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Wednesday 2 February 2011

“Spending a Penny”: Or The First Public Flushing Toilets - Open on This Day in 1852

Of all the technological feats and wondrous designs to come out of The Great Exhibition of 1851, there is one invention that we still use regularly today without even thinking about its ingenuity, to many, this will, at some stage or other, have been a life-saver – particularly after a lunch time drink…

At the Exhibition, a man named George Jennings, a Brighton plumber, installed his so-called ‘Monkey Closets’ in the Retiring Rooms of The Crystal Palace. These ‘Monkey Closets’ caused great excitement as they were the first public toilets anyone had ever seen, and during the exhibition 827,280 visitors paid one penny each to use them. For ‘spending a penny’, they received a clean seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine. 

George Jennings
When the exhibition finished and the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham, the toilets were set to be closed down. Jennings, however, persuaded the organisers to keep them open. They agreed, and the penny toilets went on to generate revenue of over £1000 a year.

After the success of Jennings’s Crystal Palace lavatories, public toilets started to appear in the streets, the first of these being at 95, Fleet Street, London, next to the Society of Art on 2nd February 1852, with one for women opening a little later, on the 11th February at 51 Bedford Street, Strand, London. These ‘Public Waiting Rooms’ contained water closets in wooden surrounds.
The charge was 2 pence entrance fee and extra for washing or clothes brushes. These new facilities were advertised The Times and on handbills, distributed around the city. These ‘Public Waiting Rooms’ however, did not become successful, and were eventually abandoned due to their unpopularity with the public, and the awkward design of the lavatory and flushing technique.

Henry Cole
Samuel Peto
The men responsible for building and promoting Jennings’ public conveniences – Sir Samuel Morton Peto (a building contractor who had erected Nelson’s Column and built the Reform Club, Lyceum Theatre and a few other London buildings) Sir Henry Cole (one of the Great Exhibition’s principal promoters and inventor of the commercial Christmas card) thought that the scheme would be extremely profitable. It wasn’t.
Public toilets only really became popular after Mr. Thomas Crapper developed some improvements to Jennings’ initial flushing mechanism, which promised “a certain flush with every pull”, these improvements did a lot to increase the popularity of the public toilet. Crapper also developed some other important toilet - related inventions, such as the ballcock. (He is often mistakenly credited with inventing the flush toilet, but he merely improved its functionality)

George Jennings died on the 17 April 1882 in a traffic accident, when the horse pulling his cart shied, and threw him across the road into a dust cart. He sustained minor injuries and a broken collar bone. Later, he appeared to be healing well until he suffered a congestion of the lungs and died. He was aged 72.

Thomas Crapper
His company continued its work, now being run by his son, and by 1895, with a new improved method of flushing in place, it had provided the public toilets for 36 British towns, and they could also be found in Paris, Florence, Berlin, Madrid, and Sydney as well as far-flung destinations in South America and the Far East. 

The designers, architects and engineers of the Victorian age built public conveniences to a very high standard. When conveniences were to be above ground, they were built to be aesthetically pleasing, and built with high quality materials such as marble and copper, and furnished with fine ceramics and tiles.

Not many original Victorian public toilets survive today, in London they are recognizable by the fine and fancy railing work above ground, with steps leading under street-level.
If anyone knows of any surviving I’d love to hear about them.


  1. Very interesting, clearing up some misconceptions I had!

  2. Thanks,

    See also this from Lee Jackson's with regards to the rules of the public toilets:

    Not an interesting subject on the surface, but, like most things in history, as you dig deeper and get your hands dirty (pardon the phrase) there's interesting things to be read on the subject!

  3. Thanks for saying so, and for looking and leaving a comment!

  4. Wonderful and informative.
    I must admit this is an unhealthy interest of mine, and I have tried to snap as many public toilets as I can on my travels.
    The Victorian Birmingham examples are now listed, thankfully

  5. I love the title 'Remnants of Grandeur'

    I should have asked you to write this post for me! It's interesting that posts that I take ages over on subjects that I deem 'weighty' (the death of Queen Victoria for example) always seem to be eclipsed in popularity by 'lighter' subjects such as toilets and runaway elephants!

    Thanks for your interest and the link to your pictures, some lovely examples!

  6. I'm sorry it's taken a scatological post to get me across to comment, but I found this rather fascinating.

  7. I must admit, I didn't expect all these comments and such interest in a post about toilets! It seems in the end that everyone enjoys such base level topics. Glad I'm not the only one to be found giggling at the back of the class...

    Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

  8. I have to make a correction to your post in regard to the Society of Arts. Its headquarters are in John Adam Street not Fleet Street, and the Society was reponsible for these first public conveniences. See my article from the RSA Journal pasted below;

    Among its many pioneering endeavours, the Society sought to establish a system of public lavatories in London for reasons of health. Noting the success of the public conveniences provided at the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Society's Council, at its meeting on 14 May 1851, resolved that 'The following Noble¬men and Gentlemen be requested to act as a committee for the purpose of establishing some model water closets on the self supporting principle: The Earl of Carlisle; the Earl Granville; S.M. Peto, Esq; Henry Cole, Esq; C.W. Dilke, Esq.'
    Ten days later the Committee produced a printed list of regulations which would govern their attempt to prove that 'Public conveniences, so much wanted, may be self support¬ing'. These 'Public Waiting Rooms', as they were euphemis¬tically called, were to be established for both men and women on opposite sides of the street, close to shops in public thoroughfares. Each 'Public Waiting Room' was to have a Superintendent and two Attendants whose services would be included in the charge. There would also be 'Two classes of water closets and urinals' at a charge of one and two pennies, and the provision of a 'lavatory' for washing hands, brushes, etc. at a charge of two or three pence. The final clause to these regulations was that 'The Police should be requested to cause these establishments to be visited from time to time'.
    One of the committee, (later Sir) Samuel Peto (1809-1889) undertook to bear the expense of two experimental 'waiting

    rooms'; Mr Minton promised 24 earthenware urinals and a number of encaustic tiles and Mr J. Ridgway was willing to present some of his new 'fountain washhand-stands'.
    The two experimental 'public waiting rooms' opened in February 1852, for ladies at 51 Bedford Street, Strand and for men at 95 Fleet Street, with an entrance fee of twopence. This facility was advertised in The Times three times a week for a month and 50,000 handbills were distributed.
    Unfortunately, the experiment was not a success, only 58 men and 24 women used the rooms during the month. In April, the entrance fee was reduced to one penny but after six months, the receipts for both rooms totalled only £15 135 nd, while expenditure amounted to ^492 175 4d. Mr Peto stood by his pledge and paid the balance of this debt and the 'waiting rooms' were closed.
    The experiment at least disproved the theory that public conveniences could be 'self supporting' and, by drawing attention to the need for such places, the City Corporation was encouraged to take up the scheme of their City Engineer, William Haywood (1821 — 1894), to establish a system of underground conveniences.

  9. Many thanks Susan,

    Glad there are expert folk out there keeping a watchful eye on these things, and I appreciate you including your article, too.
    I'll look into the work of William Haywood & his underground conveniences.

    Thanks again for looking, and for posting your great comment!

  10. Does anyone know any good 'names' on urinals? I saw an image called 'The Thunderer' on Google, and wonder if anyone knows where I can find some more?


  11. Hopefully someone with a keen eye can help...

  12. Not a name for urinals per se but some victorian gents have an image of an insect called an 'apis' (get it?)

    I'm fascinated with anything and everything to do with public conveniences, and found this article while researching for a tour of London Public toilets, which might be of interest to people who have posted here. Thanks for helping to inspire that.

  13. we have a public toilet in pontefract . i want to raise its profile, make it more appealing

  14. we all need loos.basic to our comfort and health. in our beautiful england there often seems to be a rather odd attitude toward the public toilet,and the attendant who cares for those conveniences. cleaned every day and regularly checked, they are more hygenic than some hospitals yet they are often misused and abused by the very people who need them most. when they were started in 1850 they cost one old penny to use.( a lot then) now its 20pee.
    support our one public "comfort station" USE IT OR LOSE IT !


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  21. There's a toilet in Wesleys chapel in London, opposite Bunhill Fields, that's got a plaque about being the first. Next time I'm nearby I'll go and have another look. Do you know of that one ?

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