03 April 2021

First public toilets for men in Britain... oh yes, and eventually for women

Privies in New York, 19th century
Credit: Ultimate History Project

In 1851 in Britain, the Great Exhibition show-cased the first pub­lic flushing toilet, created by Brighton plumber George Jennings. The pop­ularity of this invention was such that the first public toilets op­ened the foll­owing year and were known as Public Waiting Rooms. Even then, the prevail­ing modesty of Victorian society assumed women would be too embarrassed to be seen entering them.

George Jennings' first public urinal, c1852
so that men could "spend a penny"

Seaburn Sunderland urinals
Beautiful and clean cubicle partitions
Historic England 

Jennings installed his closets in Crystal Palace’s Retiring Rooms. They caused great excite­ment as they were the first public toilets on display, and during the exhibition 827,280 visitors paid one penny each to use toilets, a tow­el, comb and shoe shine. When Crystal Palace moved to Sydenham, Jennings persuaded the organ­is­ers to keep the toilets open and to thus generate more revenue.

Soon public toilets started to appear in London streets, the first at 95 Fleet St in Feb 1852, with one for women opening a little lat­er at 51 Bedford St Strand. These Public Waiting Rooms contained water closets in wooden surrounds. The charge was 2 pence entrance fee and extra for clothes brushes. These new facil­ities were advert­ised in The Times and on handbills, distributed around the city. But the Public Waiting Rooms did not become successful.

Two famous men responsible for building and promoting Jennings’ pub­lic toilets Sir Samuel Morton Peto (building contract­or) and Sir Henry Cole (Great Exhib­ition’s principal promoter). But pub­lic toi­l­ets real­ly became popular only after Th­omas Crapper de­vel­op­ed some imp­rove­ments to Jennings’ first flush­ing device.

In Victorian Britain sanitary science, ie the study of public health and disease, became very important for all cit­izens. But be­cause most public toilets were designed for men, women planning to travel had to plan their route to in­clude areas where they could urinate. Lack of access to toilets effective­ly tied women to their homes, put­ting them on a short Urinary Leash.

Sanitation legislation was passed by Parliament in the form of two public health acts, the 1st Public Health Act of 1848 and the 2nd Public Health Act of 1875. The 1848 Act was passed in the wake of a cholera out­break that killed 52,000 people and provided a framework for local authorities. The 1875 Act gave local author­ities new pow­ers such as being able to purchase and repair sewers, and to control water supplies. So the later C19th saw pub­lic conveniences boom across Britain: high streets, railway stations, workplaces. 

Bankhill, Berwick-upon-Tweed 
opened for women, Mar 1899 

Seaburn Sunderland
built for women, 1901-4

The lack of access to toilets impeded women’s acc­ess to public sp­aces as there were few women’s toilets in the work place, or outside. This led to the formation of the Ladies Sanitary Ass­ociation, organ­ised shortly after the first pub­lic flushing toilet appeared. The Assoc­iation campaigned from the 1850s on­, via lec­tures and pamphlet dist­ribution. How ir­onic was that strict segr­eg­ation arrived only in this very era, ush­er­ed in with growing anxiet­ies over bodily disp­l­ay, privacy and rigid gender roles. This was part of a broader Vic­torian pattern of div­id­ing C19th cities into a male-oriented public sphere and a female-oriented private one. 

More women were working, familiarising society with the sight of decent women outside the home. But the real change occurred when women began to enjoy shopping. A new group emerged called the Union of Women’s Liberal and Radical Associations, campaigning for working class women to have public toilets. In 1898 the Union wrote to The Ves­t­ry in Camden for toilet access for women in the already exist­ing men’s toilets. But the plans for Camden’s women’s toilet were set back by years when men opposed the toilets being close together. Some models for women’s toilets were deliberately sabo­t­ag­ed and women were again limited by the 'urinary leash".

The population of Berwick-upon-Tweed welcomed the opening of the town’s first public toilets for female (photo). The tak­ings on the first day in 1899 showed that 62 women had sp­ent a penny, reject­ing the common Victorian view that women wouldn’t use public con­veniences. In fact it was made to look like a feminine country cott­age. The second public wom­en’s toi­let was in Seaburn Sunderland soon after (1901-4), loc­ated next to and below a tram stop  (photo). Both these buildings were restored recently and the sig­nific­ance of both sites have been recognised with Grade II Listed Status. Then more sites were added eg Nelson St, Hull

When Philharmonic Pub was built in Hope St Liverpool in 1898, it was originally used as a gentleman's club, so there was only a need for 1 set of toilets. The men's toilets in the Philharmonic Pub are now Grade I listed, with more interesting architecture and history than the building itself.

gorgeous men's toilets, 1898
Philharmonic Pub Liverpool

Whilst the use of urinals in male toilets was predominantly free, sit-down WCs had to be paid for, proving an additional barrier for female users. Even when a few women’s toilets were built, they were hidden deeply in the plan and accessed via a series of rooms. And they were often much smaller and with fewer cubicles than men’s.

Factories were producing more leisure goods which drew many women out of their homes. They wanted to shop, stroll and vis­it the new parks and galleries that were opening. The outside world had been a men-only space and now was a place for ladies. So without overstat­ing the issue, the toilets in Berwick and Seaburn ref­lected some­thing of the changing women’s social status in late C19th-early C20th; the gradual opening up of a world of new leis­ure and work prospects.

Suffragettes campaigned for voting rights, of course, but they also campaigned in 1915 for the right to serve. By WW1’s end, c900,000 women had gone into munition factory work to sup­port the war effort. And as women were now entering previously male-dominated profess­ions, they began to campaign for better working conditions, equal pay to male workers, better safety equip­ment and bath­rooms. Some employers did not want to facilitate women taking men’s employment. Gggrr

The designers, architects and engineers of the Victorian age built decent public conveniences. When conveniences were built above-ground, they had high quality materials like mar­ble, fine ceramics and tiles. 


Train Man said...

Older men must have suffered horribly. Even now, I wouldn't like to go to a restaurant, wedding, intercity train trip or football match if there weren't loos available.

Rosemary said...

I had not realised that public conveniences were for men only originally and that women had to actually fight for the right to have them.
Some of the best urinals for men, which I have actually peeped into, are to be found in the Philharmonic pub, Hope Street, Liverpool - they are now grade 1 listed.
Lucinda Lambton wrote a book called Temples of convenience and chambers of delight, and she also did a very amusing series of programmes on the TV years ago.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I'd have loved to have to got to that Museum of London's exhibition ... but must have been on my way to Canada for that year. What a fascinating post ... even now we could do with more 'loos' ... there's never enough - but great history you've given us - and I'd love to get some of that 'loo' paper! thank you - Hilary

Student said...

Train Man

We all know about older men having frequency issues :) Helen suggested that probably in 1851, older men and all women didn't expect to travel a long way from home, unless they were going to visit family or friends.

Student said...


Many thanks. Built by architect Walter Thomas, the Philharmonic Pub you mentioned really did have very fine architectural exterior and interiors, particularly the men's toilets. After the holidays, Helen may like to add a photo to the blog post.

Lucinda Lambton's book, Temples of Convenience & Chambers of Delight, sounds like an excellent "potted history of Britain's public loos" :)

Student said...


What an excellent opportunity it would have been to visit the 2017 exhibition at the Museum of London. And the puns continue.. see "Women's right to sit comfortably" :)

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels and Student, Even with all the marble and brass, one or two pennies sounds like quite a bit, especially since half-pennies and farthings were also possibilities. Perhaps another reason men's rooms were given priority is that given the fact that men were going to be out in the world anyway, they could duck behind a building or down an alley for this purpose. In Taiwan there are alleys which still are favored by people such as taxi-drivers for this purpose.

Student said...


You raised two separate issues, yes. The first is that men were going to be out in the world anyway, and this was included in the post as a reason why women felt so excluded. Even when women were busy working and shopping. The second is that men can duck behind a building and pee in privacy, which women can not do. This must be addressed.

Fun60 said...

Isn't it funny how you just assume things like public conveniences being available for both sexes. Nowadays they are building/converting toilets to non gender specific. I wonder what the Victorians would have said to that idea.

Student said...


Why are non gender specific toilets being proposed and how are people responding? Without a doubt, the Victorians would have thought the idea unmentionable.

Andrew said...

Women now have some fantastic public toilets, much better than what men have. But so many men are careless pigs in public toilets. It remains that at the theatre or opera, there aren't enough toilets for women. I was amused by the opening of the first female public toilet opening in Melbourne, where young lads with fervently working imaginations would gather to watch the women entering the facility.

Hels said...


I realise you are right but I don't understand the fascination with toilets, urine, faeces, knickers and genitalia. We all have bodily functions, unpleasant but essential for healthy living. The easier the access every citizen has to plenty of clean loos, the healthier everyone has to be.

That reminds me. My paternal grandmother lived in the East End of London and had no toilet or bath inside her block of flats. The four flats all shared the facilities behind the building, on the other side of the back yard. But whereas George Jennings' first public urinal was fought for in c1852, my grandmother was still fighting for a share of an outdoor loo after WW1!

Luiz Gomes said...

Bom dia Hels, parabéns pela matéria e comentários.

Jenny Woolf said...

A very interesting post. I wonder what the majority of women actually did...even if the respectable ones stayed in, not every respectable person could afford to sit at home, I assume. So waht did they do?

I always think that even reasonably comfortably off Victorian ladies must haev had a gruesomely uncomfortable life. Hot, itchy, far-too-tight corsets and skirts that had endlessly to be stopped from trailing in the mud... I read a book recently, published in teh late 1920s, in which the elderly upper class author said that even looking at pictures of the fashions she wore in her youth (1880s) made her arms ache with the memory of how it felt to be constantly lifting her heavy skirts to stop them trailing in the mud and dust and becoming filthy and smelly. Ugh. But when you then add in the discomfort of having no sanitary protection, or lack of washing facilities, or the constant risk of encountering fleas and vermin in public places - the bad air in cities - the adulterated food - the jolting, smelly cramped conveyances to ride in (if you were lucky) - the horrors of toothache. Aren't we lucky now?

Hels said...


some evidence is difficult to find... but I suspect the history of toiletry was easier because modern readers find the topic interesting.

Hels said...


yes...the issue of hot, itchy, tight corsets and skirts was truly horrible for women, on and off the toilet. Even in the 1960s, I remember the suspender belts, garters and stocking we used to wear that made life tricky for women.

But staying within easy walking distance of the home was never possible for most women. So as difficult as the constant risk of dirt, insects and grubby air might have been, public loos with Th­omas Crapper's flush­ing devices should have been quickly built for women too.

Hels said...


I have added a photo of Liverpool's Philharmonic Pub toilets. Many thanks for your reference.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I can’t help suspecting that those who gave priority to toilets for men were not unhappy that lack of facilities kept women at home.

I’m also thinking of Roman times, with mass public toilets where you could sit and chat, and took along your sea sponge on a stick to wash yourself... What a difference, even from today!

bazza said...

The weirdest urinals I've ever seen are in the bonkers Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, California. At one part you are peeing over the edge of an Alpine mountain (well, not you but me!).
See here: https://www.agefotostock.com/age/en/details-photo/men-s-toilet-at-the-madonna-inn-san-luis-obispo-california-usa/MAR-W317774
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s properly propitious Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


I agree... there were few men rushing to achieve equal freedoms and facilities for women, and even the suffragettes struggled to achieve their goals before WW1 had finished. I can perfectly understand why men wanted to keep important rights (eg voting, employment, divorce, university education etc) to themselves, but relatively minor things are still beyond my comprehension.

Hels said...


I had a look at the Madonna Inn urinals and found them extremely weird. Do you think they were reflecting San Luis Obispo's origins as a mission? Or perhaps the Alpine experience needs to be uber macho?

bazza said...

We stayed at the Madonna for one night because we had heard how eccentric the whole place was. For example our room was lit by 1,000 or so fairy-lights and when ordering wine at dinner it was delivered by overhead pulley system. I never saw the ladies toilets! The photo I guided you to doesn't do justice to the reality!

mem said...

reading this makes my blood pressure rise !!!! Still the rise of the big department store was actually facilitated by them providing salubrious ladies conveniences.
I bet those men's urinals were cleaned by women though . Bloody men !!!
Did you ever see a French drama which I remember on Tv many years ago called Clochmerle . It was a soapy which involved a men's urinal in a French Village . Very funny from memory.

Hels said...


fortunately you knew in advance how eccentric the Madonna Inn was going to be. Otherwise you might have had one look at the bathroom facilities and left for another hotel.

Anyhow, thanks for the warning. One day, we may all be travelling overseas again.

Hels said...


I too almost have a stroke, every time I read or write evidence of how badly women were treated.

The BBC said the standard department store developed with a look that emerged after the opening of the Great Exhibition in 1851. Many of the early department stores were founded by cloth merchants who understood the buying-behaviour of middle class women in the later C19th. So their well heeled customers were quite fortunate.

I don't remember Clochmerle, a series that came out in 1972. I was too busy not sleeping (from babies) back then.. and in any case, my memory is less efficient these days.

Dabas said...

Very interesting.
It is hard to imagine a world without toilets, isnt it?
My property in Redfern (over 100 years old) includes a dunny in the backyard...

During our last visit to Kyushuu, Japan, where we often were hosted by Japanese locals, it was interesting that quite a few of their homes had two or more bathrooms, with one of them consisting of just a urinal.
Of course, one thing we would love to adopt from the Japanese are the heated seats and the buttons to the side of the toilet: one to have a spray of water to clean your tuches and another to dry it up with air. There is a third button for female users...

Hels said...


Fascinating topic :) The world was not without toilets in general.. just public toilets in particular. I would have hated it! Even in the oldest and toughest of suburbs, there was always an outside toilet. Shared, yes, and uncomfortable in the rain and cold, but the person who suffered most was the poor nightman who had to dig up the muck from the cesspits or toilets, put it into buckets and carry it to allocated spaces at the edge of town.

Your Japanese experience was a new one to me. So thanks.

Dabas said...


Samples of the Japanese toilet experience can be seen on slide 5 of a presentation I did on "A different Japan"

Please click Here if interested!

The first picture on that slide shows a typical Japanese heated seat home toilet.
There are some that are so sophisticated that the lid rises when you turn on the lights and then closes when you turn them off!

The second picture shows the buttons you can use, where the host kindly added an English translation

The third picture shows a toilet with a closed urinal in the front right. Other homes had a room with just a similar urinal

The last one (also seen in the first picture) shows an ingenious water saving system, whereby you wash your hands while the basin is refilled