Too many years ago to recall I gave my mother a copy of the ‘Good Loo Guide’. On clearing out her papers following her death I found the book. It reveals a side to life in London that hadn’t really been studied by historians. Naturally I wanted to find out more
Before the 1880s if you were caught short you had to find a secluded wall, find a toilet in a station, or ask to use the privy in a shop. Naturally this was particularly difficult for ‘respectable’ ladies. Municipally maintained public conveniences finally appeared in the last years of the nineteenth century, after as Lee Jackson puts it ‘decades of argument about demand, dirt and decency.’ During the 1890s and 1900s London’s metropolitan boroughs erected many splendidly tiled premises generally underground at junctions and along main roads, for both men and women. Almost all were still in operation sixty years later.
A wide selection of toilets are delightfully described in the two editions of Jonathan Routh’s Good Loo Guide published in 1965 and 1968. Routh offered a gentle satire on that handbook of the middle classes the Good Food Guide. In a frontispiece he wrote that: ‘Our visits to loos have been anonymous…Nor have we at any time accepted hospitality, but paid cash for all chargeable facilities we have used.’
Some reviews were submitted by members of the public, others provided by Routh himself. Of Brown’s Hotel he wrote that:
The Ladies is roomy, the clientele debby, and the attendant has the largest selection of miscellaneous pins in Central London. The Gents: the attendant starts filling the basin with hot water as you appear in the room and is also likely to point out to you, most charmingly, any deficiencies in your dress before you leave his domain.
There were even instructions about using the loo at the Houses of Parliament: ‘Make your request of a policeman at the Strangers Entrance. He may direct you to a Gents immediately to the right inside’ or ‘beyond the Central Lobby to grander establishments which look more like the Seats of Power.’ Routh was never able to resist a lavatorial pun.
The Good Loo Guide includes many entries for public conveniences. Some were clearly well cared for. One correspondent described the gents-only toilet on High Holborn as being ‘a place of high marble stalls, ancient glass water tanks and polished brass attendant.’ The glass ranks were rumoured to contain fish cared for by generations of attendants. Of the conveniences at Bank Underground Station, Routh wrote that they: ‘are very splendid in a marble, mosaic and mahogany. They were obviously designed to impress.’ Indeed, he listed them as being among the ten finest toilets in London.
Others were less salubrious. Of the loos in Leicester Square, Routh wrote ‘There have been times when we've wished we'd been wearing gumboots.’
Toilets provided by British Rail and London Transport were notoriously poor: Those at Waterloo generally had the worse reviews, the new facilities at Victoria the best, although there was grumbling about the high price of admission. Jonathan Routh praised Lord Beeching ‘whose bold vision in closing a thousand penny loos to try to run one sixpenny one at a profit and so support the rest of BR’s activities now becomes clear.’
More seriously one reader ‘Mrs JM’ described the women’s toilets at Holland Park Underground Station: ‘The most disgusting loo that I have ever had the bad luck to be taken short by. Chipped tiles, revolting graffiti and insulting notices telling me at which hospitals I can get the consequent treatment I will need.’
Indeed, women in general seem to have been poor served. In 1968, the City of London maintained 25 toilets of which 11 were solely for men, the others for both sexes. And there were no 24-hour facilities for ladies in public conveniences. However, toilets were available at the Kensington Palace Hotel, railway terminuses and various large garages.
In an article for the Sunday Times published in January 1965, Elizabeth Good described what she called ‘the average women’s public lavatory’:
The four walls are bare of graffiti, but they are dirty. The floor is damp. The chain had lost its handle, the notice about venereal diseases has been half torn from its frame. The paper is more than an arm’s length from the lavatory.
On a tour of ladies’ toilets maintained by British Rail at London mainline terminuses, she found that the nicest was at King’s Cross:
Attendant sits at end of end of her domain and watches like a hawk for signs of vandalism. Read typewritten note Sellotaped to centre of mirror. Headed: ‘To Whom It May Concern’ it prohibits use of hair lacquer. Leave attendant giving rub-up to immaculate brass.
Attendants were key to a properly run public toilets. Good ones kept their premises sparkling clean and maintained a welcoming atmosphere. But it was not easy. As an attendant at the loos in Shepherd’s Bush bluntly told Jonathan Routh: ‘The public are absolutely filthy.’ Elizabeth Good spoke to several, noting that:
Attendants have to recognise prostitutes, the down-and-outs who try to find a bed for the night for a penny. Unattended lavatories sometimes mean filthy clearing up tasks for staff next morning: ‘They’ll use the litter bins, anything to save a penny.’ Mods and Rockers after all-night dancing are one problem.
Attendants also needed to be tough, which may be why Jonathan Routh wrote of the toilet in Westbourne Grove: ‘We visited this establishment in the first instance because we had heard from normally trustworthy sources that Martin Bormann, the missing Nazi war criminal, had been hiding in it for the last 20 years, disguised as a bogus attendant.’
We get some idea of what their lives entailed from the memoirs of Sidney Rogers who worked on the night shift at Piccadilly Circus and other central London conveniences during 1960s. He had previously been a seaman, general labourer. and had helped in children’s homes. He vividly describes the conditions he worked under and the people he met.
The primary duty naturally was to keep the facilities clean:
Every night I started cleaning up at one o’clock, dead on. I connected a big heavy stick hosepipe seventy to ninety feet long to a standpipe. The water was full pressure, as full as a fire engine, I had to hose the floors, the passages, the walls, the cisterns and the bogs. Then I used Starit on the glazed stalls where the men used to urinate. I lost my smell after six months. I couldn’t smell gas. I couldn’t smell anything.
Already public lavatories, which had largely remained unchanged since before the First World War, were beginning to close. Public conveniences were difficult and expensive to maintain because of constant vandalism and it was hard to find men and women to work in sometimes dangerous situations for very poor pay. In addition, usage was falling as households increasingly had access to indoor plumbing at home and toilets were now universally provided in factories and offices.
Between 1965 and 1968 half the toilets maintained by London Transport closed: LT pointed out most were not necessary as journeys were generally short. More seriously local councils were reviewing the provision of public toilets. After the Conservatives took control of many London borough councils after the 1968 local elections one simple cost-cutting measure was to close the least used public lavatories. Waltham Forest led the way removing attendants, which meant that toilets were rarely cleaned and were regularly vandalised. As usage fell, the council used this as an excuse to close the facilities. But when Labour regained power in the early 1970s few reopened.
And, despite hand-wringing by politicians, public lavatories have continued to be an easy target for cuts ever since. Many more closed during the 1970s and 1980s. In his humorous column in The Times in 1983, Miles Kington provided a guide for visitors to London and under ‘Lavatories’ says, ‘Old-style lavatories can usually be recognized by a wrought-iron gate and a sign reading: “This convenience is now closed.”’ Cuts to local authority budgets led Westminster council alone to close more than thirty public toilets. Other councils followed suit. Jonathan Routh thought in 1987 that: ‘public loos…are rapidly disappearing – because they are difficult to staff, expensive to run, easy to vandalise, and liable to attract the wrong sort of customer anyway.’ He estimated that ‘In the last ten years Central London has lost…over 1250 public seats – altogether, counting cubicles, stalls and hand basins, over 2800 toilet fittings.’
Of the splendid late Victorian conveniences once so common across London now only the Gents at South End Green near Hampstead Heath, once patronised by Joe Orton, survives in every day ise. About half a dozen have been listed by English Heritage, but few are regularly open to the public. A few have been converted into cafes, bars and restaurants.
Yet there is an increasing demand for their services, particularly by the elderly, as department stories and pubs close.
‘A Life of Drugs’ Sunday Times Magazine (6 September 1964)
‘Belly Dancer is now Lady’ Daily Mirror (1 May 1965)
[Matt Brown], ‘The Eccentric Toilets Of 1960s London’ (2017) https://londonist.com/london/secret/london-s-toilets-in-the-1960s
Hunter Davies (ed), The New London Spy: a discreet guide to the city’s pleasures (Anthony Blond, 1966)
Stephen Emms, ‘The Secrets of South End Green’s Infamous gents’ toilet’ (2013) http://www.kentishtowner.co.uk/2013/10/23/wednesday-picture-south-end-greens-infamous-gents-toilet
Elizabeth Good, ‘The 1d Drops’ Sunday Times (10 January 1965)
Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London: the Victorian fight against filth (Yale UP, 2015)
Miles Kington, ‘Moreover ...: help a London tourist’ The Times (22 June 1983)
Mark Mason, ‘The Good Loo Guide’ Spectator (20 September 2012)
Sarah McCabe, ‘The Provision of Underground Public Conveniences in London with reference to Gender Differentials, 1850s-1980s’ (MA dissertation Institute of Historical Research, 2012) https://sas-space.sas.ac.uk/6093/1/MA%20Dissertation%20Sarah%20McCabe%20September%202012.pdf
Joe Orton, The Orton diaries : including the correspondence of Edna Welthorpe and others (Methuen, 1986)
Sidney A B Rogers, Four Acres and a Donkey (Dennis Dobson, 1979)
Jonathan Routh, The Good Loo Guide: Where to go in London (1st edition, Wolfe, 1965)
Jonathan Routh, The Good Loo Guide: Where to go in London (2nd edition, Wolfe, 1968)