Jenny McCartney

The smelly, snobbish death of the English public toilet

In England, people dislike talking about lavatories in public. So soon, they will have no public lavatories

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

12 March 2016

9:00 AM

I blame Nancy Mitford: she made the English so frightened of saying ‘toilet’ that now they have hardly any left — of the public variety, that is, the sort that traditionally proved so useful to anyone who wanted to do a daring thing like leaving the house.

I’m quite happy with ‘toilet’ personally, being from Belfast, where pretending to be ‘U’ is a greater source of potential embarrassment than simply being ‘Non-U’ like everyone else. Still, once the waspish Miss Mitford tagged talk of the ‘toilet’ or the ‘lavatory’ as an unshakeable indicator of one’s place in the class system, I can see why many people preferred to shut up about the subject altogether.

Not any more. The conspiracy of silence is being eroded by urgent necessity. Ordinary citizens have woken up to the fact that, one by one, our public conveniences are being stolen from us by cash-strapped councils desperate to save every last penny, rather than encourage the nation to spend one in a timely and hygienic fashion. Last year, the British Toilets Association estimated that 40 per cent of Britain’s public toilets had shut in the past decade. Since the public conveniences closed in Daymer Bay, Cornwall, even the delights of David Cameron’s favourite holiday destination have been imperilled by misplaced urine. Michael Somers, of Trebetherick Residents’ Association, warned that ‘already, some people have been relieving themselves in the sand dunes’ in winter, and that he dreaded to think what might arrive in high season. Mr Somers said he had spoken to Mr Cameron, who supported the campaign to keep the amenities open. I don’t wish to worry Mr Somers further, but the Prime Minister has been proclaiming support for public toilets for a while, and things have only got worse.

Mrs Gillian Kemp, the genial campaigner behind Public Toilets UK, told me: ‘We want the provision of public toilets to be a legal requirement. At the moment, councils don’t have to provide them. Yet not having them is a cost to the population as a whole.’ Public toilets are still wrongly subject to business tax, she says. And when she campaigns for them on behalf of truckers, she is ‘passed from pillar to post’ between ministerial departments.

Now the blight of threatened destruction has crept near me. A decade ago, when we first moved to Highgate, I was delighted to stumble across the public convenience in Pond Square. It looked like a tiny house from a fairy-tale, and contained something miraculous: an attendant, in a small room separated from the facilities by a frosted glass door. The place smelled reassuringly of disinfectant, its sparkling cubicles were well-stocked with paper, and one even had a working nappy–change table. Everything about it spoke loudly and warmly of civic responsibility.

At the time, I was pushing a six-month-old baby in a buggy, and there are few more potent arguments for well-maintained public conveniences than young children. Any trip involving those aged between zero and five, in particular, will be fraught with imminent emergencies of the most stressful kind. Knowing this, the wise parent — who once could grab a bunch of keys and race out of the door — will stand bellowing before departure: ‘Does anyone need the toilet?’ It rarely works. If the children can speak, they will deny that they need to go. Precisely halfway between your home and your destination, they will confess the situation has changed.

Who else might be particularly grateful for a public loo? All of those who might find it tricky to ‘hang on’: the elderly, pregnant women, men with prostate trouble, people with gut disorders, bus drivers, taxi drivers, or someone who recklessly drank a cup of tea before leaving the house. Any of us, really: the human body is undiscriminating in its basic requirements. And the Pond Square toilets are used by over 88,000 people each year, according to a study by Camden council.

Nonetheless, Councillor Meric Apak, Camden’s cabinet member for environment and sustainability, has recently proposed that the council should close the Pond Square toilets, along with two other fine facilities. In a ruling beyond satire, last autumn Camden also introduced ‘wee fees’ which let it fine anyone caught urinating on the street £100. I am not a fan of public urination — which, unsurprisingly, seems to be on the rise — but it appears illogical to launch a crackdown at the same time as shutting public toilets. The council is pinning its hopes on local businesses joining a scheme that lets people use their toilets without buying anything. A pilot ‘Community Toilet Scheme’ has already swung into action down the road in Kentish Town, where it has a proud total of one signatory.

I do hope that Mr Apak doesn’t one day find himself in the fix that befell Jackie Burns, the red-faced deputy leader of South Lanarkshire council, who oversaw the closure of his local public toilets only later to be fined £40 for urinating on the street. In any case, the locals — as represented by the Highgate Society — are putting up a spirited protest. What has happened everywhere else in the UK still might not happen here. It’s odd, really: we’re the fifth biggest economy in the world, as we keep on hearing in the Brexit debate, and we’re rapidly sliding towards medieval forms of public sanitation.

The Highgate protestors have made many powerful points, but I think one angle in particular might be worth pursuing. The homely style of Edwardian conveniences like the one in Pond Square inspired the term ‘cottaging’, the practice whereby gay men sought out sex with strangers. The beautifully tiled loos in South End Green in Hampstead — also on the council’s hit-list — were the favoured pick-up point of the playwright Joe Orton.

You see, if only Camden council could be persuaded to keep these places open as historic monuments to a vanishing aspect of gay culture, perhaps the general public might still be permitted to sneak in under the radar, and carry out our necessary, unmentionable business undisturbed.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Mary Wakefield is away on maternity leave.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • aspeckofboggart

    Well! Britain is going down the toilet. Don’t leave home without your diapers.

  • willybach

    In Paris, there are a fair number of automatic toilets made and installed by JC Decaux. At first they charged to use them but it quickly became evident that it was cheaper (for men) to use the street/trees etc for relief. Now they are free. Incidentally, JC Decaux puts up attractive bus top shelters, which are free to the local authorities, paid by advertising. The Brits should look at such innovative ways to provide such facilities.

  • #toryscum

    My girlfriend manages a high street clothes shop. Last week a lady entered the changing room to try on a dress, before swiftly disappearing without paying. Suspecting a thief they went to check the changing room. The dress was hanging untouched…. unfortunately there was also a large poo on the changing room floor.

    • johnhenry

      Thank you for sharing.

    • Ingmar Blessing

      Our female friends from the koranic end of the world have a clear advantage on that issue:

      • Olly

        Yeeeeww … in Adelaide, they’ve had to build squat toilets in the public hospitals etc … too many go to the toilet and do it their own way regardless.

  • OscarJones

    Perhaps those loos in South End Green could have their own form of Blue Plaque for Joe Orton and others around the country could do likewise. There must be so many famous people who have peed in public loos. I can see the emergence of a whole new..wait for it..cottage industry.

    • I’m guessing that Joe Orton probably used them for purposes other than those intended by the council.

  • Tony Collins

    Good article – well written, enjoyable to read and despite the light tone important. It needs to be widely read among councillors.

    • Father Todd Untious

      They are just taking the p**s.

  • Sean L

    The English are actually more frank than most in these things. My driver in Kampala recently had to stop for a “short call”. It took me a few moments to register what he was on about. Whereas His English equivalent would have just needed to “take a p is s”.

  • Tickertapeguy

    If there is any good reason to save the public loo please look at India today. India is home to the greatest number of people who defecate in the open (between 650 million to 800 million out of a population of 1.3 billion). It is so bad that the stench is unbearable.
    One Indian paper had a headline “India is drowning in her own fec*s”. We are talking of millions of pounds of this on every street every single day, billions of gallons of p ee poured everywhere. Then there is the raw sewage that empties into India’s rivers.
    “India Shattering the Illusion. The Birth of New Nations. Kashmir to Elam” by Columbus Falco.

    • Uusikaupunki

      Don’t worry….at the amount of “enrichment” this country is at present undergoing the outlook is Sunni. Soon Shiiting in the streets will become commonplace and everyday…..

      • Tickertapeguy

        Sad. Guess one will only appreciate things when they lose it. Till then English take for granted how blessed you are.
        Then when you do lose what you have it is much harder to get it back.

  • DellerboyNZ

    Where is George Costanza’s ‘i-Toilet’ when we need it?

  • Bonkim

    Urinating in public spaces should be de-criminalised.

    • MC

      If a public venue -e.g. London café – refuses to allow someone to use their loo the desperate should not be prosecuted for urinating outside their premises.

      • Bonkim

        Cafe toilets are for their customers. Not public conveniences.

        • MC

          The sewage system is not owned by the café, but all tax payers.

          • Bonkim

            Tell me where you live, I will drop in when the need arises.

          • MC

            Cafes are open to the public home isn’t. I’m referring to when they are open, not thinking about breaking in for a p at midnight. Indeed, some councils now run schemes for the public to use café loos without purchase.

          • Bonkim

            Cafe’s are businesses and the conveniences are for customers – not the general public.

          • MC

            There is no legal requirement to purchase anything and no café has the power to stop free pisers

          • Everybody has to take a leak and a great many need to do so urgently when they need to go. It is an absolute outrage that some sort of reasonable facility for doing so is not placed every ten minute walk along any city high street. If not, then don’t be surprised if people just do it up against the wall.

      • How about just p i s s ing on the table like Gerard Depardeu did in the plane. He did it on the carpet but you’ll have to allow me some leeway. The image of wassing on the table in front of a shocked waiter was just too good for me not to engage in the idea.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Urinating on Tories should be encouraged.

      • Bonkim

        God is a Tory.

        • Father Todd Unctious

          No. God despises the selfish.

          • Bonkim

            God is selfish – he told me I am not welcome to his house because I don’t believe in him.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            God does not like you. Correct.
            You are unwelcome.

          • Bonkim

            God is supposed to forgive sinners – so he must be vindictive. What a Bum!

          • Father Todd Unctious

            Are you confusing God with Jennifer Lopez?

  • CO Jones

    “We’re the fifth biggest economy in the world, as we keep on hearing in the Brexit debate, and we’re rapidly sliding towards medieval forms of public sanitation.”

    It’s just our way of making our third world immigrants feel more at home.

    • Father Todd Untious

      More our way of helping the rich avoid responsibility and taxation.

  • Jambo25

    Try Dumfries and Galloway. We still have public loos and they are tolerably clean and non smelly.

    • Father Todd Untious

      Scotland. Home of the wee frees.

      • Jambo25

        Not in Dumfries and Galloway. Apart from the 17th Century Covenanters Dumfriesshire’s main modern religious ‘celebrity’ was Jane Haining. Check her out.

        • Father Todd Untious

          There is a weefree in Newmilns Ayrshire.

          • Jambo25

            I must admit. I never knew that.

          • Father Todd Unctious

            You do now.

          • Jambo25

            As you say. It would be best if any ‘Wee Free’ church was based in New Cumnock or Stevenston. Those places would make you believe in predestination overseen by a stern and not particularly merciful god.

  • Sounds like a revenue raising exercise.

    • Father Todd Untious

      Time off in lieu for those not feeling flush.

  • Ingmar Blessing

    Maybe they should lock public toilets and give out free access cards for everyone who is interested. When entering the toilet the name gets saved for 24 hours and when there is a complaint they know who is next to be on the public-health-warning billboard (face plus image of the mess).

  • Barry Rothwell Taylor

    Closing public toilets ? they´ve got to be potty .

    • Father Todd Untious

      It is bog standard these days. This is part of Thatcher’s legacy to attack all municipal , communal facilities.

  • MC

    The Scottish highlands around Skye are the worst I’ve seen for lack of the toilets, and the public shops in the area don’t offer any help either.
    A few years ago I travelled the area with my family, and my two little girls were getting more and more desperate to find anywhere. No public toilets for miles and miles and no tourist shop was willing to allow my girls to use their facilities; I wouldn’t like to the think they were prejudice – my daughters are mixed race and English – but even the bearded Scot at a tourist centre would give details of the nearest toilet nor allow their to be used. Thankfully an English owned restaurant chain was found in time.
    Never been back to Scotland since.
    As a hiker in my younger days there was a rumour going round that any shop / pub / cafe with a toilet was legally bound to allow visitors to use them regardless of paying for food. I was never able to verify that.

    • Skye is about the most empty place in the UK. Hundreds of square miles of heather and bog. Just choose a spot and do what comes naturally. No one will ever know, though you may be bitten in sensitive places by the dreaded midges.

  • Cobbett

    When I’m on the continent I found McDonald’s a convenient place to relieve my self.

    • The Dybbuk

      I agree. I always eat a McDonalds if I feel I need a little something to relieve myself.

  • Some Rabbit

    If ‘lavatory’ is elitist and ‘toilet’ shameful, perhaps the American euphemism ‘Rest Room’ would be less scandalous.

  • Franky

    Conservative politicians would never allow public toilets to disappear if homosexuality hadn’t become mainstream.

    • This is a major reason why they were closed. In the old days the public toilets were open twenty-four-seven. Then suddenly, councils got concerned about certain nefarious uses of the local open bogs and they started locking them. This created costs and now more and more of them are locked at all times.

  • Teacher

    Not only are the public loos disappearing apace but cafes who have to provide them for their customers are not taking their responsibilities seriously either. In order to maximise seating and, therefore, profit, cafe chains almost always now provide one unisex disabled loo. I counted the number of potential seats in my local Caffe Nero and there was one sad lavatory for over eighty covers. For four successive visits there was no paper in this grubby loo either as the staff were too busy putting the liquid unto the customers to have time to cater for its coming out! Surely, there should be sufficient provision, say one loo to twenty covers? And, furthermore, those who do not need disabled facilities should not have to cope with the high loo, low basin and bars provided for those who do need them.

  • If there are no public toilets, then it must be OKAY to pi s s in the street. There is no way that people who are out and about for any length of time can function if there is nowhere to empty the bladder. I walk for hours every day – probably two and if there are no toilets, I am obliged to use handy bushes. This is less than ideal, but what else is to be done? I might have been able to wait when I was twenty-five, but forty years later, I can’t. I don’t want to plead disability discrimination, but older men and probably women can not wait. I’m not going to give up my eight mile dog walks so there you go.