Dirty Old London: 30 Days of Filth: Day 25

‘The idea that women – particularly respectable women – might want or need purpose-built public toilets, on the streets of the capital, was considered a nonsense. Those in control of local authority purse strings argued that women were too refined, too delicate, too modest, to use a public facility’.

Throughout this mjackson-blog-click thruonth, Lee Jackson reveals the background to Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against FilthThe 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 25: A Woman’s Convenience 

The public urinal seems to have developed at the start of the nineteenth century, a response by pub landlords to customers regularly defiling their walls. Often, these were little more than slates or stones fixed to the exterior of the building, without even a screen for modesty (they would become more complex affairs as the century progressed). Local authorities took note and also began to build these very basic conveniences. Victorian men, therefore, always had somewhere ‘legitimate’ to relieve themselves, even if some of them just used the nearest alley. Women were another matter entirely.

Admittedly, for the poor, there were common privies in the slums – but these were often abominably foul. One late-Victorian would remark that, with no public facilities, women ‘didn’t go out , or didn’t ‘go’ – but it is hard to believe such self-restraint was universal. By way of contrast, the infamous pornographic memoirs My Secret Life provide a detailed description of prostitutes regularly using a grating in a secluded courtyard. Was such behaviour solely the preserve of fallen women? The dire sanitary conditions of mid-century slumdom, where human waste frequently accumulated in alleys and cellars, would suggest otherwise.

Naturally, middle-class females had more choice. They might make use of the private closet of a tavern or shop – if the owner permitted. Many a trifling purchase was made simply to obtain discreet access to an establishment’s WC. Railway stations would increasingly provide another possibility; but the idea that women – particularly respectable womenmight want or need purpose-built public toilets, on the streets of the capital, was considered a nonsense. Those in control of local authority purse strings argued that women were too refined, too delicate, too modest, to use a public facility.

The status quo was finally challenged in the late 1870s. The Ladies Sanitary Association wrote to all London vestries and districts boards with a radical proposal.  The LSA’s secretary, Rose Adams, acknowledged the universal truth that there was often hostility to new conveniences of any kind. But there were many ‘public’ sites over which the authorities had complete control and which might accommodate women’s toilets (‘park lodges, cemeteries, recreation grounds, model lodgings, hospitals, laundries, baths, dispensaries, workhouses, School Board schools, tram and omnibus stations, churches and chapels’). The Bethnal Green Medical Officer of Health agreed; and dubbed the existing provision of urinal facilities for men – and nothing for women –  ‘a selfish inequality’.

James Stevenson, the Medical Officer for Paddington, went one stage further, producing a widely-circulated and extensive written report. Stevenson testified to increasing numbers of women in the workforce, as well as more middle-class women independently shopping and visiting London as tourists. The modern metropolis, he claimed, created new social arrangements, which demanded new provisions. He denied that women were physically better able to exercise self-control – a popular myth. Rather, he claimed, they were simply more uncomplaining of discomfort.

Change would be a long time coming. At first, it seemed that private firms might offer a way forward. The ‘Chalet Company’ was the first: a short-lived trial of women’s lavatories in a decorative wooden ‘Swiss Chalet’ at Ludgate Circus in the mid-1880s. Finally, however, a decade after the LSA’s intervention, local authorities yielded. London’s first municipal ‘public convenience’ for women opened in Piccadilly Circus in 1889, built underground – rendering it less objectionable –  alongside a larger facility for men. It would contain ‘two mirrors, brushes, combs &c., the idea being to provide all necessary accommodation for ladies shopping or doing business in the West End’. Neighbouring vestries began to compete in offering lady shoppers elaborate lavatories; and others eventually followed suit across the capital.

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.


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