Brief 17


The Underground Public Toilet
‘ Cacator cave Malum!’ – Shitter Beware Evil: Goddess Fortuna, guardian of the latrine user, enscribed in a Pompeiian public toilet
There are few better manifestations of the British national character than London’s subterranean public toilets, hiding their modesty discreetly beneath its streets. Coyly known as ‘monkey closets’, ‘halting stations’ or ‘retiring rooms’, these exemplar pieces of Victorian civic architecture boast lavish ceramic mosaics, glazed bricks, enamelled slate, brass fittings and imitation marble alongside their more functional elements. Embodying a rich vein of history, and dangerously destabilising the social niceties of privacy, these spaces have stood at the front lines of competing social ideologies for 150 years.

Following 1852’s Great Exhibition, when fears that the many foreign visitors would have their “decency outraged”1 at the unsanitary state of the city’s population, these monuments to Victorian modesty sprung up as a state sponsored commitment to the public sphere. However they also encapsulated wider Victorian attitudes towards class and propriety, with Tom Wilkinson describing the “terror of the foetid masses”2 that drove these amenities underground. And of course it took over 40 years before the tentative provision of the first female toilets allowed women to stray further from
the home than the call of nature permitted. Pointedly signposted for ‘Women’, they reject the notion that respectable ‘Ladies’ should ever venture into this overtly working-class space. The anxiety of the (mostly) male ruling class surrounding women’s intimate activities, and their emancipation into ‘public’ women, meant that female sanitary
provision remained lop-sided (and rarely free of charge) long into the 20th Century.

There is also the sordid association of the public toilet with ‘cottaging’: men seeking the anonymous homosexual encounter. This carries a particular irony in a space specifically structured to anxiously police the homosexual impulse, in its separation of the (reluctantly) uncovered penis and the enclosure of the sexualised buttocks3. Throughout their history, London’s underground ‘cottages’ provided an outlet for men too young, closeted or married to openly express their sexual identity; symbolically driven underground.

This salubrious reputation, as well as associations with drug abuse led to an eager wave of closures across London since the 1980’s, occasionally replaced by homogenised above-ground pods. Also, the prevailing neoliberal tendency against municipal provision, and austerity-ravaged local budgets, mean toilets are often the first casualty of government ideology.

For London’s public toilets, there has always been a stark contrast between the pomp and propriety of their bygone architecture, and their nature as contested spaces, where dominant social and political attitudes are expressed, challenged and subverted. Now they lie decaying, but could they once again provide opportunity for appropriation?
Perhaps as heterotopic, or even subversive spaces hidden beneath the streets?


1 McCabe, S. (2012). The Provision of Underground Public Conveniences in London with Reference to Gender Differentials, 1850s-1980s. MA. Institute of Historical Research,University of London. p.18

2 Wilkinson, T. (2017). Typology: Public toilet. [online] Architectural Review. Available at: [Accessed 11 Apr. 2019].

3 Barcan, R. (2005). Dirty Spaces: Communication and Contamination in Men’s Public Toilets. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 6(2), p.14.