The independent London newspaper

Public toilets: an inconvenient truth

18 April, 2017 — By John Gulliver

The first public toilet for women, in Parkway, currently closed

PUBLIC toilets are in the news – and I am glad because it gives me a chance to write about the women’s toilets in Camden Town as well as those special “gender neutral” ones at the Barbican cinema that have caused such an online row.

But first, the women’s public toilet in Camden Town, which I believe illustrates local government ideals at their best.

Before you think I am getting carried away with myself, may I tell you that the Ladies at the foot of Parkway was probably the first public women’s toilet in the capital.

And it came about because the great dramatist George Bernard Shaw argued for hours to convince his fellow councillors – then known as “vestrymen” – in the St Pancras local authority at the start of the last century that a toilet specially designated for women was essential in Camden Town.

It took all the debating skills of the great writer, who was no mean orator, to get his colleagues to agree but they eventually fell into line.

George Bernard Shaw

I still cannot fathom why GBS – then at the height of his fame in the late 1890s – sank himself into parochial politics but he did.

His biographer Michael Holroyd believes he wanted to discover how possible it was to persuade politicians to act in the public interest. A little like the way his character Professor Higgins in his hit play Pygmalion (or in the musical version, My Fair Lady) set about transforming the life of the flower-seller.

Neglected for years, the toilets, as well as the men’s convenience opposite in Camden High Street, have been in an appalling state.

The other week I used the men’s toilet – probably in a similar condition to the women’s – and saw their filthy condition.

I have been in contact with councillors responsible for the upkeep of public toilets and suggested they make a bit of a party of the re-opening of the toilets now closed for refurbishment.

They could put up a plaque telling the GBS story behind the women’s toilet and invite Michael Holroyd to perform the opening ceremony.

New ‘gender neutral’ toilets at the Barbican – ‘with urinals and cubicals’, right, and ‘cubicles only’

Why not? Let’s draw a crowd on the big day and give people a history lesson at the same time.

Not so popular, I think, are the “gender neutral” toilets at the Barbican, which arose out of what is perceived to be a need to have “friendly trans-gender toilets”.

The Barbican row started when the toilets outside Cinema 1 were renamed “Gender neutral with urinals and cubicles” and “Gender neutral cubicles only”.

BBC journalist Samira Ahmed had tweeted that women now have to queue longer because they feel uncomfortable using the “cubicles”.

She told a colleague that men now use both toilets, adding: “Why do women lose our space to men?”

Perplexed, the Barbican has admitted the new idea has “practical limitations” and that it would be seeking further advice.

The fact is that there is a campaign to de-sex public WCs. I assume Camden won’t follow suit.

But don’t put the sudden need for trans-gender toilets solely down to fashionable metropolitan politics.

I encountered it in Durham, of all places, a year ago during the Miners’ Gala when I dashed into a pub to use its toilets – and found the old-fashioned crowded lavatory full of cubicles and urinals, with men and women fighting for space. I came out a bit shell-shocked!


Share this story

Post a comment