‘Many myths and ‘factoids’ appear on the web and in print. They are often incorrect…’
Throughout this month, Lee Jackson reveals the background to Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. The Victorians invented ‘sanitary science’ – the study of public health, dirt and disease – and were obsessed with sewers, sanitation and cleanliness. Why, then, did Victorian London remain so notoriously filthy?
Day 29: The Great Exhibition Toilet Myths
The history of the introduction of the public toilet in the nineteenth century is often misrepresented. Many myths and ‘factoids’ appear on the web and in print. They often relate to the Great Exhibition and the sanitary engineer George Jennings (who designed and supplied the Crystal Palace’s toilet facilities).
Below are the principal offenders:
1. “the public toilet was invented by the plumber George Jennings, for the Great Exhibition of 1851”
False. Flushing water closets were increasingly common in middle-class homes (or, more typically, just outside the house) from the late eighteenth century. The respected botanist J.C.Loudon published elegant classical designs for public water closets in his Gardeners Magazine in 1832. Likewise, Joseph Bazalgette proposed his own plan for public toilets in 1849. The presence of toilet facilities at the exhibition was at the urging of the Royal Society of Arts.
2. “the toilets at the Great Exhibition were humorously dubbed ‘monkey closets’”
False. The ‘monkey closet’ was a slangy trade name for the design that Jennings pioneered at the Exhibition, relating to the shape of the toilet’s plumbing. There is no evidence that visitors to the exhibition were aware of the term, nor that it reflected anxiety about being ‘caged’ in unfamiliar cubicles. Rather, the toilets at the exhibition were actually situated in well-appointed spacious ‘retiring rooms’.
3. “popular amazement and enthusiasm for Jennings’ toilets at the Exhibition led to the creation of public toilets throughout London”
False. The toilet facilities were used extensively by the public at the Exhibition; but there was no rush to place similar necessaries on London streets. In 1852, the Royal Society of Arts, still keen on public water closets, set up trial male and female facilities in the Old Bell Tavern, Fleet Street, and a shop in Bedford Street, respectively. The scheme was a complete disaster – there were hardly any customers – and persuaded local authorities that there was no demand.
4. “the first underground public toilet was opened in 1855 at the Royal Exchange by George Jennings”
False. This widely-cited date is derived entirely from Jonathan Routh’s 1960s humourous pamphlet The Good Loo Guide and quite mistaken. In fact, the first underground toilets opened – true, at the Royal Exchange – in 1885, as numerous records in the City of London archives attest. George Jennings was the first to suggest such a scheme in the mid-1850s – but he was rebuffed by the City authorities, who only came round to the idea thirty years later, after his death. Jennings’ company, which survived him, was not involved in the Royal Exchange toilets – but they would provide urinals and water closets for many of the public facilities built in London in subsequent decades.
5. “the phrase ‘spend a penny’ originates from the penny charge for toilets at the Great Exhibition”
Highly unlikely. Certainly, the experience of using the toilets at the Exhibition would have been novel for many of the working-class visitors; but it seems unlikely the phrase slipped into common parlance on this basis. The price of admission to late-Victorian toilet cubicles was a penny – a much more likely origin. Besides, only the most central facilities in the Great Exhibition cost a penny; those attached to the refreshment rooms in the building’s wings cost a happenny (this was to discourage queues in the central transept).
You can find out more about Lee Jackson’s Victorian London from his website: Victorian London or read more about the new book at Dirty Old London. You can also find Lee Jackson on twitter @VictorianLondon.
Lee blogs at The Cats Meat Shop.