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At God’s Convenience

February 3, 2022
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 Lord 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 God’s convenience.

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

“The Venerable”

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 Kew Palace.

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.

You may also like to take a look at

Agnese Sanvito, Toilets at Dawn

17 Responses leave one →
  1. February 3, 2022

    In George Jennings’ design of the Lion and Unicorn, the Lion seems to be quite happy and the Unicorn looks rather put out. This was an interesting topic.

  2. marianne isaacs permalink
    February 3, 2022

    What a great post . I have often wondered about Daniel Defoe’s association with Stoke Newington where he has a street named after him I think . Didi he have any attachment to that part of town . ? I have wondered around there and found it very interesting when my children were living there a few years ago . Its such a diverse part of the east end .

  3. Andy permalink
    February 3, 2022

    It talks of pristine.
    Silence would lead to it.

  4. Herry Lawford permalink
    February 3, 2022

    This is superb!

  5. Paul Loften permalink
    February 3, 2022

    Thank you for this exposé of the downward spiral of humanity. It brings us flush face to face with todays sad lack of public facilities and creativity when faced with concrete portaloos with automatic doors that never opened and robbed you of 50p

  6. Margaret permalink
    February 3, 2022

    Is there a women’s loo? I do hope so and that it is equally splendid.

    1p was probably comparable to 50p or more now. I find that for the last couple of years we can pay by card in the loos in the London parks, but often the turnstile is open anyway.

  7. Bernie permalink
    February 3, 2022

    Once again the Gentle Author brings me face-to-face with my own inadequacy! Many, many years ago, when a teenager, I often passed through Bunhill Fields, yet never discovered the treasures that were there to be seen and which are laid out here for us to glory in. Thank you so much for thus supplementing my education!

  8. February 3, 2022

    How this “secular problem” was solved in particular public places has always been a most interesting question. Thank you for this wonderful explanation!

    Love & Peace

  9. Peter Holford permalink
    February 3, 2022

    Those superior Victorian toilets were built to last. Sadly many have been thoughtlessly destroyed. I know of a couple of others that can compete with this magnificent edifice (not that I go looking for them!) In Liverpool there is a grade 1 listed pub, the Philharmonic Dining Rooms which is renowned as a local of the Beatles before they were famous – an awesome building (well worth Googling). In Hull the toilets on Nelson Street beside the River Humber are less impressive but beautifully maintained, complete with hanging baskets! In 2019 Lonely Planet named them as one of the UK’s top tourist attractions! (

    It speaks volumes that the Victorians built such edifices for the working man while our era sees politicians who won’t fund basic facilities such as these through under-funding. And I’m not talking about the local councils!

  10. Cherub permalink
    February 3, 2022

    The museums and galleries in my home town in Scotland have toilets like this in the basement but on a much smaller scale. When the building was renovated about 10 years ago, it was decided rather than install new toilets the old ones should be restored as they were part of the fabric of the original building.

  11. David Antscherl permalink
    February 3, 2022

    This morning’s offering brought back an early childhood memory. Those Victorian toilet bowls were often quite highly decorated and had substantial mahogany seats. While visiting my grandmother in Stoke Newington (I was old enough to read) I had to go to the loo. The toilet bowl declared in large blue letters that it was The Shark. I was terrified.

    Thank you, G.A., for your daily parade of the unusual and the fascinating.

  12. Saba permalink
    February 3, 2022

    After many years wandering the countryside as an itinerant preacher, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement (it was not yet a separate denomination), may well have highly approved of clean, comfortable bathrooms.

  13. February 3, 2022

    Is there a similar one for us ladies?

  14. Virginia permalink
    February 3, 2022

    A feature on the hardworking cleaner?

  15. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 3, 2022

    I’ve visited the stunning Victorian ones at Rothesay in Scotland, still in use, but available to tour while there’s no-one in there using them. They cater for both male and female. I first discovered how many amazing ones still survive from a book I have that was written some years ago by Lucinda Lambton.

  16. February 3, 2022

    “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.” – Beautiful.

    John Wesley visited John Taylor’s Norwich Octagon Chapel but disapproved of it, mainly because of Taylor’s theology. But it didn’t stop him from utilising his octagonal designs in chapels and elsewhere, even – we now learn – echoing down the centuries in the design of Wesleyan toilets.

    Wonderful post.

  17. Susan permalink
    February 3, 2022

    This is an amazingly interesting – and useful – post. I must visit here if I’m ever able to go to London again. In the meantime, I will share this post with all my friends, in case anyone has the chance to visit.

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