by Rali Chorbadzhiyska
The dull light, coming from a small closed window. The sight of dirty footsteps, obscene graffiti, broken property. The smell. Oh, the smell of urine and chemicals, and more urine that has lodged inside the place. WC. A ‘Public convenience’ of an inconvenient nature.
The concept of the public toilet is inherently contradictory. On the edge between primitive and civilised society, it is a public space provided to ease a private human need. As described by Barbara Penner in her paper on the first public toilets in London, ‘Initially, at least, they were more usually described as “necessaries,” as if to underscore the physical need for them’. The paradox is contained in a few divisions adopted by this public facility: actions’ acceptability in public versus private, the positioning of the designated place above and below ground, and the distinction between men and women in the usage of the facilities. To explore these dichotomies, I am taking into account the specific instance of the toilets at Windrush Square in Brixton, which satisfy all requirements for civilised conveniences and have yet been closed for over thirty years now.
The invention of the public toilet is a manifestation of the civilised society by the reinforcing of certain norms through the process. The first facilities with a flush mechanism available to the public were developed by George Jennings in 1851 and were called ‘Monkey Closets’. The name implies these closets were made to accommodate a very basic human need that people share with animals. Nevertheless, the difference is that humans, from then on, had a designated, enclosed private space to satisfy that urge. In other words, the act of civilising humans was to hide, while in public, their primitive nature, ‘taming’ the individual and thus cultivating society. The limited visibility made the basic act of excreting acceptable. Using the privacy of the public toilet cubicle became the norm not because it was innate, but because Jennings made the facility to fit the same factitious concept of morality and decency, to which private urination now adhered. Even though public toilets can contain multiple urinals for efficiency and people might be using them at the same time, there is an assumption that since the deed is confined within a cubicle, it is acceptable. And this assumed separation between public and private in the appropriation of a shared natural habit as acceptable within the community as long as it is done in secrecy is a show of reinforcing civilising norms.
The toilets at Windrush Square, albeit abandoned, remain visible above ground to signify the physical edge between over and underground space and the symbolic one between the primitive and the civilised society. Opened in 1929, nineteen years before the arrival of Jamaican immigrants via the Windrush Empire ship in 1948, the public toilets were to be closed in 1985. What is visible above ground level at the square now are two short black constructions. The toilets used to be painted in white, as earlier footage shows, but were repainted for the reopening of the square in 2010 despite the facilities remaining closed (Look at photos 1 and 2 in the Appendix). The constructions have small fences as if for decoration but their contrast to the otherwise light-coloured square lacks aesthetic appeal. The little gates are currently closed and the parts above ground are now polluted with rubbish (Look at photos 2 and 3 in the Appendix). While active, the positioning must have added to the physical separation between public (above ground) and private (below ground) areas purposed to protect society from visible primitivism. When Jennings came up with the ‘Monkey Closets’ it was to resolve all ‘moral and practical objections’ by ensuring the ‘new structure would not interfere with foot or road traffic, nor force passing citizens to contemplate the delicate subject of their bowels – for it would be underground’. Subsequently, the liminality of the abandoned toilets in Brixton which allows for secret activities comes from the location of the toilets underground and their limited access. Brixton citizens have been trying to restore the facilities for public usage and save their district from indecent public urination by petitions and council meetings. However, the municipality has proclaimed lack of money to fund this project and instead the ‘Former Public Conveniences’ were briefly introduced for rent in 2016 with the suggested alternative usage as a bar!
The suggestion does not come as a complete surprise since bars are linked with another type of secrecy that requires enclosure. Such places host primitivism during night-life – sex and violence, and the community will potentially benefit from separating the civilised activities above ground from the basic urges contained below. The division creates an illusion that as long as their primal needs for be it urination or sex are hidden, humans behave in a cultured way. Therefore, it turns out that civilised society does not and essentially cannot erase the human urges but can pretend like they do not exist by creating enclosed outcast spaces for their conduct.
Binary gender division in the usage of the public conveniences is another way of reinforcing civilisation through man-made rules. The toilets at Windrush Square (like many others) are separated, ‘ladies’ from ‘gents’, and labelled such with a sign on top. As seen from pictures of the square in the 1900s, the labels used to be in an elaborate style (Look at photo 1 in the Appendix). Nowadays, they are simplistic and evidently added later because of their contrasting style and yellowish colour (Look at photos 4 and 5). Therefore, the amalgam of the conflicting architectural parts is on the border between old and new as well as representing the gender division which remains. It reinforces the concept of decency by, firstly, dividing people into two inflexible categories and then assigning each binary category an appropriate place to satisfy their human need. Each person, male or female, will potentially go down the stairs belowground and hide in a cubicle designated for the purpose of performing the same primitive act. This requirement for separation, though, creates a sense of secrecy and upholds the social understanding of decency since men and women are not allowed to use the same facilities. However, it is nonsensical that these abandoned toilets had their signs changed to signal a social norm that is, apparently, in power even without open facilities where people can follow the rules.
The public toilets, including the ones in Brixton, were invented by people like Jennings in the process of being civilised to promote the construct of human decency. Since acceptability is a moral category it is, by default, man-made and subsequently influences social norms. Therefore, all divisions as requirements to use the facilities reinforce the acceptability of using a toilet in public by hiding the space within an enclosed, gender-oriented underground location, also man-made to fit the same man’s morality. In other words, civilisation is being built as men invent ways to become civilised. Therefore, what does it mean for that same civilisation when its devisors deny their own advances by refusing to fund the usage of the toilets at Windrush Square? It means that these people are on a perpetual edge between primitive culture and civilisation with the danger of tipping over.
 Barbara Penner, “The First Public Toilet?: Rose Street, Soho.” Victorian Review, vol. 39 no. 1, 2013, pp. 26-30. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2013.0011, (p.1).
Tony O’Donohue, The Tale of a City: Re-engineering the Urban Environment ([n.p.]: Dundurn, 2005), (p.189).
Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth ([n.p.]: Yale University Press, 2014), (p.171).
- The public toilets at Windrush Square in 1929
2. The public toilets at Windrush Square in 2017
3. The public toilets at Windrush Square in 2017
4. The public toilets at Windrush Square in 2017
5. The public toilets at Windrush Square in 2017
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Penner, Barbara, “The First Public Toilet?: Rose Street, Soho.” Victorian Review, vol. 39 no. 1, 2013, pp. 26-30. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2013.0011
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