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   Inside Out - West: Friday March 2, 2007
Adam Hart-Davis and toilet
Adam Hart-Davis celebrates and investigates the public loo

Public toilets

Everyone needs to spend a penny at some time in their lives.

The public loo has become a convenient way of seeking relief for anyone who has ever been caught short.

It also has a long and proud history, but is the status of the public convenience under threat?

Adam Hart-Davis investigates the demise of public toilets and asks, "Are you prepared to pay to pee?"

The humble lavatory

West-based writer and broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis has been interested in research about lavatories for about 10 years since he made a film for television about the Victorian plumber Thomas Crapper.

"For instance," he says, "Did you know there was outrage in 1851 when engineer George Jennings charged people to use the cubicles in the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park?

Professor Clara Greed
Professor Clara Greed - world authority on public toilets

"But 827,000 people did choose to 'spend a penny' and that’s probably where the expression comes from."

For Inside Out West, he teamed up with Bristol Professor Clara Greed from the University of the West of England.

She's a town planner and self-confessed toilet evangelist who is recognised as a world authority on the subject of public conveniences.

They found concern about closure of rundown and vandalised toilets in local communities - even though the money saved was in some cases used to improve toilets in other areas, in particular adding facilities for disabled people and nappy changing.

At your convenience...

Professor Greed says:

"A nation is judged by its toilets, it's one of the first images tourists and visitors get and we should generally be ashamed in this country."

Greed wants local authorities to be obliged by law to provide good toilets and for there to be ring-fenced funding.

Loo card
The British Toilet Association inspects standards in public loos

She says that she became deeply involved in the issue when it was a topic which came up time and time again as she spoke to the public, particularly women and elderly people and parents with young children, in the course of her urban planning research.

"Some people are limited to how far they can travel by what we have termed the 'bladder's leash'," she says.

Adam Hart-Davis found sparkling new loos at 20 pence a go at the newly-revamped Bristol bus station but not everybody thought there should be a charge.

Have your say...

Would you be prepared to pay for better toilets in your area?

Bristol Women's Forum's survey results showed more than 60 per cent would be prepared to pay up to 20 pence for clean toilets, preferably with an attendant.

Find out more about the British Toilet Association campaign

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A brief history of the loo!

The humble toilet - a long and honourable history

Toilets go back a long way - the oldest working toilet with 'flushing' water is said to be in the castle of Knossos. It is thought to be 4,000 years old.

There is evidence of sewage systems and toilets in India dating from 2500 BC, and also in China from around 206BC and 24AD.

The Romans were especially keen on public loos - in 315 AD there were 144 public conveniences in Rome.

The invention of the water closet led to the first major attempts to install public toilets in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

Flush toilets were invented around 1820 by Albert Giblin in Britain.

In 1857 the American Joseph Cayetti invented toilet paper, which helped to improve hygiene.

Other common names for the toilet are the WC, lavatory, john, dunny, bog, and khazi.

The word toilet comes from the French word toile, referring to the whole body care process which included a toile (cloth) on top of an ensemble called a toilette.

Lavatory derives from the Latin word lavatorium from lavare meaning 'to wash'.

The phrase 'loo' may come from the term gardyloo - a possible corruption of the French term gardez l'eau (watch the water).

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