Spend a penny


You might, on occassion, have had cause to moan about the dearth of public toilets in your city, particularly London. The British Toilet Association claims that there is now only one public toilet for every 10,000 people in England but only one for every 18,000 Londoners (I’m not even making this stuff up). You may have been caught short and forced to nip into a Starbucks or a McDonalds, slinking guility towards the toilets marked with “FOR CUSTOMER USE ONLY”. Or there may be a public toilet, but you can’t make your way over to the facilities because there is a drugged-up homeless person lying slumped in your way.
It wasn’t always like this. London’s public conveniences were famous the world over, once. The Public Health Act of 1848, called for “Public Necessaries to be provided to improve sanitation”.  The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851 had toilets installed both as a convenience and an exhibition. They cost one “old penny” to use, hence the origin of the phrase “to spend a penny”, naturally. The first public toilets were opened the following year, on Fleet Street in London. So as not to often Victorian sensibilities, they were referred to as “halting stations”; how pleasant.
On the other hand, we should really count our blessings. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of films set in Medieval or Renaissance times where ruddy-cheeked maids fling the contents of chamberpots out of windows and into the street below. This was a totally normal occurance, if you were lucky, with a warning shout of “gardyloo!”, a corruption of the French guardez l’eau (watch out for the water!), and there we (most likley) have the origin of the British slang for a toilet, the “loo”.
But what about when you’re about town, doing your 12th century errands, far from your chamberpot? If you were lucky, there’d be someone nearby wearing a distinctive black cape and carrying a bucket. For the price of a farthing you could “use” their bucket, whilst they stood above you with their cape positioned to hide you from public view.
So the next time you’re getting irate because you can’t find a public convenience, or you can but there’s no toilet paper, or hand-soap and the floor is awash in (what you very much hope is) water, just think: we may be far from the glory days of the Victorian “halting stations” with their laundry services and polished mahogany settings, but neither are we squatting over a bucket with only a stranger’s cape to protect our modesty. So, swings and roundabouts.

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