On the 2nd February 1852, the world’s first modern public toilets opened in London. Sited at 95 Fleet Street, next to the Society of Arts, the toilets were exclusively for gents. However, a public toilet for use by ladies was opened just over a week later on the 11th February at 51 Bedford Street – a mile away.
Although public places for…doing one’s business…had existed for millennia, these were often simple and unhygienic facilities. This changed in the nineteenth century with the advent of the water closet. These flushable toilets were popularised following the installation of George Jennings’ ‘Monkey Closets’ at the Great Exhibition in 1851, where users were charged one penny – leading to the euphemistic phrase “to spend a penny”.
Despite the relatively low cost to the user, the Great Exhibition toilets generated a net profit of £1,790 in just 23 weeks – in modern money that would be well over £100,000. It should be of no surprise, then, that the Society of Arts chose to develop public toilets to cash in on the new invention. However, despite their elegant mahogany and brass design and an extensive promotional campaign of 50,000 handbills and an advertisement in The Times newspaper, the toilets proved unpopular. It’s reported that only 58 people visited the toilets in the first month of opening, leading to them closing down soon afterwards.
Incidentally, one of the members of the committee behind the Society of Arts’ public toilet development was Sir Henry Cole – the inventor of the commercial Christmas card and a man who had a key role in the introduction of the Penny Post.