Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Toilets at the Great Exhibition

Regular readers will know that I have a long-standing interest in Victorian public toilets ... indeed, public loos are a crucial chapter in my forthcoming book Dirty Old London (look right, if you want to order a copy).

It's often said that the public toilet originated at the Great Exhibition, which is something of a myth (a point I'll be addressing in a blog over at Yale Books next week) but there were toilets there - and many of the 'shilling day' people may not have seen one before. I've always wondered what the experience was like.

So, a little belatedly, I went today to the archive of the 1851 Commission that ran the Exhibition, which still resides in 'Albertopolis' - within Imperial College. There wasn't much on the toilets themselves (the official 1852 government report on the Exhibition does, at least, contain a whole page on the subject) but there were some very detailed plans of the building.

The toilets (aka 'Retiring Rooms') were located at the three 'Refreshment Rooms' - this much I knew.

The Refreshment Rooms were basically snack bars where it was intended (according to the Commission's tender for the food and drinks contract) you might buy the following:

Area No.1 (in the centre of the building): For Ices, Pastry, Sandwiches, Patties, Fruit, Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, Cocoa, Lemonade, Seltzer and Soda Water

Area no.2 & 3 For Bread, Butter and Cheese, Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, Cocoa, Ginger Beer, Spruce Beer, and similar drinks 

[click here for a full list of what was actually sold at the Exhibition]

The idea was that there would be no cooking (not least for danger of fire); no alcohol (for danger of rowdiness); and no seats (to keep people circulating within the building).

It's always said that toilets were an afterthought, prompted by the inquiries of the Royal Society of Arts (if anyone has detailed citations for correspondence between the RSA and the Commission, let me know - there were, certainly, some letters in the newspapers which suggest this; but I think I may be missing some other source).

Here's how they related to the refreshment areas:

image courtesy of Royal Commission for the Exhibition

image courtesy of Royal Commission for the Exhibition

image courtesy of Royal Commission for the Exhibition

There was one toilet superintendent, presumably responsible for good order in all three places, and 25 attendants, who - if this was like other Victorian toilets - ensured good conduct, cleaned seats after each flush and offered toiletries and towels for freshening up (although, note, handwashing was not seen as a hygienic necessity in this period; no-one knew about bacteria).

The curved lines in the refreshment rooms are presumably the bar areas, and you can see the dimensions of the spaces quite well - the ladies' retiring room in the Central Refreshment Room was about 24x24 feet or thereabouts; the men had lots of space devoted to urinals.

Some small facts gleaned, then - nothing world-shattering, but interesting enough?


  1. Excellent post. There's nothing like finding primary sources! The opening scene of the novel I'm writing is set in the Crystal Palace. Now I have to go back and see if I mentioned the "Retiring Rooms".

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