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Fighting for the Victorian Toilets

2013 February 25
by lucinda matthews-jones

David Howell (University of Wales, Newport)

The campaign to save the Hayes Island Victorian toilets is ongoing, and anyone wishing to support the campaign is encouraged to add their names to the petition at: https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/cardiff-council-to-save-the-hayes-victorian-toilets

The historic landscape is a finite resource. While the British conservation and restoration community has become particularly adept at adapting the built landscape for contemporary needs and demands, once an element of the historic landscape is changed, or lost entirely, it cannot return (or be replaced). While structures can be rebuilt, they are no longer the original or authentic structure that was first attributed a sense of historic value. In a period of economic decline, the pressures faced by the historic environment have shifted somewhat dramatically. Whereas in times of fiscal stability the museums and heritage sector have seen relatively positive levels of support, in the days of the triple dip recession, it is arguable that it is the museums and heritage sites that are amongst those to be first in the firing line. Monitor the news feed from organisations such as the @MuseumsAssociation and daily accounts of cuts and closures among museums across the United Kingdom can be found. For British heritage, these are precarious times.

This has been clearly illustrated over the last few weeks in two of Wales’ most prominent cities, Cardiff and Newport. For Newport, threatened closure of the city’s temporary art exhibition programme has largely been interpreted as a move to close the entire museum and art gallery site, the popular and historic Chartist mural is threatened with destruction, while local councillors have discussed the ‘disposal’ of the city’s remarkably well preserved medieval ship. For Cardiff, while the museum sector has been one to actually benefit financially in recent years with the establishment and continued support for the excellent Cardiff Story Museum, recent spending cuts announced by the city council illustrate real threats to the wider historic environment and character of the city. Flat Holm Island for instance, popular for both its natural landscape and its significant nineteenth-century military defences, faces a withdrawal of council support and ultimate closure. Furthermore, in the heart of the city centre (an area to have witnessed sweeping development-led changes in the last decade), a unique reminder of Cardiff’s Victorian era is earmarked for closure. The site in question is the last of Cardiff’s Victorian toilets.

Hayes Island showing the entrance to the underground Victorian Toilets

Established in 1898, the Victorian toilets, located in the middle of the Hayes Island in the centre of Cardiff, stand as an indication of the growth and investment that came into the city during this period. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw communities across the South Wales region benefit substantially from the wealth derived from industrial exploitation in the country. Fiscal and population growth created both opportunity and demand in a burgeoning city, and the Hayes Island toilets remain as a legacy of this crucial period in the city’s development.

Images showing the iconic toilet system

Over a century later, and these historic yet functional public facilities are facing their end. As Cardiff City Council looks to implement £22million worth of spending cuts, the Victorian toilets, now in their 125th year of existence, are one of a number of public services due to close. In an era of social media led campaigns, many of the proposals put forward by the council for savings have been met with vocal opposition. Cuts to Cardiff’s riding school, the Splott swimming pool and a Welsh language festival have all seen campaigns develop around them in order to fight for their survival. The Victorian toilets were not overlooked.

Started by local enthusiast John Jenkins, the Victorian toilets found an unlikely promotional platform in the form of the personified twitter account @Victorianloo. Tweeting in a first person capacity, the ‘Victorianloo’ tapped into the audience potential of ‘celebrity’ users, with historians Mary Beard and Tom Holland among those to put their names forward in support of a campaign to save the site. Coupled with two online petitions and a flurry of local media coverage, these historic toilets soon attracted widespread support from across Cardiff, while also garnering attention from afar afield as Canada and Australia.

At the heart of the rational for saving the toilets were three main themes, those of historic significance, the character of the city and the functional importance of the toilets. The latter issue probably proved to be the most contentious during the campaign, with disability rights campaigners asking the valid question, why should a site that is not accessible to all be publically funded? It is difficult to contest the problem that the Hayes Island Victorian toilets are indeed inaccessible to many, with wheelchair access to the toilets seemingly inconceivable regardless of how the site is maintained or developed in future years. Yet this factor is significant for a different reason. The needs and perceptions of practicality have seen to the gradual demise of such historic sites. Whereas once the underground Victorian toilet would have been a comparatively common feature, the example left in Cardiff is now unique; there are no more to save once this one has gone.

In general terms, the significance and quality of the complex has not been overlooked. The Welsh historic environment service, Cadw, designated the public conveniences as a Grade 2 listed building due to the rare level of preservation quality at the site, exceptional in part due to the removal of so many other such sites. With a strong sense of irony, the level of importance placed on the toilets had been reinforced by the previous city council with a full restoration of the toilet interiors having only been completed in 2009 at a cost of £148,000. While the restoration was celebrated by local council representatives at the time, it seems that in the space of only four years, the same toilets are no longer worthy of continued support.

As stressed in the opening of this article, these are difficult financial times, and spending cuts are a seeming necessity for everyone to cope with. However, the closure of the Hayes Island Victorian toilets would remove from Cardiff a unique legacy of its growth. Granted there are probably few among the many people who visit and make use of the toilets on a daily basis who stop to think of what these conveniences represent. Were they to, they might begin to realise that these toilets are one of the very last examples of Victorian enhancement left in the city to still function as intended by its designers. Practical, historic and an objet d’art of the toilet world, the Victorian toilets in Cardiff must be safeguarded. What they add to the character and history of Cardiff is difficult to value, while their loss would only further add to the gradual homogenisation of the city centre. It is therefore hoped that with the support of those who value what remains of the Victorian architectural legacy in the city, Cardiff City Council may yet be persuaded to review their plans, and allow for this little underground corner of Victorian Cardiff to live on for another 125 years.

David Howell is a Lecturer in Heritage Studies within the History department at the University of Wales, Newport. His core research looks at the impacts of political devolution in Wales on the museum and heritage sectors. He can be contacted at david.howell2@newport.ac.uk, on twitter and at academia.edu.

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