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How Convenient

Let’s say you’re a subject of her majesty Queen Victoria, and are of the middle classes. You’ve travelled into the metropolis for the day and are currently walking along Fleet Street heading towards St Paul’s cathedral. When all of a sudden you feel the need to answer a call of nature.

Now this is where things get gender specific. Let’s dispense for the time being with the male side of things and concentrate on the options that women had. I recently read an article which dealt with this subject of Public Conveniences. In the first twenty years of Victoria’s reign there were no public toilets for either sex. This affected women’s ability to leave the home. Those who wished to travel had to plan their routes carefully to include areas where they could relieve themselves. Therefore, women generally never travelled much further than where family and friends resided. This is often called the “urinary leash” as women could only go as far as their bladders would permit them to.

A Victorian Urine Deflector

Taking human plumbing into consideration, it is very much easier for the male to facilitate the operation of relieving themselves, and it appears that the Victorian gentleman was not abashed about doing so in public. London at the time was criss crossed with numerous alleys and small courts, most of them unlit and shadowy even on the brightest of days. Your average Victorian gent suddenly caught short would not have broken step before conveying himself down the nearest alleyway to relieve himself. A vast majority of these alleys contained housing and businesses of relatively well to do people. If you can imagine people standing by the side of your house relieving themselves possibly on a daily basis, you’re not going to be very pleased, are you? To try to offset this flood of unwanted visitors some residents took matters into their own hands and installed what were termed as “Urine Deflectors” and a number of them survive to this day.**

George Jennings Flushing Toilet

The lack of access to toilet facilities generally impeded women’s access to public spaces. This led to the formation of the Ladies Sanitary Association (LSA), organised shortly after the creation of the first public flushing toilet. This miracle of the modern age had recently been exhibited at The Great Exhibition in 1851 and was the invention of George Jennings, a Brighton plumber. This proved so popular an invention that the following year the first public toilet (obviously for men) or “Public Waiting Room” was opened. Campaigners lobbied for equality in the number of “Ladies Public Waiting Rooms”. Access for women toilets were proposed in existing men’s toilets. However, the plans for a women’s toilet were set back by several years as men opposed the women’s toilets being situated next to the men’s. In some cases, plans for women’s toilets were deliberately sabotaged. A model of a women’s toilet was set up on the pavement in Camden High Street, hansom cabs (driven by men) deliberately drove into the model toilet to demonstrate that it was situated in a most inconvenient position! And so back to the earlier scenario.

Being of the male persuasion, you find yourself in luck, and dash into the newly opened Public Waiting Room that opened on the 2nd February 1852. The site of this convenience stood where now the Old Bell Tavern stands (complete with both Male & Female toilets). If you had been a lady, then you would have had a problem as the the first Ladies Public Waiting room would not open for another nine days and even then a mile away from where you are now, in Bedford Street.

** I have a guided walking tour that takes in some of these alleyways, including the one with the deflectors. You can find out more at A London Miscellany Tours, Not Avenues, but alleyways.

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