The remains of a 165-year-old toilet from the Great Exhibition which helped coin the phrase ‘spend a penny’* have been uncovered in London’s Hyde Park.
The discovery was made by workmen creating a new pump house as part of a major water project on the site of the former Great Exhibition of 1851. What they initially thought was a pile of underground bricks is actually believed to be one of the few structures from the temporary exhibition to have ever been uncovered.
One of the Great Exhibition’s landmark inventions was the introduction of the UK’s first paid-for flushing public toilet, when visitors spent one penny to experience a clean toilet seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine.
Records show that 675,000 pennies were spent.
When the exhibition finished, the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham, and the toilets were set to be closed down.
However, Brighton plumber George Jennings, who invented the palace’s toilets, persuaded the organisers to keep them open. They later went on to raise a further £1,000 a year – the equivalent to almost 250,000 toilet trips.
The toilet was uncovered as The Royal Parks continue work on a project to create a new pump house near the Old Football Pitches and Tennis Centre on the southern edge of Hyde Park.
The project will see new water distribution pipework installed to supply borehole water to the lakes, irrigation systems, public toilets and the Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Following a request from the Environment Agency, it will see the primary water supply for the Long Water in Kensington Gardens coming from a bore hole near the Old Football Pitches instead of from the Italian Gardens.
As work continues on the new pump house, The Royal Parks plans to re-cover the Great Exhibition toilet to ensure this historic structure remains in place for future generations.
*It’s likely that the phrase spend a penny originated much later when toilets were more widespread, but this is probably the original “spend a penny” toilet. Of course it was first class — there were cheaper toilets in the exhibition elsewhere, for half-a-penny.