Ever heard of monkey closets? Let me enlighten you... Monkey closets were the first public toilets. Invented by George Jennings, they made their debut at the Great Exhibition in 1851. It's from here that we get the euphemism 'to spend a penny'. In exchange for a penny, the 827,280 people who relieved themselves at the Crystal Palace got a clean seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine. By the closing decades of the nineteenth century, public urinals were well on the way to becoming an intrinsic part of the urban built environment. As a sanitary measure they were welcomed for the convenience they offered peripatetic workers and for the way in which they prevented men from urinating in the street.
Historians have judged things slightly differently. As they rightly point out, urinals aren't much use to women. One interpretation is that these early developments were more about excluding women from public spaces. Although this might sound cynical, it is an argument that accurately reflects Victorian ideals about gender. It's also more than just intellectual musings; early attempts to provide public toilets for women were fiercely opposed. It wasn't until the Edwardian period that such facilities started to appear. People with disabilities had to wait even longer. In 1976, an amendment to the Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, finally made local authorities duty-bound to provide 'disabled' toilets. Hence, the story, though protracted, seems to be one of slow progress, in which our public spaces have become steadily more inclusive.
Such trivia would be great in a pub quiz. But that isn't the purpose of this blog, nor is it to give you a history lesson. Instead, the aim is more serious. It is to draw your attention to a worrying development. In May 2016 the BBC reported that 1,782 public toilets had closed in the last decade. Along with public libraries they have become popular targets for local authorities looking to cut costs. And the trend continues. At the Colostomy Association we are regularly contacted by ostomates dismayed to learn of a proposed closure in their locality. The experience of other charities is similar. Of course, we all appreciate that public toilets aren't without their problems. In some cases repeated vandalism or their use for illicit and illegal activities forces closure. But, the fact is, being able to access a toilet while you are out and about is vital to everyone, regardless of age or gender. For some groups in society it is particularly important. Take people with bowel and bladder conditions, sometimes they simply can't wait. The same applies to small children.
So what is to be done? Should shops, restaurants and pubs be compelled to open their toilets to non-customers or perhaps incentivised to do so through business rates? Possibly, but the issues are complex and demand broader solutions. While these are found, the closure of public toilets cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged - unless of course we are happy to create 'no-go areas' in our towns and cities. At a local level the work has already begun. Search online and you are sure to find details of local communities protesting against closures. In some cases community groups have even taken on the job of running and maintaining toilets rather than see them close. Yet, valuable as local efforts are, they don't tend to have much traction when it comes to lobbying central government for legislative and policy changes. It was for this reason that the Toilet Consortium UK was formed and held its inaugural meeting at Portcullis House earlier this year. Comprised of many charities, from those supporting people with cancer, bowel and bladder conditions, through to the nation's truck and lorry drivers, our collective voice is going to be difficult to ignore. The hope is that in these uncertain times, when budgets are squeezed and demands are many, we can persuade government to 'spend a penny' and save our monkey closets.