Tony Lord: Spending a penny?

I’m glad I’ve never been asked to take part in one of those TV programmes where they ask, ‘Who do you think you are?’ where they dig up embarrassing stories from your family history.

Leaving aside a murder in 1928 and a suicide in 1936, I had a grandfather, Charlie Barnard, who upped and left my grandmother and went to live in Paris by himself for five years until May, 1940 when he returned to Charlton just before the German army arrived in the city.

Charlie had worked for Lloyd’s Bank foreign currency department for almost 20 years after he left the army and had plenty of money, so every summer he would send cash so that mum and I could visit him in his apartment near the Gare du Nord for a few days.

I was 10 and I remember sitting one morning outside a pavement cafe watching the world go by with a glass of lemonade while Charlie read his Daily Telegraph which had been flown over from Croydon earlier that day.

I interrupted his reading by asking, “Why are all those men going in that kiosk and coming out again?” It was all very puzzling because they would stand inside for a minute or so and I could see their legs and the tops of their heads. My grandfather answered, rather irritably, that they were ‘passing water’.

“Passing water? Who to? I thought. A little later my mother joined us carrying a bag
containing a new hat she’d bought in Galeries Lafayette. I pointed at the cast-iron kiosk open on the street side and plastered with posters round the back. “They’re men’s lavatories, Tony,” she said, “Disgusting people, the French.”

These useful bits of street furniture were first installed on busy boulevards by the city government of Paris in 1830 and a 100 years later at their peak there were 1,200 of then.

They were generally referred to as Pissoirs, from which we get the shorter English
word for passing water which is not used in polite society.

This idea never caught on in Britain as the prudish Victorians preferred to perform their number ones and twos in more privacy.

So, at busy intersections in the streets teams of workmen burrowed into the ground and installed splendid loos for both sexes.

These were surrounded by cast-iron railings and lighted by installing a roof made of glass bricks. One reached the scene of the action by descending a flight of steps holding onto a gleaming brass rail which the custodian polished with Brasso every day.

Patrons passed a little cubby-hole where the lavatory attendant sat after cleaning his pride and joy with his mop and bucket.

A gas-ring with a kettle, teapot etc was always on the go.

Then you were confronted with a row of urinal stalls. Opposite these was a row of cubicles made of polished wood with doors that opened after you inserted a penny in the lock.

Hence the term ‘spending a penny’. Inside was a roll of shiny lavatory paper on which was printed the admonition, ‘Now wash your hands’. Another cubicle had a wash basin and a bar of soap.

You paid the attendant tuppence and he supplied you with a clean towel. Every so often there’d be a gushing of water from the large cisterns over the urinals as they were flushed out.

There was a rumour that in some places the cisterns were made of glass and had a goldfish swimming about in them. One can imagine bewildered fish one minute in deep water and next floundering about as the cistern emptied. I don’t believe it anyway. Perhaps Angela can tell us?

Most of these public loos have disappeared but a splendid subterranean example still survives at the Standard, Blackheath, where five roads meet.

Sadly it became the haunt of druggies, drop-outs and other undesirables and it was locked and barred some years ago.

Last spring my local resident’s news sheet reported that the place would be renovated, the dividing wall between the ladies and gents demolished and the convenience converted into a nightclub.

I was one of the first to sign the petition objecting to this idea as I live fifty yards away ant like to be asleep by ten o’clock. Anyway the whole thing was an April Fool’s hoax perpetrated by the editor of the Westcombe News. Definitely ‘fake news’.


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