In 1851, George Jennings set up what were called “Monkey Closets” in the Retiring Rooms of The Crystal Palace Exhibition in Hyde Park. These caused great excitement as they were the first public toilets and during the exhibition 827,280 visitors paid one penny to use them and for this they got a clean seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine.

A few years later, in 1854, he opened the first underground toilets, just outside the Royal Exchange in the City of London. These toilets were notable for being the first to have an automatic machine (invented by the magician, John Nevil Maskelyne) which required that anyone using a cubicle would have to pop a single penny into the machine to open the door.

Much later, in 1945, is claimed to be the first written evidence of the common phrase “to spend a penny”, which appeared in Hilda Lewis’s Strange Story, although it is presumed that the saying had been around for some time before that. I can’t actually find that quote in an online copy of the book – so this might not be a true statement.

In 1977 though the Daily Telegraph recorded the first instance of a toilet charging two-pence to use a lavatory, and I recall the problems of spending a penny being the end joke in an episode of The Good Life from around the same time.

From personal recollection, around the middle of the 1980s, the cubicles in the mens toilets at Windsor & Eton train station charged five pence to use – and the ladies the same.

So what, you might ask?

Living in Docklands, I often walk into the West End, and about half way there is the Tower of London, and a convenient public toilets managed by the City of London.

A few weeks ago, they stopped being free of charge, and imposed a 50p per person fee for access.

Train stations seem to charge around 30p per use, so it made me wonder, when did toilets stop charging a penny, and how much should it cost today, if inflation was taken into account?

Being generous and presuming that 1980 was the point where the majority of toilets were no longer charging a penny for use – a quick calculation shows that adjusted for inflation – the cost of using a toilet today should be (drum roll!)…

FIVE PENCE

The cost, adjusted for inflation: 5p; the cost that most people experience in reality: 20-50p

Not to forget that for men at least, the charge was only for a cubicle while the urinals were free of charge. Now the entire facility is charged for.

Unlike a sizeable percentage of the population, I don’t intrinsically object to paying for a service, but it would be nicer if the price charged wasn’t galloping ahead of the rest of society at an even greater speed than a person runs when in dire need of such conveniences!

It would be interesting to know why the cost of using public toilets has risen so much faster than the cost of other services, and if they are simply covering costs or being used as a profit generating operation.

Off on a tangent, I wonder why train stations haven’t (presumably) tried to get sponsorship for their toilets. I’d wager good money that any company which sponsored free toilets would get a significant amount of positive reaction from users.

It can’t be that expensive to cover the costs of the attendant staff and consumables.

Certainly not 20-30p per person!

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3 Comments

  1. In some cases, it’s about free things not being valued enough.

    Was talking to some councillors in Derby the other day, where there has been anger at charging for toilets in their new bus station. The reason though was that when they were first opened, and were free, they were almost completely destroyed by vandalism. So they started charging, and there has been no vandalism since. It’s a bit bizarre, because I’m sure determined vandals could easily bypass the payment system if they wanted.

  2. That’s just taking the p**s.

    It always strikes me as odd that Kings Cross costs a small fortune but St Pancras is free, given how easy it is to pop from one to the other…

  3. Alan Palmer

    Because of the timetable changes brought in by Southeastern I now commute to and from Cannon Street instead of Charing Cross, as I dis for many years in the past. This has had the unexpected benefit that the toilets at Cannon Street are free, although those at Charing Cross charge 30p. I have always resented paying such an exorbitant price. No doubt once the building work at Cannon Street is completed they’ll start charging us, though …

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