Public toilets - Honiton's real hot penny

PUBLISHED: 15:12 08 January 2013 | UPDATED: 15:13 08 January 2013

Archant

The history of the humble convenience in Honiton is explained...

“It doesn’t show the most important building,” said an exasperated visitor needing a loo.

He was looking at the Honiton relief sculpture in Lace Walk. He may have been looking in the wrong place, but he had a point.

History shows Honiton was not keen to have such a building. Indeed, when it was proposed over 70 years ago, the town clerk said no one “should try and dictate to the borough council”.

London may have shown off its first such amenity in 1852, many towns had followed suit, but, just like the long battle for clean water, Honiton was having none of it.

Even the indomitable 11-times mayor Juanita Phillips, who proudly introduced tap water and a sewage system in 1936, lagged behind when it came to loos. She had the convenience of a house on High Street.

The unspoken hero of Honiton’s loo campaign, risking the wrath of councillors, was a Mr Pennell, seemingly a local potter and dealer in sanitary ware.

In 1938 he complained to a meeting of the town’s business leaders that “it is disgraceful that a place the size of Honiton had no such amenity”, otherwise known as a public convenience - an odd name for something which many visitors still do not find convenient.

Mr Pennell emphasized the urgent ‘need’. He wanted it ‘immediately’, but, unfortunately, a war intervened and he had to wait.

Not wanting to be caught short, so to speak, the council eventually made up for lost time after the war by building three such amenities.

An increase in population and the opening of Lace Walk in 1988 meant a dramatic increase in need, so a fourth amenity was built.

From a piddling beginning, Honiton was then in full flood.

Even the railway station decided Thomas Crapper’s device was long overdue.

Sadly, such a surge of free loos could not last.

First one, then another public edifice closed.

Visitors also wondered if Honiton had hidden its loos.

The Town Guide told them where they could go fishing, or get electricity, but omitted this essential service.

Hard-pressed coach parties at Dowell Street were told to ‘hold on’ for Lace Walk.

Patience was not the only thing running out when, in 2009, this, too, was closed for three months - for refurbishment.

More recently, remaining and ultra hi-tech conveniences in King Street were smashed up .

Are we, so to speak, going backwards in respect of loos?

Today we have only two conveniences for a town almost four times as large as when Mr Pennell expressed the ‘urgent’ need.

Market days and Charter Week bring pent up demand.

Hot pennies day takes on a new meaning when a stream of visitors need relief. Sadly, East Devon District Council and other local authorities state they are not ‘legally obliged’ to provide conveniences.

So, why did the Victorians provide them over a 100 years ago?

At least 5,000 people have just signed a national petition to the Government, demanding loos should be ‘binding’.

Not everyone can afford £2 for a coffee just to spend a penny.

Don’t miss tomorrow’s Midweek Herald for letters on this subject.

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