The view looking down a flight of stairs to subterranean gents' toilets. The walls are covered in white tiles.. A sign beneath a window, part way down the stairs reads: ‘GENTLEMEN’S LAVATORY, HAIRCUTTING, SHAVING, DRESSING & BATH ROOMS.’

The entrance to the gentlemen's lavatory, haircutting, shaving, dressing and bath rooms at Waterloo Station. Photographed by Bedford Lemere & Company in 1911. Source Historic England Archive BL21143
The entrance to the gentlemen's lavatory, haircutting, shaving, dressing and bath rooms at Waterloo Station. Photographed by Bedford Lemere & Company in 1911. Source Historic England Archive BL21143

Spending a Penny: an Exploration of England's Public Toilets

In 1851 the Great Exhibition took place in Hyde Park, London. The refreshment rooms featured public conveniences for which a small charge was made. By the time the exhibition closed over 800,000 visitors had paid more than £2,000 for use of the facilities. And so was born the concept of ‘spending a penny’ to use the loo.

In this exploration of our sanitary heritage we’ll pay a visit to municipal WC’s as well as shared facilities within private spaces.

On this page:

A black and white photograph showing a close-up of the cubicle door in a public toilet. The door is painted in a dark paint into which lots of graffiti has been scratched.
The ‘penny slot’ lock on a graffiti covered toilet door. Photographed by Eileen Deste in the late 1960s © Historic England Archive DES01/04/0787

George Jennings – Father of Necessity

For centuries the streets of England’s towns and cities had been fouled by human waste. In 1858 George Jennings who had supplied the ‘sanitary appliances’ to the Great Exhibition, wrote to the Commissioners of Sewers offering to set up public toilets in the City of London. His letter gives some impression of the state of the city’s streets at the time:

I think it only right to call attention to the efforts I have made to prevent the defilement of our thoroughfares and to remove those Plague spots that are offensive to the eye, and a reproach to the Metropolis.

George Jennings, 1858

By the late Victorian era many local authorities were providing public conveniences. It was routine to find toilets in workplaces, railway stations, parks, shops, pubs, restaurants and an array of other places.

In the foreground are the wrought iron railings and overthrow marking the entrance to the steps leading down into the gentlemen’s lavatories. A man is climbing the steps, leaving the lavatories. The railings cast a shadow on the road in the left foreground and to the top left is a row of semi derelict shops.
Gentlemen’s underground lavatories at the west end of Clarendon Crescent, Paddington W2, with St Mary Magdalene's Church in the distance. Photographed by John Gay in the early 1960s. Source Historic England Archive AA064504

Many public lavatories were built beneath urban streets or public buildings, an idea proposed by George Jennings in 1858. These subterranean lavatories took up minimal space on busy streets and station concourses. They also helped to hide 'objectionable contrivances' from the view of sensitive Victorians.

The appearance of public toilets undoubtedly helped to improve the cleanliness of our towns and cities. However a large proportion of the population failed to benefit from their proliferation.

The urinary leash – an inconvenient truth?

The vast majority of the early facilities only served men. One explanation may be that Victorian society believed ‘modest’ women would not wish to be seen entering a public convenience.

The lack of provision for women meant that they were often forced to stay close to home. This restriction is known as the 'urinary leash'. Today some consider it to be a deliberate means of controlling women’s movements and ambitions outside of the home.

The dearth of public toilets not only limited leisure activities but also the jobs available to women. A workplace which only had facilities for men was under no obligation to provide toilets for female employees. Moreover, a company could use the lack of such facilities as an excuse for not hiring women.

At the gentlemen’s convenience

Out of the closet – ‘ladies’ go public

Finally, thanks to campaigning and the power of commerce the provision of public lavatories began to reflect the changing roles of women in society.

In 1889 a grand municipal women’s convenience opened at Piccadilly Circus, in the heart of London's West End shopping district. The area's fashionable department stores attracted prosperous middle class women. The authorities and local businesses knew that it made financial sense to keep female shoppers there as long as possible. The longer they stayed the more money they spent…

A view looking diagonally across Regent Street towards railings and lamp-post marking the entrance of the subterranean loos which occupy an island in the centre of the road. Shops line the opposite side of the street.
The Ladies toilet in the centre of Regent Street, Westminster, Greater London. Only the ‘ventilation’ lamp standard still exists and is now a Grade II listed structure. The photograph was taken by Bedford Lemere and Company in 1910. Source England Archive BL20981/024 | See the entry for the lamp on the National Heritage List for England
The interior of ladies lavatories viewed from a point near the bottom of stairs. At the bottom of the stairs is a small table and two chairs. The room is decoratively tiled. Pairs of dark wooden doors give access to toilet cubicles running along both sides of the room. Against the far wall is a full height mirror.
The rather grand interior of the Ladies lavatory at Charing Cross Station, Westminster, Greater London. The photograph was taken by Bedford Lemere and Company in 1912. Source England Archive BL21955

Bit by bit the provision of facilities for women improved. Ladies rooms began to appear in shops, theatres, railway stations and many other places.

On Monday 15 March 1926 Hull City Council posted a notice in the local press inviting builders to tender for a new public convenience adjacent to Victoria Pier in Nelson Street. The new loos served both sexes, replacing an earlier ‘men only’ cast-iron urinal.

In 2017 Historic England bestowed a Grade II listing on the toilets. This accolade was in recognition of their architectural merit and their role in illustrating the changing social status of women during the 1920s. Another of Hull’s listed loos is in the Market Place. Dating from about 1900 it was built strictly for men.

Red brick public conveniences, with stone plinth, cornice and decorative details in an Art Nouveau style. In the foreground is the Gentlemen’s entrance marked by a cartouche above the doorway. The pale cream tiles of the interior are just visible. A series of porthole windows can be seen on the exterior wall.
The Gentlemen’s entrance to the combined ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gents’ public toilets in Nelson Street Hull. Photograph by Alun Bull, 2017 © Historic England Archive DP174296 | See the entry for Nelson St Public Conveniences on the National Heritage List for England

From desirable to dilapidated, modern to outmoded – a compendium of conveniences

Caught short – the ever decreasing availability of the public toilet

Anyone caught short of late will know that public lavatories are no longer as convenient as they once were. Many have gone altogether, whilst others are frustratingly padlocked awaiting sale or demolition by local authorities. Some have been ingeniously repurposed – converted into flats, bars, restaurants, coffee shops, clubs, art galleries and even beauty salons.

A view looking across an urban street towards an early-20th century, two storey lavatory block. The building is dilapidated and the entrance is gated and padlocked. Large advertising hoardings occupy an empty plot to the right of the building.
Gentlemen's Public Toilet, Devonshire Road, Forest Hill, Greater London. Photographed by Paul D Barkshire in 1991 © Historic England Archive DD001293

When photographed in 1991, this Forest Hill lavatory (above) was already closed to the public. The entrance is gated and padlocked, the windows broken. It was later converted to residential accommodation and now forms part of the property at 17 Devonshire Road.

The large textile warehouse stands at the junction of two streets. The streets in the foreground are cobbled. To the bottom right corner of the photograph, in the centre of Bridgewater Street is the entrance to the underground toilets surrounded by black railings.
The Tootal, Broadhurst and Lee textile warehouse (listed Grade II*), Manchester. Photographed by Bedford Lemere and Company in 1900. Source Historic England Archive BL15881 | See the Tootal, Broadhurst and Lee Building's entry on the National Heritage List for England

This photograph shows the Tootal Broadhurst and Lee warehouse in Manchester, with public conveniences to the right of the image on Great Bridgewater Street. After closure the loos were converted into a bar, appropriately called ‘Temple of Convenience’. The Elbow song ‘Grounds for Divorce’ refers to the bar in the line:

There’s a hole in my neighbourhood down which of late I cannot help but fall.

'Grounds for Divorce' by Elbow

In May 2019 The Royal Society for Public Health published a study into the decline of the public toilet. The report, titled ‘Taking the P***’, reveals that since 2010, 700 council run public toilets have closed.

It emphasizes how the reduction of public conveniences hits the homeless, disabled, outdoor workers, those with illnesses requiring frequent toilet use and women the hardest.

According to the report the ‘urinary leash’ is once again becoming an issue with one in five people stating that a lack of facilities nearby can restrict outings from their homes.

Many of the issues highlighted by The Royal Society for Public Health echo those raised during the Victorian era. The debate over our public toilets has seemingly gone full circle.

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