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At The Lord’s Convenience

January 20, 2016
by the gentle author

“Slovenliness is no part of Religion. Cleanliness is indeed close to Godliness” – John Wesley, 1791

Oftentimes, walking between Spitalfields and Covent Garden, I pass through Bunhill Fields where – in passing – I can pay my respects to William Blake, Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan who are buried there, and sometimes I also stop off at John Wesley’s Chapel’s in the City Rd to pay a visit to the underground shrine of Thomas Crapper – the champion of the flushing toilet and inventor of the ballcock.

It seems wholly appropriate that here, at the mother church of the Methodist movement, is preserved one of London’s finest historic toilets, still in a perfect working order today. Although installed in 1899, over a century after John Wesley’s death, I like to think that if he returned today Wesley would be proud to see such immaculate facilities provided to worshippers at his chapel – thereby catering to their mortal as well as their spiritual needs. The irony is that even those, such as myself, who come here primarily to fulfil a physical function cannot fail to be touched by the stillness of this peaceful refuge from the clamour of the City Rd.

There is a sepulchral light that glimmers as you descend beneath the chapel to enter the gleaming sanctum where, on the right hand side of the aisle, eight cedar cubicles present themselves, facing eight urinals to the left, with eight marble washbasins behind a screen at the far end. A harmonious arrangement that reminds us of the Christian symbolism of the number eight as the number of redemption – represented by baptism – which is why baptismal fonts are octagonal. Appropriately, eight was also the number of humans rescued from the deluge upon Noah’s Ark.

Never have I seen a more beautifully kept toilet than this, every wooden surface has been waxed, the marble and mosaics shine, and each cubicle has a generous supply of rolls of soft white paper. It is both a flawless illustration of the rigours of the Methodist temperament and an image of what a toilet might be like in heaven. The devout atmosphere of George Dance’s chapel built for John Wesley in 1778, and improved in 1891 for the centenary of Wesley’s death – when the original pillars made of ships’ masts were replaced with marble from each country in the world where Methodists preached the gospel – pervades, encouraging solemn thoughts, even down here in the toilet. And the extravagant display of exotic marble, some of it bearing an uncanny resemblance to dog meat, complements the marble pillars in the chapel above.

Sitting in a cubicle, you may contemplate your mortality and, when the moment comes, a text on the ceramic pull invites you to “Pull & Let Go.” It is a parable in itself – you put your trust in the Lord and your sins are flushed away in a tumultuous rush of water that recalls Moses parting the Red Sea. Then you may wash your hands in the marble basin and ascend to the chapel to join the congregation of the worthy.

Yet before you leave and enter Methodist paradise, a moment of silent remembrance for the genius of Thomas Crapper is appropriate. Contrary to schoolboy myth, he did not give his name to the colloquial term for bowel movements, which, as any etymologist will tell you, is at least of Anglo-Saxon origin. Should you lift the toilet seat, you will discover¬†“The Venerable” is revealed upon the rim, as the particular model of the chinaware, and it is an epithet that we may also apply to Thomas Crapper. Although born to humble origins in 1836 as the son of a sailor, Crapper rose to greatness as the evangelist of the flushing toilet, earning the first royal warrant for sanitary-ware from Prince Edward in the eighteen eighties and creating a business empire that lasted until 1963.

Should your attention be entirely absorbed by this matchless parade of eight Crapper’s Valveless Waste Preventers, do not neglect to admire the sparkling procession of urinals opposite by George Jennings (1810-1882) – celebrated as the inventor of the public toilet. 827,280 visitors paid a penny for the novelty of using his Monkey Closets in the retiring rooms at the Great Exhibition of 1851, giving rise to the popular euphemism, “spend a penny,” still in use today in overly polite circles.

Once composure and physical comfort are restored, you may wish to visit the chapel to say a prayer of thanks or, as I like to do, visit John Wesley’s house seeking inspiration in the life of the great preacher. Wesley preached a doctrine of love to those who might not enter a church, and campaigned for prison reform and the abolition of slavery, giving more than forty thousand sermons in his lifetime, often several a day and many in the open air – travelling between them on horseback. In his modest house, where he once ate at the same table as his servants, you can see the tiny travelling lamp that he carried with him to avoid falling off his horse (as he did frequently), his nightcap, his shoes, his spectacles, his robe believed to have been made out of a pair of old curtains, the teapot that Josiah Wedgwood designed for him, and the exercising chair that replicated the motion of horse-riding, enabling Wesley to keep his thigh muscles taut when not on the road.

A visit to the memorial garden at the rear of the chapel to examine Wesley’s tomb will reveal that familiar term from the toilet bowl “The Venerable” graven in stone in 1791 to describe John Wesley himself, which prompts the question whether this was where Thomas Crapper got the idea for the name of his contraption, honouring John Wesley in sanitary-ware.

Let us thank the Almighty if we are ever caught short on the City Rd because, due to the good works of the venerable Thomas Crapper and the venerable John Wesley, relief and consolation for both body and soul are readily to hand at the Lord’s Convenience.

Nineteenth century fixtures by Thomas Crapper, still in perfect working order

Put your Trust in the Lord

Cubicles for private Worship

Stalls for individual Prayer

In Memoriam George Jennings, inventor of the public toilet

Upon John Wesley’s Tomb

John Wesley’s Chapel

John Wesley’s exercise chair to simulate the motion of horseriding

John Wesley excused himself unexpectedly from the table …

New wallpaper in John Wesley’s parlour from an eighteenth century design at Marble Hill House

The view from John Wesley’s window across to Bunhill Fields where, when there were no leaves upon the trees, he could see the white tombstone marking his mother’s grave.

Learn about John Wesley’s chapel at www.wesleyschapel.org.uk

16 Responses leave one →
  1. January 20, 2016

    God honors orderliness. Thank you for the post. Interesting views, great photos!

  2. Jill permalink
    January 20, 2016

    Thankyou for letting the ladies take a look!

  3. January 20, 2016

    What a wonderful place, free of graffiti and clean, a place of relief indeed. Valerie

  4. January 20, 2016

    I love this blog so much. That is all! x

  5. Peter Holford permalink
    January 20, 2016

    Wonderful Victorian design – let’s hope they are protected. There are still a few around, some of them amazing survivals like the ones in the heart of old Hull which was an area as rough as it comes. Apart from the elaborate porcelain they now have hanging baskets! https://www.flickr.com/photos/7317295@N04/718275194

    My mother was raised in a ‘better’ part of Hull and as a child remembers the area as one where the family scurried quickly through to reach the ferry to Lincolnshire. I showed her the gent’s urinals when she was 90 – she was awestruck and blasphemed (Grandma would not have liked that!)

    Perhaps we need a national inventory of architecturally significant toilets. Or perhaps there is one.

  6. January 20, 2016

    Wesley may – or may not – have fallen off his horse but he was known for riding with a loose rein which was beneficial to the horse.(This was in contrast to the bearing rein that became popular in the mid nineteenth century and against which Anna Sewell railed in Black Beauty.) He also was known for ensuring that on hs long journeys his horses were fed and stabled and attended to before his own needs.

    Incidentally, as a child I used to attend the nearby Leysian Mission with my devout parents. It included a lavatory made especially for the Queen Mother when she opened the new hall in the 1950s. It always struck me as a totally unnecessary extravagance…

  7. January 20, 2016

    My maternal grandmother went to Sunday school at Wesley’s chapel, crossing Old Street from Shepherdess Walk to do so. The children were given a drink and a bun, which was most welcome. I think folk will be surprised when they visit the chapel how aesthetically beautiful it is, unlike typical Methodist places of worship. John Wesley is a real hero, for all times.

  8. Liz L permalink
    January 20, 2016

    What a find! It makes one flushed with enthusiasm!
    Your blogs brighten the day. Many, many thank yous. x

  9. Maureen Musson permalink
    January 20, 2016

    Thank you for another extremely interesting blog.

    My 5xgreatgrandparents sheltered Wesley when he was preaching to a hostile crowd in Mevagissey, and allowed him to stay in their farmhouse. In thanks, he presented them with the silver buckles from his shoes. The buckles were kept in the family until some time in the last century, when they were presented to the City Road museum, where they are on display.

  10. Richard permalink
    January 20, 2016

    So impressive. Can’t wait to ‘pay a visit’.

  11. Diane Reynolds permalink
    January 20, 2016

    I look forward to your blog each day, and it never disappoints. As a Methodist, I loved hearing about John Wesley and seeing the pictures. Once when I visited England and London, I walked to the Wesley House from my hotel, but it was closed. Now, thanks to you, I have seen inside.

  12. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    January 20, 2016

    Among my favorite public toilets for women:

    Goldsmiths’ Hall, Foster Lane, London (little girls would not have the weight to make the foot-operated thingie operate)

    Sander’s Theater, Harvard University (white marble and heavy chromed brass; now replaced)

    Mother Church of the Christian Scientists, Massachusetts Ave., Boston – the most beautiful outer sanctum with pouffy chair, large windows, lovely green and cream paint.

  13. Linda Granfield permalink
    January 20, 2016

    A delightful blog today (as usual) and I learned a lot.

    Never knew where ‘spend a penny’ came from–have a friend who uses that expression every time we’re in a restaurant.
    (thank goodness only at the end of the meal!)

    Beautiful photos.

  14. Sal Shuel permalink
    January 21, 2016

    Where do the women go? Did the Methodists supply such a palace for lady Methodists or were they expected to hang on until they got home?

  15. LT Graham permalink
    January 22, 2016

    What a interesting blog post. I wish I had had the chance to visit John Wesley’s chapel years ago when I visited London. A must-do for any Methodist!

  16. February 4, 2016

    What a fantastic entry! We are so glad you choose to come here and get some rest from the bustle of City Road. The facilities are indeed wonderful and we are so glad we still have them.

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