Picture: Hugh Sainsbury/Crossness Engines Trust)
The concept of charging a small fee for using toilets was introduced at the Great Exhibition of 1851, the spectacular industrial event devised by Prince Albert and housed in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. The public flushing water closets installed at the Crystal Palace by George Jennings were reportedly used by 827,280 visitors, many of them ’spending a penny’, demonstrating the principle of charging for access to public toilets.
Having achieved success – and a lot of money – with the public conveniences at the Great Exhibition (pictured below), Jennings persuaded the organisers to move his water closets to the new site of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham after the exhibition itself closed – reportedly producing a revenue of £1000 per year.
(Picture: Dickinson Brothers, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
He continued to advocate for ‘conveniences suited to this advanced stage of civilisation’ to be installed in London, replacing ‘those Plague Spots that are offensive to the eye’. From 1858 he promoted the idea of underground ‘halting stations’, where users might – for a small fee – avail themselves of a toilet regularly cleaned by an attendant, as well as the use of a towel, comb and brush, and even a shoe polish. Jennings proposed to fit out and operate the facilities at no cost to the cities where they were installed – but would of course reap the profits. It was some years before his idea were widely accepted, but from the 1870s he installed toilets in cities across Britain and overseas.
(Picture: Clive Hurst/licenced under CC by 2.0)
This diagram of a subterranean public toilet block designed by George Jennings’ company c1902, following his own ideas from the 1860s, reflects his inventiveness and commercial acumen.
In the UK, this kind of pay-as-you-go public convenience continues to be used by people while out and about. And in many places around the world, operating toilets for profit offers a way of providing safe, shared sanitation for many who don’t have access to it at home.