expanding cities addresses poverty and is good for health and the environment – in London and around the world.
2. Crossness Pumping Station: London’s first big flush
The ‘Great Stink’ of 1858 brought London to a standstill as the foul stench of human and industrial waste on the banks of the Thames reached epic proportions during the hot summer months. It also led to Parliament passing a new law to build a mega-sewer under the city; a giant network intercepting tunnels, pumping stations, and treatment works. Crossness Pumping Station in Abbey Wood, like most of the sewage system, was built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in 1865. Aside from a few additions, his impressive constructions still form the backbone of London’s sewers today.
3. The Jubiloo: a very British loo
London has 847 public toilets. Some are free, while others will cost you 50p, like the Jubiloo in London’s South Bank (pictured). Tourists seem happy to pay to sit on these royal thrones and admire the very British decor. Consisting of 11 unisex cubicles and six urinals, Jubiloo was built to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Its boat-like shape was designed to collect rainwater for flushing the loos.
4. Open air urinals: can you smell something?
London’s toilets were closing at a rapid rate in the early 2000s, causing the London Assembly to call enough good public toilets ‘an urgent need’ for the city. This image above shows an open-air toilet in Brydges Place, London’s narrowest alleyway, near Covent Garden. Due to the lack of public toilets in the area, men tended to relieve themselves down this alley on the way back from the pub. This prompted the construction of several street urinals, including a magic pissoir that pops out of the ground at night.
5. For customers only... or maybe not?
Fear that another Great Stink could hit London during the 2012 Olympics led to greater investment in public toilets across the city. Over the last decade, places to spend a penny have more than doubled (there were only 419 in 2004). Half of today's 847 London loos are part of the Community Toilet Scheme (CTS), an initiative launched in 2006 by the Mayor of London to open private toilets to the public in partnership with local business. The photo above is of the sign for a CTS toilet in Richmond, the first London borough to be part of this scheme. Today, Richmond has more than 90 shops, pubs and bars participating in the scheme.
6. Public conveniences: an inconvenient untruth?
Projects like the Great British Public Toilet Map or the free app City Toilet Finder use open access data to helping anyone busting for the loo find much-needed relief. Some public places also have maps of their public toilets, but most do not. These are some of the funky ones at Borough Market, which are mapped out here.
7. Public is not for all: toilets and disabilities
‘Public’ does not always mean ‘for all’. Access to a toilet can hang on your sex, age, health, disability and religion. Different disabilities, including hidden illnesses, require different support or more privacy. This picture shows a Changing Place toilet in the Borough of Westminster, which recently outsourced its public toilets so they’re now all pay-as-you-go. Introduced in 2006, Changing Place toilets have enough space and the right equipment for people with profound and multiple disabilities, as well as older people. Sadly, 25% of London Boroughs still don’t list public toilets with disabled access.
8. Ladies or Gents: defend your rights!
Being unable to use a public toilet is a restriction on civil liberties. London has facilities for men and women, and a small but growing number of unisex toilets for people who don’t identify as a man or a woman. In Victorian times, women were not so lucky. Public toilets existed only for men. Thinking about women’s bodily functions made men feel uncomfortable (but not quite as uncomfortable as women felt crossing their legs all day). Not having women’s public conveniences was so ‘normal’ that women would not wear underwear to Ladies Day at Royal Ascot because they would have to ‘go’ behind a bush. Unfortunately, this is still the case for millions of women in many parts of the world.
9. The Attendant: clean enough to eat off
London has been very successful in making toilets ‘cool’. Amongst many other hipster innovations, there has been rapid increase of space-saving drinking spots in ex-lavatories. The Attendant, just off Oxford Street, was converted into a café in 2013, and its cosy seating area is made up of original porcelain urinals.
10. Derelict toilets or… art?
Derelict toilets can become art in London, just like ArtsLav in Kennington, the last loo stop on our tour. The Victorian public lavatory was abandoned in the 1980s, but after being restored by volunteers, it now offers a wide-range of inclusive cultural activities. It's fitted with toilets too.
By Beatrice Mosello and Helen Parker.