Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Urine Deflectors in Fleet Street



The average (male) Londoner of the early 1800s, out and about, was quite happy to relieve himself in the nearest alley. Urinals were becoming more common - usually outside pubs - but typically one found a quiet corner and had a pee.

Those who lived in said alleys, or who owned commercial property adjoining, were not entirely forgiving of this practice, as this quote from 1809 suggests:  

in London a man may sometimes walk a mile before he can meet with a suitable corner; for so unaccomodating are the owners of doorways, passages and angles, that they seem to have exhausted invention in the ridiculous barricadoes and shelves, grooves, and one fixed above another, to conduct the stream into the shoes of the luckless wight who shall dare to profane the intrenchments. 

This was the only reference I'd ever seen to these 'barricadoes and shelves' and I wondered if the writer was exaggerating, perhaps just drawing on one or two peculiar examples. Then a few days ago I found a quote from 1853

considering how disgusting are the preventives that disfigure every alley and court, and every piece of blind wall; considering, too, how ineffectual these contrivances are ...


Today, by chance, I walked down Clifford's Inn Passage, off Fleet Street - an ancient bit of London that used to lead to the Inn of Chancery of that name, whose gatehouse still survives. Here, Rokesmith takes Mr. Boffin aside from the bustle of the main thoroughfare in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend. And here, I only now realised - even though I've been here before a hundred times, and even feature it in my Dickens guide-book - was where many a Victorian stopped for a pee.




I remain a bit mystified by this hinged flap in one of the (metal) shelves


but surely these are 19th century urine deflectors?

I know, you'll now tell that there's a whole website somewhere devoted to 19th century urine deflectors.

I don't care. I think I have discovered something.

But if you can find any more of them, let me know. Keep watching the alleys.



UPDATE: A comparable example in Nottingham
http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3320611

Small example on Tower Bridge
http://www.flickr.com/photos/83516580@N03/8122009306/in/photolist-dnHqpd-dnHurj

Chatting with people on twitter, some have asked why only a part of an alley might contain these shelves. In terms of this example, I can't say why there are no flaps over where it looks like there were basement light wells or similar;  possibly there were originally, but they were removed when those spaces were filled in; or possibly people just didn't tend to piss where there was a light well.

As for more generally, these would have been deterrents created by the owners of particular buildings, not the parish (at least, I've seen no mention of parishes installing anything like this), so coverage would necessarily be - cough - patchy.

It's also worth noting that building owners weren't necessarily troubled by the impropriety of alley-way urination as much as the damp and the smell ( in a period when 'miasma' was believed to cause disease).

10 comments:

  1. A brilliant post, thank you. I have a friend who lives in an alley that suffers from this issue. He has a water cannon filled with Dettol that he fires 'at the wall' as the guy is relieving himself 'for hygiene reasons'. If the chap gets soaked in Dettol in the process it is entirely accidental...

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  2. I believe that these are used to deflect the urine back onto the urinator, as a sort of preventative measure. We have similar (more crude) setups on 19thC houses here in the Black Country, where concrete is bricked up from floor level on houses near pubs - this also gives the opportunity to have run off onto the shoes. Strange but true!

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  3. Could that hinged thingy possibly be known as a piss flap?

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  4. Dave! Really!! :-)

    It's odd that one is "twin level" and also that they didn't continue over the top of the basement window, almost certainly the last place you'd you'd gents of yore relieving themselves.

    (See Twitter for another sighting on Tower Bridge)

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  5. One of the corners of the Bank of England has a urine deflector (of a different design) built in.

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  6. Fascinating post, something I'd never even dreamed of. And why shouldI? Well, I will look out for some now.

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  7. What a wonderful post. Eyes peeled now for more.

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  8. Fascinating, excellent piece of research, thank you. I'll be looking out for them...

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  9. Is it me or does the shelf in the second picture seem higher up than the rest? Is it the angle of the picture?

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    1. Yes, just the photo ... they are fairly level in real life.

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