A Matter of Convenience

We are all aware of the numerous Good Food Guides available, but we don’t often consider the other side of the coin as it were. However there is a publication dedicated to Good Loos, whose employees and volunteers inspect and grade loos all over the country on our behalf, and award stars to those members of staff and facilities who perform well.

As well as the usual consideration of cleanliness and hygiene, conveniences have to ‘tick the right boxes’ to gain an award. It is only the last decade that we have seen an increased awareness of the need for disabled facilities, and for babychanging, to the point where they are now accepted as normal features. Other types of needs are catered for, the latest box on the test sheet being for a colostomy shelf, which may well be a standard feature in another ten years.

There are different categories, such as motorway loos, those in attractions open to the public, local authority, hotels to name but a few, and many attendants take a fierce pride in the services available, with scented soaps and handcreams becoming increasingly common, along with carpeted floors, curtains and flower arrangements. The awards are eagerly sought after.

The words ‘toilet’ and ‘lavatory’ have connotations of class, which have varied over the centuries. Lavatory comes from the latin lavare – to wash, while toilet came with the upstart Norman invaders. Loo seems to be the acceptable word of our time. It is apparently derived from the middles ages when people living in cities threw the contents of their chamber pots out of the window each morning, shouting ‘gardez l’eau’ to warn unwary passers by. It is said that this habit gave rise to the convention whereby a gentleman walked on the outside, thus protecting a lady from a deluge overhead or splashing my modern vehicles.

The accepted wisdom is that the modern water closet was invented by Mr Thomas Crapper. As usual this is wrong. Although he did hold nine patents relating to plumbing he merely improved on something already invented. Water closet systems have been around in some form or other for thousands of years, alongside the simpler type of earth closet used more widely in less sophisticated societies. Waste management has always been easier in rural areas, often simply a question of digging a hole and gradually filling it with earth. Seats were considered a refinement, often two or three holes of different sizes cut out of a plank over a pit.

Even a cursory glance at history throws up some fascinating facts. In Skara Brae in the north of Scotland, Neolithic stone houses have been excavated which have what is quite literally a smallest room built on the side over running water, with a drainage system. Mediaeval castles had a cupboard arrangement for the lord and his family, consisting of a small room with a wooden seat which jutted out over the walls and which emptied straight into the moat. Later manor houses had the same sort of arrangement whereby the houses were jetted, that is where each storey jutted out over the one below. These emptied straight into the midden, the contents of which were then spread over the fields as fertiliser, a practice which continues in China even today.

Henry VIII was known to complain of the fact that he was never alone for a moment – no, not even there, unless he were just using the jordan, or pisspot as it was also known. There was a ‘groom of the stool’ appointed, whose job was to wipe the royal backside. Oddly enough, this position was sought after, because its intimacy with the king  meant that information could be acquired for which other people were willing to pay .It was as long ago as 1596 that Sir Thomas Harrington invented a water flushing loo for Elizabeth 1st, his godmother. It was not widely adopted because of a general lack of running water, and like many an inventor before or since he was told that the idea would never catch on!

It is to those energetic and inventive Victorians that we owe the sewage management systems we have today. Places like London became increasingly smelly and obnoxious, with streets full of sewage draining eventually into the Thames and causing frequent epidemics of cholera. The miasma became so bad that at one time Parliament was unable to continue sitting, and the river itself was dying. In 1848 therefore, the first Public Health Act was passed, banning people from polluting the Thames, which was after all a major source of drinking water for the city, and underground sewage systems were first built.

In 1885 Mr Twyford invented the first one piece toilet, and Alexander Cummings then invented the S bend still in use today, with a water seal to prevent odours from the sewers escaping back up. The very first flushing closet on the continent was built at Ehrenburg Castle in Coburg, installed specially for the visit of Queen Victoria in 1860, and no one else was allowed to use it. It is widely believed that lack of proper sanitation was partly responsible for the death of Prince Albert, for some of the closets at Windsor Castle emptied straight onto the roof  near the family’s living quarters. It was in that same year that the very first public conveniences were exhibited at the Crystal Palace, with white coated attendants who charged members of the public the vast sum of one penny to use them, thereby giving rise to the euphemism ‘spend a penny’. At that time Britain led the world in terms of waste management, though the USA soon began to catch up.

Obviously these improved sanitary measures were not introduced uniformly throughout society. Thunderboxes as they were called, were still used in living memory, especially in rural areas, and indeed still are in remote locations. Night carts would call to empty the cess pits of those who could afford it, otherwise in rural gardens the privy would be dug in a different location every few months. It was in the crowded towns where of necessity bigger strides were made in coping with the problems of sanitation. Once a regular water supply and sewage pipes were installed, houses were built with a loo in the back garden, often attached to the house, and then – what a luxury – moved indoors.

When we are growing up, the familiar ways seem to be the only right and natural ways of doing things. It is always a slight culture shock to find that other people have different customs. Even today we consider that some continental countries lag behind us in this respect, even as we lag behind the USA. When going to Spain in the fifties, before private en suites were even thought of, one was advised that even in the larger hotels the best time for using the facilities was early morning as later in the day the systems were unable to cope. The resulting queues can be imagined. It was also a shock to go on a day trip to France in the early sixties, at a time when most people did not ‘go abroad’, for a gentleman to realise when in full flow that an elderly woman was standing next to him holding out a towel.

Public facilities such as ours are few and far between  on some parts of the continent. On enquiring at the information kiosk one is told that the custom is to use those in cafés and restaurants. These vary widely. Some have systems which are unable to cope with paper, which has to be left in a box; some have unisex toilets, and many have what is known as the Japanese toilet. This consists of a hole in the ground with footholds, over which one squats, sometimes facing the wall, sometimes facing away – all very confusing. To our sensibilities this seems rather revolting, but those used to this type find the idea of sitting on a seat which someone else’s posterior has just vacated to be equally distasteful. It has been reported that the authorities are having to install Japanese toilets in some refugee camps because the inmates were leaving muddy footprints on the seats.

The growth of the tourism industry has meant that many places abroad have upgraded their facilities. In this country it is becoming rare to have accommodation which does not offer en suites, but once they were the prerogative of the rich and privileged. Our motorway service stations, once known for the generally disgusting state of their loos, have improved out of all recognition. It is an interesting fact that women were originally accepted into the police force, early in the 20th century because in those conventional days a ladies’ loo was the one place into which policemen did not have access, so ‘lady policemen’ were appointed to check out anything suspicious. Nowadays it is quite common to find male janitors cleaning the area, though most will put up a warning notice.

Public facilities have improved tremendously over the last few years, but we still have some way to go before we can match the best that the USA has to offer. Americans vociferously demand the highest standards, and get them. Some of the rest rooms in places like Las Vegas are like palaces, with deep pile carpets, lace curtains, lounges with sofas, tissue seat covers, fresh pedestal flower arrangements and furnishings which cost as much as whole streets of houses would over here.

Over the years other inventions have included portable loos for caravans and boats, cruise ships where the whole system works on a vacuum siphoning principle, magic beams where the user just passes a hand over to flush – a bit disconcerting if one fidgets and the loo flushes while in use – seats which revolve under a disinfectant spray, and the modern superloos which disinfect everything in sight. In contrast with the fact that many parts of the world still use the hole in the ground system, in our country, where once an indoor loo was considered a luxury, it is becoming quite usual to find homes being built with three or more loos. What would our ancestors make of it all? And where do we go from here?

Chris Mundy