A London move is an automatic education, and, supplementing that, I’m about to share with you what is probably one of the more random facts you could learn about London as we continue with our A to Z Blogging Challenge:
“L” is for LAVATORY / LOO!
“Oh no she di-in’t,” you might be saying, but oh yes, I just went there. The London Relocation blog is speaking with its potty-mouth today.
Nah, it’s really nothing gross, I promise. Actually, you’ll be quite surprised how posh this topic can be, as today I’m specifically referring to London’s historical public lavatories. To start, many tourists are surprised when they travel through Europe and are expected to pay a few cents/pence to use a public toilet. There are public loos in London that are free; nonetheless, back in the day it seems you really got what you paid for! From my trusty book, London’s Strangest Tales:
One of the great tragedies of the past fifty years is the gradual disappearance of London’s magnificent public lavatories. Built into the fabric of the environment by nineteenth-century urban planners who were concerned (unlike modern developers) that their buildings should be decorative as well as functional, public lavatories tended to be built at major street junctions and below ground.
[…] Lavatory builders created splendid subterranean palaces of gleaming copper pipework, hugely decorative tiles and basins, and lavatories with delicate flower decoration. Heavy mahogany doors were used for each lavatory cubicle and the overall impression was always one of spacious loftiness, for these were palaces [of] ease and bodily contentment.
And here I was just speaking about palaces and “throne rooms” in my post yesterday. Fit for a king, indeed! Over time, however, these Victorian facilities (which cost a penny per use) were increasingly taken out of commission under the assumption that people could instead use the restrooms at cafés or restaurants, which had become more numerous.
But oddly, though many of the old public loos were closed and their entrances sealed over, many still exist complete with all their magnificent pipework below ground, buried like Egyptian tombs and awaiting some enthusiastic future lavatorial archaeologist.
One of the last lavatories to go was the splendid example in Covent Garden just outside the church in the piazza. Here in its dying days in the 1980s you could spend a penny and listen to opera, for the lavatory attendant was a keen opera buff who also decorated the walls with reproductions of some of the National Gallery’s most famous pictures. Tourists and Londoners flocked to this eccentric destination, and rightly so, until it was closed by unimaginative local officials.
Seems a shame, doesn’t it? Well, if you’re curious to see some of the fine fittings that once adorned a public lavatory situated in the middle of High Holborn, apparently they’re on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington. And some of these historic loos have been converted into modern venues that you can still visit! I forget where it was, but I’d walked past one that was an underground spa, and I’ve also seen The Public Life club in Clerkenwell. And it seems the west England town of Malvern, Worcestershire has even transformed a men’s lavatory into the world’s smallest theatre! The Theatre of Small Convenience accommodates an audience of twelve.
But when it comes down to it, if you gotta go, you gotta go. So as for public toilets still in operation throughout London, consult resources like About.com’s “Best Free London Public Toilets,” the City of London website, or the public toilets guide at LastRounds.co.uk. There’s even an app called, “Toilet Map.” I would also be remiss not to mention I’ve managed to stumble on a blog entitled London Lavatory Legends if you’re interested in more trivia and toilet humor.
When you’re moving here, locating the loo is about as important as locating your apartment…which at the very least should be equipped with one of its own. Keep your standards at least that high. 🙂