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London’s Real Estate Is So Nuts that Businesses Are Opening in Public Toilets

Why bars in former toilets should be a call to arms in the battle for public loos.

The bar Ladies & Gents, housed in a former public toilet in Kentish Town, London. (Photo: Ewan Munro/CC BY-SA 2.0)

William Borrell walked by the same abandoned public toilet at a junction in the north London neighborhood of Kentish Town nearly every day and wondered what was in there. A vodka distiller and local bar owner, Borrell was in the market for an office space. “So I rang the council every day for six months until they finally said, ‘Enough is enough, let the guy in, let him look at the toilet,’” he says. This particular toilet, of late Victorian or Edwardian vintage, had been left to founder for 25 or 30 years, he says, but “it was in incredible condition.”

Incredible enough that he scrapped his plans to use the underground loo as an office and instead set his sights on opening a bar. Ladies & Gentlemen opened in January 2015 and has routinely made London top-10 lists since.

Throughout history, most cultures have maintained a strict and necessary distinction between where you eat and where you defecate. Eating or drinking in the toilet, even one that is no longer in use as a toilet, feels like a violation of that distinction—which is probably what makes the recent trend of opening bars and cafes in disused toilets counter-intuitively appealing. A number of eateries across the globe flirt with the eat-poop taboo, with varying degrees of wit and taste: Taiwan is home to the Modern Toilet, a chain of three very cute toilet-themed restaurants that began with chocolate ice cream served in a miniature toilet bowl; in Moscow, the Crazy Toilet Café serves up drinks in miniature urinals; at Das Klo in Berlin, patrons perch on toilets and eat currywurst; and Los Angeles briefly had the Magic Restroom Café, which served noodles and curry in tiny toilets (it closed after only about six months).

But those places seem to be more about the gimmick, heavy on the “ick”. London seems to be regularly pulling off turning what were actual toilets into places you’d want to visit. And London’s success has everything to do with the city’s unique history with the public water closet.

Modern Toilet, a chain of restroom-themed restaurants in Taiwan. (Photo: riNux/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The concept of the public toilet didn’t begin with the Romans, although they were particularly invested in the idea—in 315 AD, for example, there were 144 public toilets in the city of Rome. The Romans spread their concepts of sanitation engineering to places they conquered, and though that legacy dimmed in the years after they left Britain, communal public toilets existed through medieval London. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Londoners had at least 13 houses of “easement”, including a massive 84-seater named after the legendary London mayor, Richard Whittington. “Whittington’s Longhouse” was located on what is called Walbrook Street today, but was then an actual brook feeding the Thames that carried away excrement at high tide. A wealth of evidence also suggests that the act of toileting, though not exactly public, wasn’t hidden—the Longhouse had no stalls or divisions between seats; people of both sexes used obliging corners or bushes; rulers frequently gave audiences with courtiers while having bowel movements; and, as historian Lucy Worsley points out in her book, If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, obsessive 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys kept his “close-stool” in his living room.

Whittington’s Longhouse was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666 and rebuilt by the City of London on a smaller scale; by this time, despite the growing population and therefore need, there seemed to be fewer public provisions for toilets. Part of this might have owed to the cost of running a public toilet, if the City of London’s later neglect of the Longhouse is any indication. But people still needed to go: Some 18th century reports discuss a particular grate in Covent Garden flower girls would use and still other reports claim that roving entrepreneurs carrying buckets and large cloaks would charge people to pee in the bucket, hidden behind the cloak. As the city grew more crowded during the Industrial revolution, it became appallingly evident that poor sanitation was a major public health crisis.

By the mid-1800s, the terrible state of the city’s sanitation was the subject of perpetual Parliamentary debate, with the 1848 Public Health Act laying out legislation about sanitary requirements for homes and streets. Public provision for public toilets, however, wasn’t mandated.

Mid-19th century designs for public toilets in London by Joseph William Bazalgett, the engineer who created London’s sewer network. (Photo: Wellcome Images, London/CC BY 4.0)

Still, progressive spirit was in the air, along with the stench of so much public waste. The first modern public toilets were the flushing toilets at the Great Exhibition of 1851, that dazzling display of the wonders of the Victorian world. Visitors (although initially, just male visitors) couldn’t be expected to relieve themselves in the corners, so sanitation engineer George Jennings’ marvelous flushing toilets were installed for public use. Visitors were charged a penny to use them (this is, of course, where the English phrase “spend a penny” as a euphemism for going to the toilet comes from); more than 800,000 of them did. “They were hugely popular and that sort of sparked an entrepreneurial interest in toilets,” says Rachel Erickson, founder of London’s Loo Tours, guided walking tours of the city’s most interesting toilets. “Entrepreneurs started to go, ‘Aha, we could make some money out of this.”

As it turns out, they couldn’t, at least not at first. Less than a year after the close of the Great Exhibition, an ambitious project backed by Prince Albert and several other forward-thinking Victorian worthies put Jennings’ flushing toilets in charmingly euphemistic “Halting Stations” on Fleet Street, this time charging two pennies. These, however, were less of a success and “the newspapers of the day determined that people didn’t need this,” says Erickson.

A dessert at Modern Toilet also keeps with the theme. (Photo: riNux/CC BY-SA 2.0)

By the 1880s, however, following the push to furnish the city with good sewers that didn’t just end in the Thames and the discovery that illnesses such as cholera were not caused by “miasmas” (insalubrious air) but poor sanitation, the public toilets’ moment had well and truly come. In the 1880s, private investors as well as council authorities began opening pay-to-pee public toilets in underground and hidden spaces across the city; the first underground public was installed near Bank Underground Station, where one, though not original, remains today.

A good deal of Victorian civic pride went into their construction: They were discreet, at a time when people wanted to hide their gross, physical bodies, but most of them were also attractive places to be – they used marble and copper, were cleanly tiled with light often provided by skylights, and some of them had touches like gold fish in the cistern. “You could get a shoe shine and have a shave and brush your teeth, it was a place to deal with your bodily needs of all sorts,” says Erickson; some toilets would offer more facilities than others, and probably charged more as well. Most of the facilities were for men only, on the wisdom that women either didn’t suffer from bodily excretions or, if they did, would never want to do them in public.

Public Life, a bar and club in London’s Spitalfields. It had its license revoked in 2012 and is now a second-hand clothing store. (Photo: Ewan Munro/C BY-SA 2.0)

The public toilet, both fee-paying and free, flourished through the middle of the 20th century, but by the 1970s and ‘80s, they were becoming too expensive to maintain—according to a Times article from 1980, the same 73 toilets and nine urinals in Westminster that cost £516,960 (around $756,000) to run in 1971 cost £1.58 million ($2.3 million) just nine years later. The hidden nature of Victorians toilets and their internal layout made them magnets for “unintended purposes”, as the British Toilet Association delicately described the drug use, the public sex, and how shoplifters and pickpockets clogged the toilets with stolen goods and emptied wallets; this drove up the costs of keeping them in useable condition.

There is even now no legislative obligation that local authorities maintain places for people to use the toilet, so when budgets tightened—and they did a lot in these austere years—the loos were often the first to go. The same Times article noted the resulting closures, citing the London Tourism Board’s claim that between 1966 and 1977, facilities for men dropped by a quarter.

Ancient Roman public toilets. (Photo: Public Domain)

The decline left a lot of unused real estate—and as it turns out, transforming a public toilet into a bar or social space isn’t a totally new phenomenon. At least one canny developer realized there was an opportunity in cheap, but prime real estate in the late 1980s, transforming a disused Edwardian public toilet in Shepherd’s Bush, a west London neighborhood, into a snooker hall. In 2002, the place became a comedy club called Ginglik that allegedly once saw Robin Williams perform an impromptu stand-up set, but it closed in 2013. Though Ginglik didn’t exactly burst open a vein of untapped, super cheap real estate, other developers clocked the idea. A 600-square foot underground toilet in Spitalfields was reinvented in 2006 as a nightclub called Public Life, but it had its license revoked in 2012 after complaints from neighbors and a raid by police that resulted in multiple arrests on drugs charges. The toilet went on sale in January this year for an asking price of £999,000 ($1.46 million); as of June, it was still available.

Bars in former toilets could also be seen as an indictment of the deplorable state of London real estate, which has only gotten more expensive over the last decade—disused toilets tend to be cheaper spaces. In the last four years, the number of social spaces in former public toilets has risen to the point of being an actual trend. There’s CellarDoor off The Strand in central London is a toilet converted into a cabaret with a modern Weimar Republic feel (felicitous rumor has it that Oscar Wilde frequented it when it was a toilet); WC, which stands for “wine and charcuterie”, in Clapham; the members-only Art Deco-inspired Bermondsey Arts Cocktail Club; and pizza place Joe Public, also in Clapham and which only just opened in March.

Attendant, a coffee shop in a tiny underground Victorian men’s loo in Fitzrovia that opened in 2013, embraces its past: They mounted a bar-height table top through the lovely porcelain urinals and customers can sip coffee sitting on a café stool in a place where thousands of men have urinated.

An 1801 cartoon showing three women using a public toilet:”And pray Ma’am, what is your opinion of affairs in general?”; “I hope Ma’am you don’t allude to the Minister”; “When you are finished ladies, I should be happy to be permitted to make a motion”. (Photo: Wellcome Images, London/CC BY-SA 4.0)

For Borrell, owner of Ladies & Gentlemen, it was the condition of the toilet that led him to abandon the idea of an office and turn to a bar: “For me the vision was quite clear, this was a beautiful place, with high ceilings, beautiful floors,” he says, noting that too that rents underground are necessarily cheaper, though he declined to say what his was. And there were other attractions: “Bars below ground, it feels like illegal, naughty, speakeasy-ish, it’s got that rep about it. You can kind of play the music as loud as you wish, you haven’t really got many neighbors really,” says Borrell. To renovate the space, Borrell removed the toilets (although he reinstalled two) and knocked down the interior wall separating the “ladies” from the “gents”. The result is around 420-square feet of moody, Victorian-inflected bar space that only slightly references its own past—the most obvious indication of its former life is a hand-washing basin that they’ve had re-plumbed to pour punch during private parties.

But Ladies & Gentlemen almost didn’t happen—Camden Council only narrowly approved its planning application. One of the councilors who opposed the plan declared it “ridiculous” to give people a cocktail bar when what they really needed was more public toilets. The one comment on the article in the local paper detailing the vote raged, “It’s unacceptable that Camden Council has given the go ahead to turn these disused public conveniences into an underground bar when they haven’t provided an alternative.”

Borrell is, of course, aware of the arguments against the bar. Winning over the 12 local residents associations was an uphill battle, he says, but points out that the toilet was never going to be turned back into a useable public convenience. For one thing, it could never have met the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. “We weren’t taking away toilets, we were actually building toilets that we were happy for people to use,” he says. “We were actually trying to be helpful.”

An 1858 satirical cartoon showing death rowing on the river Thames, during the ‘Great Stink’, in which the city suffered in hot weather the smells of human and industrial waste. (Photo: Public Domain)

The owners of these former toilets often find themselves in the strange position of having to bear the responsibility for what the place once was; Ladies & Gentlemen’s struggle for approval highlights a surprisingly little talked about problem in urban planning: Whose responsibility is it to provide toilets?

The answer is sort of, no one.

Outside Attendant a coffee shop in an old public toilet, in Fitzrovia. (Photo: Ewan Munro/C BY-SA 2.0)

Again, local authorities are not required to maintain public facilities, although they are allowed to charge for them if they do provide them. Toilets are expensive—a single public convenience can cost upwards of £52,000 ($75,000) a year to maintain, and a standard toilet block with four women’s cubicles, one men’s cubicle and urinals, and a disabled access toilet would cost more than £140,000 ($240,000)—and complicated; the British Toilet Association’s “short” guide for installing toilets for public use is 56 pages long and covers everything from vandal resistant fittings to how to accommodate dogs.

Some authorities contract out toilet maintenance to private companies, but many have simply not bothered: Now, the British Toilet Association estimates there is less than one public toilet per 10,000 people in the country, although this figure is somewhat in debate (toilet campaigner Gail Knight has an excellent analysis of the reported numbers on her blog) and it’s hard to find reliable numbers. What is perhaps clear to anyone who has looked for a toilet in the city and been unable to find one is that there simply aren’t enough. (New York has faced similar public toilet woes.)

Some authentic features inside Attendant. (Photo: Sara Richards/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rachel Erickson of Loo Tours believes that turning toilets into bars is helping draw attention to the toilet crisis, and what toilet campaigners call the “bladder leash”—the distance from home a person can go without being worried that they won’t be able to find a toilet. “[The public toilet] is something you take for granted until it goes away… I think people are starting to realize that actually, it is quite important,” she says, adding. “It is, in many ways, a sign of gentrification that we have people putting the resources into quirky projects like this, but I think it’s on the whole a good thing that the space is being used and it’s helping people talk about toilets.”

The Victorians may have had some uncomfortable ideas, but when it came to toilets, they weren’t too wrong. “The Victorians, while they were very prudish, had this wonderful civic pride … they were meant to be nice places,” says Erickson. “I think we should think of toilets as pleasant classy places…. It keeps you healthy, it can be a lovely place to sit and think!”

Or have a cocktail.