Invariably in London, you may be finding yourself with the need to use the nearest ‘convenience’. You may nip into a pub or a shop, or use the facilities provided for us by the local authorities. Imagine what it would be like without such necessities, people urinating or doing something even worse in the streets with no way of disposing of it hygienically or discreetly?
After visiting Bunhill Fields Burial Grounds I crossed the road to have a look at Wesley’s Chapel, built to serve the needs of John Wesley and his ministry. Constructed in 1788 to designs by George Dance the Younger (the same fellow who’d designed Montague Fowler’s Church, All Hallows London Wall), it was specifically built to celebrate the Holy Communion, and the pillars within are recycled ships masts, donated by King George III. It was the base of operations for the illustrious John Wesley, the Methodist preacher who travelled the country on horse-back spreading the word of God. ‘The world is my parish‘ he once famously proclaimed, and this was its centre.
A little known fact is that the basement of the Church conceals a pristine example of Victorian toilets, in this instance known as a ‘Gentlemen’s Convenience’. These were constructed in 1899 for the needs of the congregation and, as the very friendly Usher informed me, ministers who often held meetings here. Despite the electric light switches and the later addition of hot water in 1905, what has miraculously survived here is unchanged from the day it was opened. Big golden taps, original cisterns by Thomas Crapper (who’s grave Christina visited recently) and imposing Urinals which have been available to use for over one hundred years.
This room has serviced the local area for many long-gone generations. The cubicles are made of darkened oak, giving the room a baroque atmosphere. There’s a feeling Sir Christopher Wren had some input here had his mind extended to sanitation as well as architecture. A bureau for a toilet attendant towards the rear, guarding a long granite counter with old golden taps makes this look like it catered from a grand Victorian hotel, rather than a Church near Old Street. The calm in this confined space is eerily striking: a few feet away is the busy City Road yet as you descend the narrow stairway down into this lavatory, the noise and bustle of London is silenced by the gentle trickle of old Cisterns quietly refilling.
Another notable feature are the parade of George Jennings‘ Urinals which line the left-hand side of the room. Jennings is credited with inventing the public toilet: rising to prominence for the first public toilets he contributed to the Great Exhibition in 1851. For a penny (and it’s this penny the saying ‘to spend a penny’ comes from), people were allowed to use clean, sanitary toilet facilities and were entitled to a comb, a towel and their shoes shined. His granite lined behemoths remain stationary as they have done for a hundred years and more: still serving the need to desperate passers-by. Jennings himself passed away in 1882 and was buried in West Norwood Cemetery – this installation was completed by his company, which was still trading until 1967.
It seemed almost rude not to use the services here and I ‘spent a penny’ like so many others have before me, before gently closing the door on this fabulous relic. As I ascended the stairs back into the body of the main Church, the Usher asked my opinion of what I’d just seen. “Marvellous isn’t it?” I replied with a cheery enthusiasm. “Yes, I suppose it is. But you wouldn’t be that impressed with the ladies. Four cubicles and a few sinks. That’s all we got.”
Perhaps its a good thing our attitudes to equality have moved on so considerably.