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Agnese Sanvito’s Toilets At Dawn

January 21, 2016
by the gentle author

Acknowledging that, in Spitalfields, where once you could spend a penny, the toilet itself is now on sale for one million pounds, here are Agnes Sanvito’s moody and lyrical portraits of former public conveniences at sunrise

Former public convenience in Spitalfields on sale for one million pounds

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. 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 pitiful, 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 falling 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 full 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 know I may presume to ask readers to suggest more subterranean lavatorial locations for Agnese’ lense to focus on.

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

Click here if you are interested to buy the toilet in Spitalfields

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At the Lord’s Convenience

30 Responses leave one →
  1. Geraldine Moyle permalink
    January 21, 2016

    For Agnes:
    The Grade II-listed Victorian urinal in Star Yard. Most easily reached from the intersection with Carey Street, one block north of the Strand via Bell Yard.

  2. January 21, 2016

    Sad to see all these lavatories sealed off and abandoned. Where are people supposed to go when they need to go? It’s the same story here, but in the little place where I live we still have one built into an historic building between the river and the basilica. I hope it will survive! Valerie

  3. Doreen Fletcher permalink
    January 21, 2016

    Lovely images, if that is an appropriate adjective to use to refer to photo of Public Conveniences! My favourite is the first photo of Stamford Hill which has an unearthly, ethereal quality. You are well rewarded for the effort of getting up in the middle of the night.

    There is Agnese ( or there was a few months ago), a well-preserved WC right at the end of Queensway W2 near the newly opened Heal’s.

  4. Jill permalink
    January 21, 2016

    The Foley Street one looks like a medieval reliquary, fascinating.

  5. Rhianwen permalink
    January 21, 2016

    What a tragic, yet heartening, post. Good to know somebody cares enough to document these lonely WCs. Often such elegant wrought iron structures, apart from the waste of a convenience with such a worthy use…

    I wonder whether Agnese knows of this happier story – a toilet put to good use (not filled in at least) and renovated in Crystal Palace…

    http://crystalpalacetoilets.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/completed.html?m=1

  6. Donald Patsnips permalink
    January 21, 2016

    Great idea , lovely series of photographs .
    Taken at the earliest convenience I presume !

  7. Vanda Human permalink
    January 21, 2016

    Would love to see the inside of the toilets, perhaps marble fittings. I remember using the toilets in our town when I was a small child. They were always so clean and beautiful and manned by an elderly lady who always had change handy if needed. Those were the days, if they were still open now guess the walls would be full of graffiti.

  8. January 21, 2016

    Foley Street carapace is so beautiful!

    I’m sure you know about the one off Portobello / outside Rough Trade, but just in case…

    What a good project

  9. January 21, 2016

    Theres a goodie on the corner of Golborne Road & Portobello road which I’ve occasionally photographed.

  10. January 21, 2016

    A good follow-on by Agnese , from the Thomas Crapper toilet piece. There is passion by the author. Yes as we see here, the old Victorian toilets are still around with cast iron décor often appearing as ‘shrine like’ edifice’s upward bound. Some in the country have been upgraded with a warm and inviting atmosphere, an attendant is on duty; but it will cost you. A few have been sold on as living quarters. I do like the frequency of toilets at Kew Gardens just get off the road train and pop in, after have a drink from a water fountain; well done Kew. I wonder in the 1939-45 blitzkrieg period if the old underground toilets in the Spitalfields area, were used by some as air-raid shelters, I suspect they were. There is another story line here. JB.

  11. Lesley permalink
    January 21, 2016

    These premises could be put to good use as drop in cafes/night shelters/social enterprise projects or by community interest companies. If only…….
    I remember ladies public conveniences in the 1950s and 60s when they were little oases of comfort and cleanliness, presided over by an attendant with a nice line in decorative touches. Her office like a parlour with armchair, rug,electric fire and curtains, not forgetting the plastic flowers that also adorned the washbasins. She would survey her kingdom from within with an eagle eye when she was not bustling about with mop and bucket. Excellent value for 1d.

  12. Robert Green permalink
    January 21, 2016

    This is a poignant reminder to me of an aspect of London life that I lament, 19 years to the day my father died and this brings back memories of our times walking the streets of East London together as we used to do on a nightly basis, up until the late 1970s and even into the 80s most of these public conveniences wer still in use and on our regular strolls around the East End my father being of advancing years would enevitably at some stage of our walk require the need to use one of these public conveniences, almost comically regardless of what area we wer in my father would know the exact location of all the public toilets and quiet often he would even plan the route of our walk to coincide with their positions, in those days most of these facilities would have a caretaker and in the ones we would visit most frequently we even got to know many of the men who looked after them most of whom would pride themselves on the state of cleanliness of the toilets and could often be found polishing the exposed pipework or moping the floor with the distinctive smell of disinfectant, I find it quiet sad that such a valuable public service has been allowed to quietly vanish from the streets of the Capitol largely unnoticed, I do hope that Agnese Sanvito go’s along to photograph the one at Bow Rd in front of the church, it has been disused for decades but is still clearly visable and intact, it was one of my fathers favorites ! ! ! !

  13. Malcolm permalink
    January 21, 2016

    There used to be lots of these in the City. Lucinda Lambton’s book “Temples of Convenience” contains quite a few photographs of them.
    I remember the beautiful toilets at Bank Station and the toilets that used to be outside the Guildhall. They were demolished when the new Guildhall Art Gallery was built. I’ve got some photographs of them somewhere…

  14. Juliet Wrightson permalink
    January 21, 2016

    There should be an association for the preservation of same. The cattle trough association morphed into the drinking fountain association – would they extend into this?

  15. aubrey permalink
    January 21, 2016

    I used to work in and around the Hackney/Haringay area. I frequently used the ‘little houses’ that were located outside the lower end of Finsbury Park and at Manor House. Both, I believe, are no longer.

  16. Peter Harrison permalink
    January 21, 2016

    Congratulations to Agnese Sanvito for her poetic vision and her persistence in expressing it in these melancholy, haunting photographs: sunrise very much brings alive the forlorn, abandoned qualities these abandoned structures so richly possess.

    Their small scale immediately reminded me of a structure I haven’t visited in a number of years, the tiny, striking, tiled building in Bishopsgate Churchyard, which went through various guises as nightclub, bar, etc. It seems from its appearance to be almost a kind of folly, a tiny homage to Spanish/Moorish architecture.

  17. Robert permalink
    January 21, 2016

    A charming story about an almost forgotten institution namely public toilets. One former gents has been repurposed as a coffee shop with the old urinals converted into a breakfast bar style eating area while retaining the original porcelain urinals. Ironically the place has no usable toilets now as the cubicles were demolished to provide a counter area with the old attendants office now a kitchen. It’s called the Attendant and it’s situated outside a pub in Fitzrovia. Well worth a visit as it’s still notably looks like a gents now.

  18. dominique cournault permalink
    January 21, 2016

    If we could harvest urine (a very good fertiliser) and make an economic sense from a waste then may be their would be jobs as well as a public service ??

  19. Duncan permalink
    January 21, 2016

    Great pics, but they must be from a while back as the Kentish Town one is, and has been for a while now, a music rehearsal room, and very nice it is too!

  20. January 21, 2016

    And another fine reason to get up in the morning, meeting the dawn whilst the crowds are asleep. And what wonderful studies of such about-to-be-forgotten bits of history. I’m especially drawn to the topiary one, slowly filling top to toe with greenery in your own genteel version of the kudzu overtaking farms and fields back Home.

    And the lovely Benton Street edifice, like the outside view of Lady Bufforphington’s conservatory—what thought and aesthetic effort when into that one.

    In my own lifetime, small wooden conveniences—mere shades of the glory of these— still graced many a backyard, farmyard, church grounds, and business site. And in some sort of unwritten country custom, passersby in need were welcome to make use, so long as they treated the premises with respect .

    I still remember the Lady of the Ladies’ Room at F&M, on my one visit, popping into each tall stall for a “second flush” between customers, and giving a discreet polish to seat and lid before ushering in the next with a smile of welcome.

    Those little home conveniences have been dozed under, torn down, dismantled to make countless ETSY-peddled picture frames from that good weathered silvery wood, and I’m sure that my own GRANDS would find the thought and sight incomprehensible, like spats or Magic Decoder Rings.

    I so love visiting you in the morning—you give First Cup a fillip of pleasure and curiosity every day, and I hope you know just how gifted you are.

    rachel

  21. Annie S permalink
    January 21, 2016

    Some of the Victorian toilets are still in use – the Gents in Camden Town near the junction of High Street and Parkway for example.

  22. Jane Annesley permalink
    January 21, 2016

    What a good start to the day! Thanks. Like other people I particularly admired the one in Foley Street. There used to be a magnificent public lavatory in Penge – I haven’t been there for years but hope that it has survived.

  23. January 21, 2016

    Your readers may be pleased to learn that I just visited the Foley Street former public convenience and shared an exceptional cup of coffee with a friend. I just today wrote about it on my blog and included pictures of the well-preserved interior:

    http://chronicadomus.blogspot.com/2016/01/a-london-blogger-meet-up-and-new.html

  24. Adrian Wynne-Morgan permalink
    January 21, 2016

    The Crown & Sceptre {aka The Hat & Stick] in Foley Street used to be my local. The rather grandiose topping to the loo was the result of trying of sell it off, marketing it as a potential photographic studio. Unfortunately, having only the single entrance/exit, renders it a commercial premises non-starter for reasons of Health & Safety. It remains a controversial, conversational convenience.

  25. January 21, 2016

    West Hampstead has a fully functioning one! I used it about 4 months ago.

  26. Jill permalink
    January 21, 2016

    Check out Maida Hill Piazza in W9 for a well-loved one, with great tiles featuring local London scenes!

  27. Barbara permalink
    January 21, 2016

    I remember these toilets – I think we used them at Mile/End Bow after visiting grandparents and shopping – but a long time ago, and more than likely somewhere else. A big old penny to use, unless the person before held the door open for you on coming out. I think they usually did for kids. Always clean and tidy though, and nobody standing with a hand out for a tip!

  28. Steve Sorrell permalink
    January 23, 2016

    Going back to the underground toilet on the corner of Golborne and Portobello Road, can I mention it’s still open and beautifully maintained.

  29. February 6, 2016

    There all locked up, Thats not very convenient, was a toilet sold years ago for commercial use?

  30. I-) permalink
    February 28, 2016

    you might want to look at these in paris

    http://flashbak.com/luxurious-memories-of-pissing-in-paris-urinals-1878-photos-56050/ Luxurious Memories Of Pissing In Paris Urinals (1878 Photos) – By Paul Sorene on 24 February 2016

    I-)

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