Title: Point of view
Pages: 32 - 43
Author: David Crawford and Alma Williams
Text: Public inconveniences
by David Crawford and Alma Williams
A recent BBc gossip show quizzed its panel with the question, 'What do you call the lavatory?' One member answered curtly 'The bog'. The nickname fits many of our public lavatories only too well. The authors-one of whom worked briefly as a lavatory attendant to get first hand experience of the problems involved - discuss the major shortcomings of our lavatories from the public's point of view. More attention to planning and design, they feel, would result in more hygenic conditions; and they provide a design plan to summarise their recommendations.
Photographs by Christoppher Ridley
The Victorians were busy and energetic builders of public works; of schools, hospitals, prisons - and public lavatories. In general, we accept that Victorian achievements can be improved upon - but not, it seems, when it comes to our legacy of lavatories.
If it were simply that much of our sanitary provision is old fashioned, the problem would not be so serious; in fact, many of the public lavatories provided by our local authorities are so badly planned and generally neglected that they are both disgusting and dangerous to use.
Over the last decade, there has been an average of over 30,000 cases of dysentery per year, many of them attributable to badly designed or ill maintained lavatories. Whenever there is an outbreak of disease, such as the typhoid epidemic at Aberdeen, or the polio outbreak at Blackburn, insufficient sanitation can help to spread contagion.
In this article, we shall therefore report on evidence that has been collected in recent years of the failure to maintain adequate standards in public lavatories. And we shall suggest some of the design requirements that are needed to bring about an improvement.
What is a 'public' lavatory?
Section 87 of the Public Health Act, 1936, states that "A local authority may provide public sanitary conveniences in proper and convenient situations"; while section 88 declares that "No person shall erect any public sanitary convenience in, or so as to be accessible from, any street, without the consent of the local authority".
Generally speaking, then, a public lavatory is provided by a local authority, and entered from the street or from other public property - eg, a park or recreation ground. Where conditions in such lavatories are allowed to deteriorate, the fault lies with the local authority concerned.
There are other, semi-public lavatories: those, for example, in railway or bus stations, public houses, restaurants and large stores. Local authorities can require the owner or manager of any place where food or drink or entertainment is provided to the public, to install lavatories. But councils have no powers to insist that a new supermarket (for example) shall provide lavatories for its customers, nor can they control lavatories on railway premises.
When we are away from home, and want to visit a lavatory, we generally use one provided by the local council. This article accordingly deals mainly with public lavatories as defined above; it excludes those on licensed premises, as these are not generally available to children, or open during day-time closing hours. Lavatories in shops will be briefly mentioned, as there is some useful recent evidence to hand.
Pressure for change
A series of investigations has recently been carried out by several organisations, representing consumer and manufacturing interests and local authorities.
The County Councils Association, for example (which, with other local authority bodies, has been urging the Government since 1957 to provide lavatory facilities on trunk roads), has now been joined by a very active pressure group, the Advisory Council on Public Sanitation (ACPS), a privately sponsored organisation set up in July 1964 at the instigation
Middle-of-the-road lavatory in Aldgate, London: not an ideal site in a busy city, but common enough throughout Britain.
Holborn, London: another little island whose shores are swept by streams of traffic.
Of Lord Stonham, which in November 1965 published a Preliminary Guide for Local Authorities*, listing fundamental design and technical points which have to be met.
At the same time, about 40 local consumer groups, from Glasgow to Guildford, from Bristol to Basildon, have published surveys of public lavatories in their areas. This means that there have been independent surveys of well over 1,200 separate units, each containing a number of wcs.
As a result, a long list of improvements has been initiated, ranging from the appointment of one or two additional cleaners to the voting of large sums of money for demolition and reconstruction.
A few groups -those, for example, at Chester, Edinburgh and Swindon - have expressed a fair degree of satisfaction with local lavatories which, they say, are provided under difficult circumstances. Most, however, are disapproving,
*Available free from the ACPS at S Carlos Place, London W1
and they quote good reasons for their stand.
Lavatories which were adequately sited at the beginning of this century are often in peculiar and inaccessible positions now - "on a roundabout at a busy road junction" or "impossible to find under a new fly-over", to quote the groups' report. Other lavatories are up steps, down steps - "at Spring tide, it is liable to flood"-and in tunnels and subways; those in public buildings can sometimes be approached only by lifts and escalators.
Often there are no lavatories at all; groups quote recently built multi-storey car parks, all-night chemists, restaurants and libraries, as well as long stretches of road, all without sanitary provision.
It is not only the motorist who often searches in vain for a signpost ("Someone in a car," says the Crawley consumer
group of one particular set of lavatories, "could drive past all four and not know they were there"); even the pedestrian cannot be expected to find a public lavatory where there is no indication of its whereabouts. The Hull group accuses the city's past town planners of choosing sites so unlikely that strangers may miss them altogether- "not everyone knows that the surest way to a public convenience in Hull is to ask for the nearest royal statue".
And where there is a sign, what does this word 'convenience' mean ? As the National Consumer* says, in summing up some of the groups' findings, "It is a linguistic oddity.... The time has come for a universal symbol, acceptable on an international scale, together with any necessary indications of distance and direction".
The need to wash
There are many complaints about obstacles to proper hand washing; iri the siting of basins (seldom placed so that the customer cannot leave the lavatory without being confronted with the need to wash his hands), in the lack of hot water"The kettle wasn't on" - or of soap, towels and hand-driers, in the charges that continue to be levied.
It is not that the outlay on a properly equipped convenience
*National Federation of Consumer Groups, Autumn 1964
is great; rather, there is a fear that upkeep will prove expensive for local authorities, because of the replacements and repairs necessitated by constant vandalism.
If, however, we are to have good public lavatories, we must be ready to invest - in vandal-proof fittings, as far as possible, and in more lavatory attendants, for (as Hull consumer group remarks) "it is the unattended wcs which are left in a disgusting state, which suggests that the provision of attendants is worthwhile, even if expensive".
The groups recognise that the public is often irresponsible. The general poverty of amenities (the lack of coat hooks, shelves for parcels, accommodation for children, etc) is not the public's fault, except for the fact that it has failed to be an effective pressure group. Nor can it be blamed for bad structure, siting and signposting. But the sanitary condition of our lavatories is often due directly to public misuse.
A lavatory attendant's view
Alma Williams, joint author of this article, worked in a recently opened, attractive lavatory in a departmental store (Clements of Watford), well provided with customer facilities. There was a full-width mirror, for example, above the washbasins (three for four wcs), and an adjoining 'powder room' for hair-combing and renovations; nevertheless, women
A men's urinal at a pub in Islington
Cracked lavatory seat in a primary school at Watford.
inconveniently preferred the mirror above the basins for combing their hair. Not only did this make it difficult for other users to wash their hands, but long hairs and grips fell into the basins, blocking up the plug-holes (pop-up wastes are particularly susceptible to this kind of maltreatment). The task of cleaning out the wastes was a stomach-turning affair. Obviously mirrors should not be placed above wash-basins.
Routine maintenance was easy because of features such as thermo-plastics flooring, curved skirting and melamine faced doors; but storage space for mops, pails, disinfectant and 'spares' was inadequate. It was also inconvenient to have too fill a two-gallon bucketfrom an ordinary basin tap, and to have to slop the dirty water down the lavatory after mopping up.
The male paradise of mechanisms can confuse women: of those who washed their hands after using the lavatory, nearly half wanted to know how to use the Unataps, the soap dispenser (as a thoughtful alternative the management also provided tablets of soap), or even the towel unit. The word 'incinerator' for the sanitary-towel disposers proved too all embracing: people used them to get rid of laddered nylon stockings and a variety of other objects.
Mrs Williams kept a record of 139 women who used the lavatory while she was in attendance; 80 of them washed their hands in spite of the usurping haircombers, and nearly a quarter left the seat wet. On this last point, a small 1963 survey by the Bedfordshire County Council showed that 138 out of 144 women interviewed did not use the lavatory seat - though most of them said this was because the seat was 'uncomfortable' rather than because it was soiled. So there is at least some evidence to suggest that the design of lavatory pans for women needs to be investigated. A urinal for women has in fact been developed (see page 41).
The lavatory makers
The Council of British Ceramic Sanitaryware Manufacturers (CBCSM) has, for the past two years, been carrying out an impressive amount of research into washing facilities in public lavatories, facilities in shops and stores, and sanitation in primary schools.
Its survey of public lavatories, published early in 1965, collated evidence from 251 local authorities, which maintain in all some 6,246 lavatories (3,446 men's and 2,800 women's). Half the men's and two-thirds of the women's have, according to the authorities responsible, some washing facilities; in nearly all the men's these were described as free, but many fewer women's had free washing facilities. A quarter of all authorities offered no drying facilities.
Local authorities seem more easily pleased than the consumer groups about what constitutes adequate washing facilities: a cold water tap may qualify in the eyes of some authorities, but this does not satisfy the consumer groups, who feel that warm water, soap and drying facilities are essential incentives to hygiene.
The survey was not originally intended to deal with vandalism, but there were so many spontaneous references to the problem (from 33 of the councils, in fact) that the CBCSM included some of them in its report.
Cistern in a Holborn public lavatory with generations of rust to trap dirt and disease.
Whitechapel: cold water only, no towels, broken soap dispenser, crude plumbing and general mess - not much of an invitation to keep clean.
Covent Garden: this clean tiling and marble looks impressive, but unfortunately, in this case, the lavatory is spoilt by bad ventilation.
Vandalism clearly deters many local authorities from providing better facilities; as one respondent wrote, "If it were not for vandalism, l am quite sure that my committee would consider the abolition of coin boxes, and would provide towels, soap and so on in all conveniences, even those which are unattended". But there is another side to the picture; Mere and Tisbury RDC, with a population of 11,290, recently built some modern, well designed and unattended lavatories at the council's car park in the village of Mere. There has been virtually no problem of vandalism, and the Medical Officer of Health is convinced that "The better the facilities, the less they are likely to invite the attention of hooligans". Nevertheless, vandalism (or the fear of it), and some difficulty in obtaining attendants, tend to foster a 'couldn't care less' attitude in local authorities. The CBCSM survey found that the worst kept lavatories were often those in parks and recreation grounds, and among offending towns quoted were Belfast, Cardiff, Plymouth, Solihull and Swansea.
In 1965, the CBCSM ran a survey on sanitary facilities for the public in large stores. Replies from 114 department stores and 34 co-operative stores in 83 towns and cities show that 25 out of these 148 establishments had no lavatories at all for customers, while 35 provided them only as adjuncts to the store restaurant. In other words, 40 per cent of these shops made no provision for the casual needs of shoppers.
It is a pity that planning legislation does not give local authorities the right to insist on all large shops providing lavatories for the use of their customers.
Sanitary provision on our main roads is pitifully inadequate. Public lavatories are sometimes so far apart that motorists and their passengers have no alternative but to use private land adjoining lay-bye. Even if they wait until the next town, they may find no lavatories on the approach roads; while those in the town centre may be virtually inaccessible because of parking restrictions. The resultant discomfort can be a contributory cause of accidents.
A survey of 2,300 miles of trunk road which the County Surveyors' Society ran in 1962-63 showed that, in England, there were 237 public lavatories in 1,863 miles of trunk road surveyed - an average of one every eight miles - but over half were inadequately signposted, and over half had poor parking facilities. In Scotland, 146 miles of road offered 19 lavatories, of which three-quarters were difficult for parking, and a third were poorly sign-posted. There were 47 lavatories on 228 miles of Welsh road, of which half needed better signposting, and three-quarters were bad for parking.
The use of a lay-by - or ad joining land - as a lavatory fouls the countryside, and is a serious health hazard. A recent Ministry of Transport survey showed that 40 per cent of the A1's lay-bye were fouled with human excrement - which can carry the polio virus, for example, for up to four weeks.
The answer lies partly in better planning: service areas should be incorporated into the design of new and improved trunk roads at the initial planning stage, and sites for lavatories in towns should be provided in all development
St Pancras station: vandalism for just a few pennies.
At least this transport cafe on the Southampton Road lets you know what kind of lavatory you can expect to find.
Rochford: this may be effective, but is possibly not the most elegant solution to the problem of vandalism.
plans and protected, if necessary by legislation, until the time comes for their use.
After years of pressure from the local authority associations, the Ministry of Transport finally (in April 1965) announced plans to build lavatories experimentally on stretches of trunk roads (there are now about 17 counties taking part in this scheme). One third of the cost was to be borne by the ministry, and the rest in equal proportions by the local borough, or district, council and the county. At the same time, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government co-operated by announcing that it would not refuse reasonable requests for loan sanction.
Where demand is seasonal, it would be sensible to provide mobile lavatories, on the lines of experiments already carried out by several counties (among them Oxfordshire, Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset).
In rural areas, where main drainage is not available, waste can be disposed of by a water flush system, connected to a septic tank; by chemical means; or by modern methods such as incineration (by either gas or electricity)` An American firm has perfected the Destroylet, which needs only a power supply and an outside flue.
Mobile lavatories need not be restricted to rural areas: the Burgh of Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, faced the problem of sanitation at Musselburgh races, while Thurrock UDC in Essex had a number of widely dispersed recreation grounds. Both authorities invested in mobile units, with which they express themselves very satisfied.
It is axiomatic that mobile lavatories should have proper washing facilities; they should, in a word, meet as far as possible with the design points for a modern public lavatory which follow.
All the studies referred to in this article, and our own experience and observations, show conclusively that many public lavatories -their design, siting, signposting and equipment-fall badly short of the ideal. The problem is partly one of design and partly one of finance. As far as design is concerned, it is not merely a question of providing proper facilities, but of providing them in the right way. In the absence of anything better we have therefore set out, in the check list which follows, our own attempt at a reasonably comprehensive design brief. We appreciate that the result would cost much more than the present level of public authority spending allows. But if the current budgets produce an inadequate service to the public, then more money is needed - even if this means an increase in the rates. After all, the condition of public lavatories has an immediate bearing on public health, and where this is concerned, financial skimping is inexcusable.
This mobile lavatory is as clean and neat inside as it is outside. Mobile lavatories can be a good solution to the problem of providing facilities out of doors.
Well appointed 'powder room' at Clements of Watford. But it remains largely unused because women prefer to use the mirrors above the washbasins.
Victoria station: smart attendants and good layout and fittings - but at a price. One of London's few really good public lavatories, this one costs 6d a go.
Victoria station again: refinements include this hygienic foot-operated flush in the cubicles.
Women's urinal recently developed in Britain: Adamsez' Lotus Bonne Femme.
The modern public convenience-a design plan
If we are to have public lavatories that are genuinely modern, we should press our local authorities
0.1 to see that all new lavatories are designed and built to a rational, hygienic plan; and
0.2 to replace all out of date lavatories with properly designed facilities, over a 10-15 year period.
Ideally, a public lavatory should be: sited where it is needed; properly signposted; easily and safely accessible; well planned internally; equipped with efficient, economical fittings; vandalproof; hygienic; and well maintained. We shall now consider each of these points in detail.
Public lavatories are needed:
1.1 at all major shopping and communications centres;
1.2 in parks, recreation grounds and pleasure resorts (where their use would fluctuate, as in tourist areas, mobile lavatories should be provided);
1.3 in all large car parks;
1.4 in all large stores (a change in the planning law is needed);
1.5 at frequent intervals along main roads, and at the approaches to large towns;
1.6 in long distance coaches.
A standard sign, internationally recognisable, should be introduced to indicate that wcs and washing facilities are available. Two forms of the sign would be needed:
2.1 in urban areas (where the lavatory is more than a short walk away from the sign, opening hours should be indicated);
2.2 along trunk roads, at distances sufficient to give ample warning to high speed traffic. In lay-bye without public lavatories, the nearest ones should be indicated.
3.1 Lavatories entered from street islands create unnecessary hazards-the entrance should always be from the pavement;
3.2 they should be available in equal numbers for men and women; the entrance should be wide enough to allow a wheel-chair or push-chair through;
3.4 steps up or down should be avoided;
3.5 parking space should be provided nearby;
3.6 opening hours should be clearly displayed, and should fit in with local needs (eg, public house closing times, shifts in local factories); the approach to the lavatory should be lit at night, when it is open.
4 Internal facilities
4.1 floors should be of a non-slip material: a slight slope makes swilling down easier;
4.2 shelves (for parcels, etc) should be provided both inside cubicles and beside washbasins. Wall-mounted hooks, for coats, are needed in cubicles, even though replacement is likely to be a continuing cost;
4.3 at least one cubicle in all central lavatories should be larger than usual, with a wide, outward opening door and handrails inside, for the use of the handicapped and elderly;
4.4 mirrors should be on a wall away from the washbasins, to avoid hairs in the waste;
4.5 as it is likely that many women do not use the we seat, a number of urinals, designed specially for women's lavatories, could be provided;
4.6 in men's lavatories where bowl urinals are installed, some should be provided at a lower level for the use of young boys;
4.7 in women's lavatories, potties for babies should be available, together with running water for washing them out and appropriate means of sterilisation, perhaps in special cubicles;
4.8 cubicle walls should be adequately sound proofed.
5 Efficiency and economy
In the interests of water economy:
5.1 since a full two-gallon flush is not always necessary, equipment should be installed which will flush either one or two gallons, depending on the length of time the flushing mechanism is held;
5.2 plunger spray taps on washbasins minimise the amount of water used when washing hands.
6.1 attendants should be provided wherever possible, and certainly at all central lavatories. Mobile attendants, with a 'beat' of lavatories to cover, do not necessarily deter vandals, but are better than nothing - particularly in outlying areas, where the worst damage and neglect are often found;
6.2 urinals and wcs should have all their pipework, cisterns, etc. wall-mounted in serviceducts;
6.3 washbasins are now made with no overhang lip; this denies the vandal his leverage. Special brackets can be used to prevent the basin's being dragged from the wall. Stainless steel, though initially more expensive than fireclay or vitreous china, is less easily damaged;
6.4 soap dispensers should be wallmounted. Plugs are unnecessary with plunger-operated mixertaps;
6.5 penny-in-the-slot locks should be abolished;
6.6 windows should be of glass brick (or else omitted), while ceilings should be at least 10 ft high, with lighting units built in and fans high up, and out of reach;
6.7 drying equipment should ideally be in the form of hot air mechanisms, recessed within the wall;
6.8 cubicles should be provided with doors that are spring-loaded so as to stay open when not in use;
6.9 walls should be of a glazed material, to prevent graffiti.
Which? (July 1959) has shown that, even if three layers of toilet paper are used, the fingers can still be contaminated by colon bacilli. Thus, the fewer things there are to touch on the way to the washbasin, the better.
7.1 wcs should be flushed by means of a foot pedal;
7.2 wc doors could be opened from the inside by a foot pedal (or even an electric cell) with a handle for emergency use;
7.3 washbasins should be strategically sited between wcs and the exit;
7.4 'now wash your hands' notices should be an integral part of the design;
7 5 soap should be available, in dispensing equipment, in all public lavatories;
7.6 if towels are provided, as opposed to hot air driers, they should be individual
Discreet, tree-lined pathways to public lavatories in parks often give way to less agreeable conditions at the other end.
paper towels, available from a dispenser;
7.7 a combined lavatory pan/bidet (developed for the use of the handicapped in hospital) which obviates the need for toilet paper, could be made more generally available (eg, in the 'handicapped' closet, or for other members of the public who would prefer this means of cleaning themselves and may be prepared to pay extra for the facility);
7.8 lavatory fans, to reduce objectionable smells, should be universal;
7.9 half-seats of non-contagious material (ie, not wood) are desirable for wcs. Paper seat covers, available from a dispenser and flushed down the lavatory after use, would also be an aid to hygiene;
7.10 cisterns should refill within 45 seconds, to avoid the danger of trichonomus vaginalis, caused by flushing after a previously inadequate flush;
7.11 syphonic flushes reduce the danger of contagion from droplet infection;
7.12 wall-hung wc basins avoid dirt accumulating behind;
7.13 sanitary towel disposers (indicated as such) should be automatic fitments in all women's lavatories. Alternative receptacles are needed for ordinary rubbish;
7.14 opening hours, and attendants' starting times, should be arranged to allow for pre-opening cleaning;
7.15 attendants need proper storage space for their equipment, and the means of sterilising it;
7.16 floor materials should be nonabsorbent.
8.1 where full-time attendants are not provided, councils should arrange for all non-attended lavatories to be visited several times a day by a mobile patrol, in a van or on a scooter. These patrols should be equipped to clean out lavatories, carry out minor repairs, and restock toilet paper holders, etc;
8.2 if attendants were upgraded, in earnings and status, more of them would be available.