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  • The First Public Toilet?: Rose Street, Soho
  • Barbara Penner (bio)

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John Phillips, Plan of Rose Street Public Necessary, 11 April 1849, Soho, London. Metropolitan Commission of Sewers. Plans of Public Conveniences, Etc. (1847–54).

mcs/p/013. London Metropolitan Archives.

The building was innocuous, a fairly humble one-storey free-standing structure, ten feet wide, on Rose (now Manette) Street, just southeast of Soho Square. It looked as if it were trying to avoid attention—which, to some extent, it was. Yet this modest building was also revolutionary. If not the first, it was certainly one of the first public necessaries in London.

The choice of term is significant. Although the term was by no means unknown, people did not yet tend to refer to facilities for urinating, excreting, and washing as “conveniences,” as they soon would do. Initially, at least, they were more usually described as “necessaries,” as if to underscore the physical need for them. They were referred to as “necessaries,” for instance, in the great, reforming Public Health Act (1848), in which the call for such facilities had first been made, and in which public authorities were authorized to use district rates to pay for them (s. 57). Most public authorities were not in an obvious rush to do so, despite the fact that public necessaries were essential to keeping streets nuisance-free and clear of disease-carrying miasmas. Yet, even if there was a dearth of built projects, the next few years did see a flurry of attention to the design of public urinals and necessaries.

Some of these early designs can be found at the London Metropolitan Archives, in a remarkable book, Plans of Public Conveniences, Etc. (1848), produced by the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers. The binding of this book has now fallen away, but the plates within remain in remarkably good condition. The [End Page 26] collection gathers together many designs for public urinals and necessaries at busy traffic thoroughfares, cab stands, railway lines, and parks, and in a variety of other London settings, from Elephant and Castle to Knightsbridge. They are laid out in different configurations and in different styles, but most are carefully detailed and beautifully rendered. The plates are numbered from one to twenty-one and cover the period between 1848 and 1851. They thus provide a way of tracking how the public necessary evolved during this period—from necessity to convenience.

Appropriately enough, one of the earliest sets of drawings in the collection relates to the Rose Street public necessary and urinals described above (see fig. 1). One sheet contains details, plans, and sections for the facility, as well as a plan and section of the “tank under [the WC] seat” with supply and discharge pipes (Metropolitan Commission of Sewers). The sheet bears the signature “John Phillips” and the dates 11 and 12 April 1849. At this time, John Phillips was the chief surveyor of the Metropolitan Commission. That someone of his stature was designing public necessaries indicates that the commissioners were approaching this task seriously. As we might expect, Phillips’s designs are very thorough. Three triangular-shaped urinals are arranged back-to-back, and two are fitted into corners. Two water closets are also provided, inside separate cubicles, with full-length doors and integrated ventilation slats. There do not appear to be any lavatories for handwashing. One gets little sense of what this facility looked like from the exterior, though a related drawing provides a clue: it depicts a sober Doric stone column marked “Public Necessary. 1849.”—which may well have been intended to mark this facility’s entrance, that of a neighbouring facility in the Sewers Office Yard on Greek Street, or both (Metropolitan Commission of Sewers 7–8).

John Phillips seems to have devoted a considerable amount of time in 1848 and 1849 to designing public urinals and necessaries. From 1851 onwards, however, the drawings in Plans of Public Conveniences begin to bear the signature of Joseph Bazalgette, who had recently been appointed assistant surveyor to the Metropolitan Commission. For instance, Bazalgette prepared all the elevations, plans, sections, and technical details for a proposed facility on a site opposite...


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