It’s in the can… A quirky look at the history of London’s public toilets

Be you a tourist, a local, or city worker, there is nothing worse than being caught short and having to make the dash for the nearest  –  er lavatory.  It’s a handy thing in London to know where they’re located and and perhaps, if you’re a little fussy, which ones to are worth avoiding.

But let’s all be thankful for the humble public toilet in all is grotesque forms, for they weren’t always there.  Have you ever wondered who came up with the idea?  In fact London’s first official public toilet only made it’s debut 150 years ago.

Spend a Penny.  

In 1851 London hosted another monumental  event, the Great Exhibition.  Fortunately they had someone savvy on the organising team who foresore that of the millions of people descending on the capital to see the show one or two of them might need, at some point, to use the bathroom – and so the nation’s first festival style ‘porta-loos’ were introduced, with a small charge for the ‘convience’ at (you guessed it) 1p… hence the term… ‘spend a penny’.

It proved a huge success (stunning that no-one saw the niche in the market before that) and a huge money maker with a wapping great profit of  £1790 (a figure that the Alan Sugar of the day would be proud of!).

The following year a couple of clevercloggs finally saw the niche and put forward that a permanent public convenience in the capital might be a good idea.  And so from the makers of that other great national icon Nelson’s Column (slightly random), came Britain’s first official public loo.  The first of these permanent public toilets appeared in in Fleet Street (no longer there to see  unfortunately?!?). At first it was only the Gents that were graced with such privileges, based on the theory that the ladies, wouldn’t need any for they stayed at home all day taking care of the household – I’m sure Jane Austin would have something to say about that.  And maybe she did for a few months later much to the ladies delight there followed the grand opening of London’s first public Ladies’ Room,  few blocks away on Bedford Street, just off The Strand.

It wasn’t all about making money however, there was a hope the new London landmarks would improve sanitary conditions in the city, ‘somewhere for the homeless to relieve themselves’ as well as the general public.

It was a success as ‘Victorian public conveniences/ water closets’ popped up all over the capital.  You can still see some of them today (some are even in use but very much renovated).  They are easy to spot, they’re usually the ones with the glamorous iron-work railing outside, with stairs leading down.  Be warned though they bare a close resemblance to some Underground/subway entrances (well maybe if you’re a little tipsy).

Public Loo Vs Subway  

Sadly though, the novelty (and in all honesty the grafefulness for the convenience)  wore off.  It didn’t take long for public toilets to become the bane of London life, a private public place for all sorts of misdemeanours  (yes George Michael wasn’t the first) and general bad hygiene.

It was only two years after the launch that the papers were complaining “even the public urinals which were put up some years ago, have never yet had water laid on for cleansing them. The result is that they have become a positive nusciance to passers by.”

Where to go when you need to go?  

Today their tarnished reputation continues, and many have been closed down with funding cuts and just general bad feeling.  However, unlike 150 years ago, today you have many more options for toilets.  My advice to any tourist  is the obvious, try out the cafés, restaurants, and pubs if you get caught short.  If you’re not a customer different establishments have different views on you walking in just to use the bathroom. It’s trial and error to find out, or try to creep in without being seen.  The best bets if you’re up the west end are the department stores or where there is any food being served, usually the council laws dictate that where there is food served there has to be a customer toilet, so that’s a good guide to finding somewhere.

If you want a bit of luxuy it’s worth checking out the big name department stores or restaurants. Harrod’s is famous for it’s ‘luxury washrooms’ – although from my research ‘Luxury’ is a matter of opinion; but it is slightly cheaper than 10 years ago when they were charging £1 for the privilege.

If you want a loo with a view, I highly recommend a visit to Paramount Bar in the heart of London situated on the 32nd floor of the famous Centrepoint building. It will cost you slightly more than a penny (for the drinks obviously not the toilets) and you have to book in advance (for the drinks obviously not the toilets) but a visit to the ladies will present you with the most stunning skyline view over london.

For some in the capital the need to relieve has become an opportunity for Art.  A great example of this is the pod loos at Sketch Resturant. They are literally giant eggs… I’m quite sure the original Alien movie may have been modelled on a visit to these. I highly recommend you google this one, you have to see it to believe it.

In 2004 ‘Don’t miss a Sec’ appeared outside Tate Britain in Pimlico, a pretty mirrored box, as you walk past you could check your hair, put your lippy on…


However, this was no ordinary mirrored box this was a public-art-toilet by artist Monica Bonvicini.  You could sit on the loo and watch the world sail by, with those outside being none the wiser, ekk.  Would you use this toilet?

What became of them

So many of the orignials have long since gone, but you can still see/visit many of the Victorian public toilets, a few have even been resurrected.   A great example is the one at St Christopher’s Place, in the centre of the square beautifully decorated with pretty hanging baskets, (so as not to put you off your food).

Get up close and personal and  a great cuppa  

But if you want to get up close and personal with some real Victorian Loo’s you can’t get closer than The Attendant, Beautifully restored and transformed into a trendy, quirky coffee shop in Marylebone.(5 mins from Oxford Circus).  They still have the original Urinals, and flushes which you can sit at while you sip your cuppa (don’t be put off, its a delightful experience, and delightfully clean).  They also make a quality cup of coffee.


So next time you’re caught short, be grateful for the conveniences around you, be grateful you’re not walking the streets 150 years ago.  Oh and remember you might need more than a penny now too.

Read my review of The Attendant at  Love Coffee (London) on Facebook or find them at

If you liked that read this:

London’s lost landmarks

The Attendant

Oxford Steet Crocs

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