The modern public bathroom was born in London. In the mid-19th century, Victorian London began to install public water closets for the comfort of men (and, eventually, women) about town. For the price of a penny, the public could descend into underground lavatories to do their business. Most of these conveniences closed sometime in the years after World War II, but the facilities still stand.
Photographer Agnese Sanvito examines the quiet beauty of these once-vital, now abandoned Victorian bathrooms in her latest series. The project doesn’t have an official name yet, but Sanvito is partial to the title the blog Spitalfields Life bestowed on it, “Toilets at Dawn.” She captures the above-ground portions of the antique restrooms, where anyone could once pee for just a penny, in the golden hours of the early morning when they're at their most picturesque.
“In 2010 I started noticing the elegant structures of Victorian public toilets across London,” she said in a statement emailed to mental_floss. “These once proud and eccentric symbols of English civilization have since fallen into closure and blended into the background fabric of the city.”
When she first began photographing, the toilets were practically urban ruins. “Often they were full of rubbish or had trees and weeds growing out of them,” she said. “The decorative and elegant designs of the ironwork left forgotten within the grunginess and decay took on a new beauty, which first inspired me to start photographing them.”
While you can’t just stop in for a quick pee anymore, some of the former public potties are still up and running, just in different forms. The one below has been redeveloped into a bar, and is selling for more than $1.4 million (the listing call it “quirky and full of character,” surely a euphemism for antique poop if we’ve ever heard one).
At dawn, the city's quiet, deserted streets add to the slightly eerie, lonely feeling evoked by the vintage toilet cellars.
This one is now a cafe. The original urinals are still there, but they’ve become seating.
Though London’s once-elegant Victorian toilets have been shuttered, the city's “spend a penny” culture lives on. There are quite a few modern pay toilets elsewhere around town—the train station pay toilets make bank. A free pee, though, can be harder to find.
All images by Agnese Sanvito