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Toilets at Dawn

December 15, 2010
by the gentle author

Many people get up in the night to go to the toilet, but Agnese Sanvito gets up in the night and cycles across London to pay a visit. Yet her purpose in getting up is different from most, Agnese gets up to go and photograph the toilet in the dawn. Although not an early riser by temperament, “I can get up straight away – no matter how early – if there is good reason,” admitted Agnese to me candidly, so it is a measure of her commitment to photographing toilets that this constitutes such a reason.

“I kept seeing toilets from the top deck of the bus in different locations.” Agnese told me, rolling her deep brown eyes in wonder, “I find them beautiful, but no-one pays them any attention, and I find them kind of alone.” Let me confess, Agnese’ words struck a chord for me because I share her melancholy connoisseurship of these abandoned temples. Built in an era when their humble public service was considered a worthy purpose, these tragic toilets are those that never evolved into tanning parlours and are now resigned to rot – while the fetid alleys and rank backyards of our city serve as makeshift replacements. I could write at length about Pedley St off Brick Lane that now has the most vigorous fig trees in the East End thanks to all the human fertilizer deposited there. Once upon a time, somebody had the smart idea to sell off our public toilets to raise cash and now we are confronted daily with the reason why they were built.

“I started in Rosebery Avenue, where I saw the first one from the bus,” continued Agnese enthusiastically, “And then one day I was taking photographs at an event in Christ Church, Spitalfields and when I came out, there I saw another one.” Yet her photographic project was far from straightforward, “At first, I tried to photograph them in the day” explained Agnese, with a critical grimace, “but there were always cars and people everywhere, even when the light was good. So I thought maybe a dawn light could be more beautiful, and with less people and cars, you could see the structure better.”

Sentimentalists often praise the beauty of sunsets, but only a few share the secret knowledge that the dawn is far superior in enchantment, and it is the dawn light that elevates these pictures beyond elegies. The possibility of the new day emphasises the grace of these structures, whether contrived of florid wrought iron or framed in modernist simplicity, their utilitarian beauty is undeniable. They are portals to a world denied to us. Closed down and locked up, they confront us with our own conflicted natures - why create something and not use it?  The misdirected ingenuity in these pictures is laughable, contriving means to prevent litter accumulating or stop people breaking in, as if anyone would rob a disused toilet. Rather than wrestle with this knotty dilemma, we have entered into a general agreement to pretend they do not exist, and let nature and decay take its course.

“They’re part of the fabric of the city, but because they’re not in use no-one pays attention to them, they are forgotten spaces,” confirmed Agnese affectionately, delighting in these structures that are the catalyst for her elegant photographic mediations upon the culture of the metropolis. “At the moment, I have just photographed those in the area that are near to me. It’s a work-in-progress, I don’t know where it’s going.” said Agnese, thinking out loud, “Now my friends call sometimes and say, ‘I’ve found another one.’”

Anecdotes gather round these disused toilets like old plastic bottles and autumn leaves. Agnese told me that the ladies’ in Smithfield was locked while the men’s was open, drawing the conclusion this was because the workforce at the meat market is male. Laurie Allen told me he was too scared to pull the flush at the one in Petticoat Lane when he was a child  in case he started a tidal wave and got drowned. And I recall the sinister spectacle of the one in Whitechapel being pumped with concrete as a praecursor to obliteration, as if it never existed.

Let us applaud photographer Agnese Sanvito for recognising the poetry in this most unpromising of locations. She may not yet know where this is going, but I hope I may presume to ask readers to suggest more subterranean lavatorial locations for Agnese’ elegant lense to focus upon.

Petticoat Lane

Petticoat Lane

Bishopsgate

Smithfield

Clerkenwell Green

Rosebery Avenue/Farringdon

Rosebery Avenue/Farringdon

Rosebery Avenue/Clerkenwell Rd

Stamford Hill

Stamford Hill

Lambs Conduit St

Lambs Conduit St

Kentish Town

Foley St

Foley St

Photographs copyright © Agnese Sanvito

15 Responses leave one →
  1. December 15, 2010

    What a marvellous piece, and how wonderful of Agnese to pursue this early morning calling!

  2. December 15, 2010

    It really is fascinating the abandonment of something so crucial. Great piece as always and wonderful photos.

    Agnese there is another on the five ways at Kennington Cross that I see almost daily that would respond well to your lens.

  3. December 15, 2010

    What a wonderfully unique and intriguing project.
    I have often admired the beautiful metalwork at some of these disused toilets but never ever thought to record it, in this way.
    Love the idea!

  4. Rebecca permalink
    December 15, 2010

    As always with your bulletins, a lesson in the power of looking. My morning is improved.

  5. Gary permalink
    December 15, 2010

    Very interesting. In a few years time when these loo’s have gone, this will be a valued archive
    Gary

  6. Ros permalink
    December 15, 2010

    I loved this one – excellent reporting and evocative pictures. Think the Smithfield one is still extant by the way.

  7. Ash permalink
    December 17, 2010

    amongst dozens of other spots, a few that stick out are the bogs at Blackheath Standard (only closed a few months ago), Greenwich – as a reminder of what these Victorian loos were like when open, and the ones at New Cross gate for their fantastic ironwork. Also interesting are the ‘ghost toilets’, areas where there were once loos that were filled in many years ago, such as the junction by ‘The Graduate’ pub in Greenwich, or the reuse of toilets as bars, such as the ‘Underwriter’ in the city. not that I intend to loiter upon the subject.

  8. December 19, 2010

    a.m.a.z.i.n.g !!

    foley st loos are very posh, what an amazing insight into forgotten spaces.

  9. December 22, 2010

    There’s one that’s still open in Bevington Road W10:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/trailerfullofpix/3979641037/

  10. Alena C.T. permalink
    January 10, 2011

    I had no idea that this was a loo once a pone time in Rosebery Avenue/Clerkenwell Rd. I’ve lived in the area for 10 years. Often wondered what it was ‘cos on the other side of the road there is a similar entrance to a beauty salon.

  11. January 26, 2011

    i guess one can say that agnese is taking the piss out of these loos

  12. TokyoDon permalink
    April 20, 2011

    Here’s another candidate for you:

    http://sosogay.org/2011/date-places-cellar-door/

    Don’t know whether it was really frequented by Oscar Wilde but a nice story nonetheless.

  13. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    April 3, 2015

    So what are people supposed to do now??? How totally inconsiderate of the powers-that-be to close down these essential facilities! I remember the paper in the one in Kentish Town Road: “COUNCIL PROPERTY / DO NOT REMOVE”

  14. leslie holeyman permalink
    April 3, 2015

    there is no reason why these toilets could be not reopened for public use. A small grant for a discerning businessman/woman for a general clean and paint up and man them and charge 50 pence for their usage. £1 up the West End, nice little money spinner for someone.

  15. Chris Kelly permalink
    October 1, 2016

    Great article, I see that planning permission has been requested for Lambs Conduit St, change to a shop / restaurant, sign of the times I guess, Camden council needs the money ..

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