English Bathrooms: Out of the Closet (Published 1992) (2022)


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By William E. Schmidt

English Bathrooms: Out of the Closet (Published 1992) (1)

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January 23, 1992


Section C, Page

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The term water closet may sound like a quaint euphemism, but over the years it has also come to be a pretty fair description of the typical British bathroom. As often as not, it is a cramped, airless cubicle, a kind of architectural afterthought crouched at the end of a creaky hallway or hidden beneath the stairs of a 19th-century terrace house.

But in the last few years, the British bathroom has begun to come into its own. Not only are new houses equipped with larger and more luxurious bathrooms, but there is a growing trend to remodel and update old bathrooms, often using florid antique or reproduction fixtures that evoke the look and feel of Victorian manor houses.

And there has been a sudden explosion in the consumer market for showers and shower stalls, to either replace or supplement that most essential British fixture, the bathtub. The most elaborate are advertised as "power showers" because they employ hydraulic pumps, often noisy, to augment the chronically weak household water pressure. Built directly into bathroom walls, they cost $200 to $1,000, depending on spray options and flow rate.

"For years, Britons wouldn't hear of showers, partly because they liked their baths, and partly because we just don't have the proper water pressure like you do in America," said Stephen Quigley, the managing director of Richmond's, a large plumbing supply store in southwest London. In most English houses, water pressure is dependent on a gravity-fed tank in a loft or an attic.

"But I think the bath is going the way of the full breakfast," Mr. Quigley added. "It's a life style thing. People don't have time in the morning for a leisurely bath or breakfast."

In pushing out their bathroom walls and abandoning bathtubs for shower stalls, Britons may be doing something much more substantial than flirting with the latest trend in interior design. They are, in a way, tinkering with their own cultural plumbing, a trend that some consider vaguely unsettling.

"Perhaps there is a bit of snobbery about it, but I think the idea that a bathroom ought to be carpeted and wallpapered and painted in peach colors is absurd, even vulgar," said Gavin Stamp, an architect, writer and member of the Victorian Society, which works to preserve and celebrate 19th-century architecture. "Bathrooms do matter. But they ought to be well plumbed and solid: substantial, like the engine room of a ship."

Indeed, some essential breakthroughs in sanitary engineering and indoor plumbing took place in 19th-century Britain as a result of the work of Thomas Crapper, who invented the siphonless flushing mechanism, and the Rev. Edward Johns, who introduced his popular "dolphin" toilet to the United States at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876.

Moreover, some 19th-century English fixtures were extraordinarily ornate, a reflection of the Victorian love of machinery: enameled hand basins and fluted toilet bowls and gold and brass taps and fixtures. Some public restrooms were adventures in sanitary wonderland. For example, in one tank in central London in the late 19th century, the flushing water was held in a suspended glass globe in which an attendant kept goldfish. (The mechanics of the device assured that the goldfish would not be lost in the flush.)

Indoor toilets were not uncommon in British houses by the late 19th century, but the emphasis on bathing as a matter of general hygiene was much slower to catch on. Min Hogg, editor in chief of The World of Interiors, the magazine that perhaps best captures the eccentricity of British decorating, said the English seemed to develop a sense of the bathroom that differed from what was evolving on the Continent and across the Atlantic. "That's why the French have the bidet, and we do not, and the Americans have showers, and we do not," Ms. Hogg said.

Bathrooms were not common in working-class housing projects until after World War I, said John Pennell, the director of the British Bathroom Council, an organization that represents big manufacturers of bathroom products. Even then, they tended to be very cramped; they were quite deliberately made the absolute minimum size. Their design, he said, probably reflected some degree of class bias.

"I think most architects, who were middle class, had a difficult time being persuaded that bathrooms were really necessary for working-class people," Mr. Pennell said.

Over the years, the relatively spare, compact British bathroom has attracted the curiosity of foreigners. They have marveled at the absence of a bidet or shower, at the fact that the toilet is often sequestered in a tiny room all its own, and at the plumbing of sinks, which invariably have separate taps for dispensing hot and cold water. Beppe Severgnini, an Italian journalist who wrote "Inglisi," a social history of the English published last year by Hodder & Stoughton, said this meant that washing one's hands in England required choosing "between getting your hands scorched under the hot tap or frozen under the cold one."

Mr. Severgnini concluded that the British have what he called a "troubled relationship" with their bathrooms, underscoring the point by noting that the English commonly use more than a dozen euphemisms to describe a bathroom. Among them are loo, gents', ladies', lavatory, toilet, convenience, lav, water closet, W.C., bog, john, can, head, latrine, privy and powder room.

But Mr. Pennell and others argue that the British are changing. Although the recession has slowed conversions and remodeling, the British Bathroom Council estimates that nearly half of all British houses now have showers, as against only about 30 percent a decade ago.

One house with a "power shower" is that of David Deane, a London businessman, and his wife, Karen.

"The old bathtub, with its hand-held shower, was fine if you had an hour to spare," said Mr. Deane, adding that he fell in love with brisk morning showers on trips to the United States and had a shower installed in his house in 1987. "The problem was, the dribble of water you got was never enough to get the soap off. I used to keep a pitcher beside the tub, to fill up and bang over my head, to rinse off properly." As Mr. Pennell sees it, "The idea now is that the bathroom is part of the living space and ought to reflect the way people see themselves."

To that end, for example, Armitage Shanks, the largest British maker of bathroom equipment, now markets complete bathroom suites in a variety of styles and colors with names like oyster, chablis, peach and champagne. One suite, the Clivenden, is designed along Edwardian lines; it has fluted basins and a mahogany toilet seat.

There is also a big market for antique bathroom fixtures salvaged from junkyards and demolition projects. In the last two years, at least half a dozen shops offering reconditioned basins, taps and heavy fixtures, like re-enameled cast-iron tubs with claw-and-ball feet and rolled edges, have opened in London.

Because the fittings are not the same size as modern pipes, they are often difficult to install, and much heavier than modern appliances, a hazard in itself. A man who put a reconditioned antique marble tub into his Belgravia row house not long ago returned home to discover it in the basement, where it had halted after crashing through three floors on its way down from a loft bathroom.

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