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At God’s Convenience

February 29, 2024
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

15 Responses leave one →
  1. February 29, 2024

    The question we’ve all been wondering but have been to afraid to ask is whether one has to get on ones knees to pray at God’s convenience?

  2. Mark permalink
    February 29, 2024

    Excellent bogs.
    Ber they’ve seen some action over the years!

  3. Gilbert O’Brien permalink
    February 29, 2024

    There is (was?) an almost identical convenience at South End Green, Hampstead although I suspect Camden has not done very much over the years to maintain it. Which raises the question: who looks after and maintains this emporium? A large percentage of public lavatories disappeared during the reign of terror begun by Margaret Thatcher and I’m surprised and heartened to see this one in Bunhill Fields in such wonderful condition. Good for another hundred years.

  4. Andy permalink
    February 29, 2024

    In answer to your question about praying in a convenience I boldly ascertain that I do and most certainly would pray there .
    I am conjured by a sweet memory of an Irish guardsman 💂‍♂️ of former employ who kept the toilets near the Hayfield pub in Stepney Green immaculate and shining just like the above photos .
    May his beautiful soul rest in peace.

  5. Jane permalink
    February 29, 2024

    Magnificent. But perhaps they could pass the plate around and purchase a new towel?

  6. gkbowood permalink
    February 29, 2024

    As well as repairing that cracked basin! Such a beautiful and well preserved ‘palace of convenience’ should never have grubby towels or cracked basins. I abhor having to face the present day toilets which often have broken doors, trash on the floor and not a bit of paper on the roll! Thanks for those excellent photos and story.

  7. molly guenther permalink
    February 29, 2024

    Thank you, very interesting

  8. Marcia Howard permalink
    February 29, 2024

    Of course, I’m very tempted to say “what a crap post” but I can only say with enthusiasm “what a truly fascinating post”. I have seen similar urinals inside the Victorian Loos in Rothesay during a trip to Scotland a few years ago, where the tiles on the walls and floors are also amazing. On another occasion, although only able to go into the ‘Ladies’ Loos at the Royal Mews, Buckingham Palace prior to visiting an exhibition in the Queen’s (now King’s) Gallery, the tiles in there also blew me away. I’ve always loved ‘quirky’ and have a book by Lucinda Lambton called ‘Temples of Convenience’ (published 1995) which I immediately took off my bookshelf to see if the above gets a mention. LL very kindly signed it for me after going to one of her talks during a festival I was attending. Well worth getting hold a copy if you can. Keep up with the posts, they frequently brighten up my day!

  9. Bernie permalink
    February 29, 2024

    As is the case all too often, my contribution to this post can only be to bemoan the ignorance that allowed me, in my teenage years, to pass by Bunhill Fields and miss the splendidly historical connections brought to us by the Gentle Author. Alas and alas! Woe is me!

  10. Cherub permalink
    March 1, 2024

    When the council renovated the museum and gallery in my home town, they decided to restore the original public toilets rather than replace them. They truly are grand, like sitting on big thrones. The building was gifted to the town by the Nairn family who made and sold linoleum flooring that was shipped all over the world (the company is now owned by Forbo of Switzerland). It was built along with a war monument to commemorate men from the town killed in WW1, the Nairn family lost a son.

  11. Antony R Macer permalink
    March 1, 2024

    The most excellent piece of writing on a most inspirational subject. Just a wonderful thing to start my day with. You did a fantastic job on portraying the life of John Wesley as well, with the sort of details that are unforgettable. Well done!!!

  12. March 1, 2024

    There was a downside to the introduction of the water closet….the Thames was ruined ( ‘ The Great Stink’)…. Bazalgette’s embankment collection sewer project gave temporarily partial relief but hard surfacing of roads and continuing building and carparks in the 20thC made mixed rainfall/ sewerage overflows into the Thames a weekly occurrence by Y2000 requiring the £4bn+ Thames Tideway relief tunnel construction which still won’t offer 100% overflow protection when open (2025?)

  13. Patty permalink
    March 3, 2024

    I love everything about this post!

  14. March 5, 2024

    Dear GA

    This has to be one of your best blog posts! Thanks. I’ll definitely pop in when I’m that way next (went past it yesterday in fact). Looks wonderful. Thanks for the inspiration and information.


  15. Guillaume permalink
    April 6, 2024

    An inspirational piece, indeed! In answer to CR’S query, I will side with Andy’s view, and I will further state that we have a duty to fall upon our knees whenever we are faced with the obligations due to our fellow men as well as those due to ourselves.

    One of the greatest yearnings of life is to tender the hope we may relieve our fellow men in the times of their distress; how much greater that obligation, just how sweeter, when that need meets with our own requirement for fulfillment.

    In such moments, no matter how fleeting, we find we take within ourselves a great substance, spiritual, mystical, sweet and fragrant. This great gift from above permeates existence, the memory of which gives the future cause for hope, hope that we may ever function as a repository of this relief.

    How wonderful this place you describe so well in words and pictures!

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