Friday, 21 May 2010

Islington, N1

Whilst Islington today lacks any historic public conveniences there was a time in the 1980s when it looked as if a new facility would be built and named after one of the borough’s most famous residents, the playwright Joe Orton. Islington Council in the 1980s was notoriously left wing and keen to appeal to minority groups so when the twentieth anniversary of the playwright’s death arrived in 1987 a group within the council suggested a new set of public conveniences be built to honour Orton, who by that time, due to a recent biopic, had become almost as famous for committing gay sex acts in toilets as he was for his groundbreaking plays. Along with naming the toilet after him, the council also planned to build a bronze statue of Orton, which was to be placed at the far end of the urinals and depict him performing a lewd act whilst cheekily winking at anyone using the facility. However, the idea faced opposition from Thatcher’s government and the right wing press partly because Orton had been imprisoned in the early 1960s for defacing books from two of the borough’s libraries, and in the face of strong objection the idea was dropped.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Great Portland Street, NW1

This toilet’s proximity to two BBC studios has led to it being irrevocably linked to the TV series Doctor Who, as the programme’s creators originally intended the Tardis to be a toilet cubicle that the Doctor could use to teleport to any public convenience in the universe. However, BBC bosses decided that the opening sequence of a dandyish gentleman looking furtively over his shoulder before entering this public lavatory was not in keeping with the corporation’s image, so the Tardis was changed to the now-iconic police box.

The convenience did, however, feature in a 1970s episode of the show in which Tom Baker runs into it to escape from Davros, the despotic leader of the Daleks; Davros unwisely follows him, only to tumble down the stairs and fall out of his Dalek exterior. Seizing the moment, the Doctor grabs his helpless nemesis and holds his head in a toilet whilst repeatedly pulling the chain. After a few minutes of this Davros reluctantly agrees to cancel his planned invasion of earth and retreats in humiliation, but it was as a result of this that Davros redesigned the Daleks so they could negotiate staircases, something later cited by fans as a key moment in the show’s history.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Hampstead Heath, NW3

The Gothic appearance and gloomy atmosphere of this convenience on Hampstead Heath have long made it a favourite of celebrities ranging from George Michael to Dracula, and it features in Bram Stoker’s novel when Van Helsing visits the facility but is attacked by the Count in one of the cubicles, only managing to escape after he temporarily stuns him by constructing a crucifix out of old toilet rolls.

A similar method of ambush had been used by Dick Turpin the previous century as, prior to employing a horse-based method of robbery, he used to pounce on his victims as they sat helplessly on the toilet, inventing the cry ‘stand and deliver’ to sarcastically refer to his victim being unable to stand up due to being in the middle of expelling a stool. Turpin made use of the toilet once more some years later when he hid in there whilst escaping from some men who were trying to arrest him, claiming that, due to an ancient bylaw, wanted criminals could claim sanctuary in public toilet cubicles in the same way they could in churches. The lawmen unwisely left him to check the statute books and when they returned after finding that no such law existed, Turpin had long since escaped.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Clissold Park, N16

Stoke Newington has long been known as a bohemian area and its famous former residents have included Edgar Allan Poe and Daniel Defoe. What is lesser known, however, is the role that the public toilets in Clissold Park played in inspiring Defoe’s classic novel Robinson Crusoe.

Defoe spent much of his life in debt and after realising that he could no longer work at home without being disturbed by the bailiffs he had the idea of taking a week’s supply of food and writing materials and locking himself in one of the toilet’s cubicles in order to get some peace and quiet. This ploy worked far better than he could have imagined as after a few days he began to wonder about the effects of long term isolation and started writing a tale in which a man is accidentally locked inside a toilet just before it closes down for good and then has to survive there on his own for several months. However, shortly before publication Defoe realised that he could appeal to a public hungry for tales of foreign adventure by changing the location from a dank public convenience to a tropical island paradise and having undertaken a hasty rewrite a literary classic was born.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

West Smithfield, EC1A

This toilet was constructed to cater for patrons of the Bartholomew Fair, which despite being a cloth fair was arguably better known for hosting freak shows, so when the toilets were built they included a range of unique features including urinals set at five different heights, to cater for dwarves and giants, and a cubicle containing two adjacent toilets, which could be used by any siamese twins who were appearing.

When the fair ceased to be held, plans were made to alter the toilet’s opening hours to benefit workers at the nearby meat market, in the same way that several pubs in the area had unconventional licensing hours to cater for employees who worked through the night and finished early in the morning, but after beginning the project the City of London Corporation came up against some unexpected opposition. It turned out that public conveniences were subject to complex and labyrinthine laws laid down in the sixteenth century by the Worshipful Company of Toilet Attendants, and it was actually far more complicated to arrange late opening for public toilets than for pubs, so after several decades of legal wrangling the idea was abandoned, and the toilets have lain unused ever since.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Westminster, SW1P

The public toilets in Westminster were the cause of endless concern to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith as his premiership coincided with a rise in suffragette activity, and having thrown a brick through a window or hurled an egg at a policeman the protestors would seek sanctuary in the lavatories, knowing that as the male police force would not want to break protocol by entering a ladies’ toilet they were virtually immune from arrest. At the outbreak of the First World War Asquith successfully petitioned Parliament to temporarily close the toilets for this reason.

In the 1970s, however, it was decided that a statue of Asquith should be erected to commemorate him but after it had been up for several weeks a passer by enquired as to why the former Prime Minister had a shaggy haircut and appeared to have his pants around his ankles; closer inspection revealed that rather than depicting Herbert Asquith it was actually a statue of soft-porn star Robin Askwith, and that the sculptor commissioned to create the piece had got confused and mistakenly commemorated the actor who was at the time starring in the latest instalment of his popular film series, Confessions of a Toilet Attendant.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Camden Town, NW1

These toilets owe their existence to no less a figure than George Bernard Shaw, who served on the local council during a time of mass expansion in public toilet provision, and who stood up against the apparently philanthropic scheme’s greatest drawback: Queen Victoria, having refused to sign legislation making lesbianism illegal (on the grounds that she refused to accept such immoral behaviour could possibly exist), also refused to believe that women went to the lavatory, as her priveleged lifestyle meant she had a servant who went to the toilet for her so, assuming that the same was true of all women, only passed into law the statutes providing public toilets for men.

    Shaw, a committed socialist, was appalled that the Queen was so out of touch with her subjects so set about campaigning for women’s toilets; along with arranging petitions he wrote Mrs Warren’s Profession, a play that is today famous for dealing with the subject of prostitution but in its original production was about the social stigma that came with being a toilet cleaner and, as a result of the campaign, Queen Victoria reluctantly passed the relevant laws and this toilet was opened by Shaw in 1898 amidst much fanfare.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Kensington Gardens, W8

Originally Published in Time Out London, Aug 27-Sep 2, 2009

Of all the buildings in the Kensington area the Royal Albert Hall and Albert Memorial are arguably more architecturally significant than the nearby public conveniences but few people today realise that the toilets were originally intended by Queen Victoria to be the sole memorial to her late husband, as the result of a misfortune that befell him back in 1841.

     Prince Albert was riding through Hyde Park one evening when he was struck by the overwhelming urge to use the lavatory so, holding it in as best he could, he swiftly rode to the nearest royal palace but failed to make it and subsequently soiled his favourite breeches. Recalling the event after his death, Victoria decided the most appropriate way to commemorate Albert was to build a toilet but the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, argued that this was hardly befitting his royal status so Victoria reluctantly assented to the construction of the concert hall and memorial. However, to this day some people say that if you are in South Kensington on a dark autumn evening you can hear the haunting intestinal gurgling of Albert's ghost, searching in vain for a toilet, but unable to rest until it has found one.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

RIP The Big Smoke

It was a few weeks back that a heavy-hearted e-mail came thudding into my inbox from Peter Watts, the visionary editor of Time Out's Big Smoke, harbingering the news that the section was to be axed from the magazine. And this week it has finally come to pass: the Big Smoke has dissipated into the early autumn air and will now exist only in our hearts and memories (and on the internet), which also sadly means that Stall Stories shall no longer exist in printed form. In a strange piece of reverse symmetry, the final column to appear (recalling the legend of how the toilets in Kensington Gardens were built as a memorial to Prince Albert) was, I believe, the first one I ever wrote.

But the adventure is far from over. As with the Big Smoke, I intend to keep Stall Stories alive here on the internet, and to continue uncovering the hidden histories of London's public conveniences. As long as the capital's toilets have stories to tell, I shall keep on telling them...

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Baker Street, W1

Originally Published in Time Out London, Aug 20-26 2009

On a road made famous by Sherlock Holmes it is fitting that even the public toilets on Baker Street have links with the great detective, as recently discovered papers reveal that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle originally planned to have Holmes pondering complicated cases whilst sitting on the lavatory rather than smoking the pipe that would become his trademark. It was not until friends suggested the public would not take to a detective who spent his time grunting and straining on the toilet that Conan Doyle reluctantly rewrote the story.

     The nearby public toilets did, however, appear in two Holmes tales: in the first, Holmes is pursuing Professor Moriarty only for him to vanish into thin air. Puzzled, Holmes returns to his flat, unaware that his nemesis is hiding in the toilets directly underneath him, crouched between the hand dryer and the condom machine. In the second, Dr Watson is caught short as he and Holmes are on their way to Scotland Yard and uses the toilet whilst Holmes waits impatiently outside, spending the rest of their journey complaining that he should have gone before they left the flat. The toilets' appearance in these stories has made them a favourite of Holmes enthusiasts ever since.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Bishop's Park, SW6

Originally Published in Time Out London, August 13-19 2009

This toilet earned its place in cinema history when it was used during the filming of the 1976 horror classic The Omen; the scene in question featured a priest running through the park as he is pursued by Satan but after several takes the director became concerned that the actor playing the priest was failing to convey the level of fear expected of someone being hounded by Beelzebub. One of the crew members, however, noticed the nearby toilet and had an idea: he told the actor to have a rest before the next take, gave him a large pot of coffee and led him to a trailer, telling him he would be called for in half an hour, then locked him inside.

     Four hours later the cameras were set up and the trailer (which had no toilet) was unlocked; moments later the unfortunate actor burst out of the door and raced to the toilet in a blind panic, all of which was captured on film, and to this day film fans are largely unaware that the priest’s terrified expression, apparently one of someone in mortal fear of the Dark Lord, is in fact that of a man with a almost uncontrollable need to relieve himself.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Leicester Square, WC2H

Despite its location opposite a cinema famous for film premieres, this toilet is perhaps best known for its connections to the theatrical world as the result of an incident that took place in 1955 during the first English production of Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot at the nearby Arts Theatre. Two days before it was due to open, a major problem became apparent: the set designer had mistakenly been given a copy of the play in its original French and, not understanding it, assumed from the title, Un Attendant Godot, that it was about two toilet attendants so constructed on stage an elaborate copy of the nearest public lavatories.

When the mistake came to light an emergency meeting was held, during which Becket offered to write several new, toilet-specific scenes, but it was decided that it was too late to make any major changes so the stage was stripped almost bare and the production went ahead with hardly any props or scenery. The audience and critics, however, were deeply impressed with the way the minimalist set reflected the play’s lyrical spareness and themes of emptiness; the production was hailed as one of the best of its time, and the play’s status as a 20th century classic was assured.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

London Bridge, SE1

Originally Published in Time Out London, August 6-12, 2009

In recent years an argument has raged between historians regarding who invented the flushing toilet, with some attributing it to Thomas Crapper and some arguing that it was actually invented by his great rival, Sir Henry Shitter. Others, however, say the credit should in fact go to Dick Whittington, the four-time Lord Mayor of London, who had the capital's first ever public toilet built on London Bridge in 1421 and which was said to have employed a primitive mechanism that used the Thames to flush away waste.

     The Whittington Longhouse, as it became known, was a 128-seat facility but, like so much of what we known about Whittington, the exact truth has long since been obscured by centuries of pantomime-related myth. For example, in the mid 1950s some academics claimed that not only was the flushing toilet invented by Whittington but that the litter tray was invented by his famous talking cat, although others argued that the litter tray was a much later invention, and also that the cat's linguistic abilities had been greatly exaggerated over the years. Nonetheless, whilst London's first public toilet is no longer there, its creation stands in testimony to the vital role that Whittington played in the history of London's public conveniences.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Canary Wharf, E14

The towering, pyramid-topped monolith that dominates the skyline of Canary Wharf was the centrepiece of the development when it opened but shortly afterwards it became apparent that there was a minor flaw in the design as, in the rush to create a futuristic business capital for Europe the architects had forgotten to include any toilets in the entire building. Subsequently, anyone wishing to use the lavatory was obliged to make their way outside to the nearby public conveniences, but these facilities were far too small to cope with thousands of desperate office workers and before long huge queues had formed. The workers spent an enormous amount of time away from their desks as a result, which had a devastating effect on the British economy that has been cited by some City historians as one of the major factors in causing the Black Wednesday crash of 1992. An emergency cabinet meeting was called, during which John Major approved emergency funds to build toilets in the office building and they were completed the following month, but a statue was also erected outside the public lavatories depicting two figures sitting forlornly as they wait to use the toilets, as a permanent reminder of human folly.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Piccadilly Circus, W1

Originally Published in Time Out London, July 23-29, 2009

The original toilets in Piccadilly Circus station, though now closed and replaced by some impressively clean and modern facilities, were to many people the archetypal London public toilets due to their combination of appalling sanitary conditions, used heroin needles and peculiar grunting noises coming from the cubicles, and tourists from all over the world visited them to see a slice of authentic London life. For many years, school trips would include a visit to them in their itineraries and children used to enjoy collecting the used needles they found on the floor until health and safety-obsessed killjoys put a stop to the practice in the mid 1990s.

  On a state visit to the toilets in 1998 Prince Charles praised their 'wonderfully quaint and authentic charms' and when their closure was announced in 2001 he led a campaign to keep them open by attempting to have them declared a World Heritage Site; the closure went ahead, but many people felt that a part of London's history had been lost forever. However, Prince Charles, always keen to preserve Britain's heritage, bought the original fixtures and fittings in 2002 and had a life-size replica of the toilets made, which can now be enjoyed as part of the Buckingham Palace tour.