Victorian toilets

There’s a set of Victorian underground public toilets in the middle of Cardiff. They can be a bit smelly and you probably wouldn’t want to linger in there too long.  But the steep stairs, posh antique ceramics and faint aroma mean there are very few places in Britain with such character to relieve yourself.

Picture reproduced from http://www.flickr.com/photos/auntiep/52545766/ under the Creative Commons licence (non-commercial use).

The local authority plans to close it down. They’ve got no cash and don’t want to raise council tax. It’s a thankless task running a council – whatever choices you make, there’s someone who will object.  And while I don’t have any suggestions for other ways to save the £92,000 the Victorian ‘public conveniences’ in the Hayes apparently costs a year, closing them just isn’t a good idea.

I don’t say this as a historian who objects to the destruction of all historic monuments. Not everything needs preserving. Sometimes you have to move on. The Victorians understood that. They believed in progress.  But this isn’t about progress. The toilets are not going to be replaced with anything, modern or otherwise.

The Victorians also believed in civic pride and building public infrastructure like these toilets was not just about providing facilities; it was about building a community to be proud of.

Modern cities aren’t always big on character. Central shopping areas rather lack in the eccentric or anything much which makes them different from their commercial rivals. However, the Hayes toilets are part of what makes Cardiff memorable. They are much as a part of its city centre as the castle and the statue of Nye Bevan. For visitors they’re something to remember and for locals they’re something to cherish and be proud of.  Few other cities can boast facilities that make people remember taking a pee.

Cardiff is increasingly marketing itself as a distinctive city. It’s been quite successful as a venue for weekends away. Of course, the visitors are tempted by sport, shopping, drinking and Dr Who, not the prospect of a visit to a Victorian toilet. But still, closing one of the things that makes the city distinctive seems shortsighted.

So much of the character of Cardiff was built by Victorians proud of where they lived. They created a modern city.  The city’s council has done much in the last 30 years to build on and take forward that Victorian civic pride. Cardiff has reinvented itself into a modern city but what has enabled that reinvention to be successful is the way it has utilised the city’s past to make the Welsh capital distinctive.

The Hayes toilets are part of the city’s heritage.  They are not being closed in the name of progress but in the name of saving money. Yet sometimes heritage has an immeasurable economic value in itself, even when it sometimes smells a bit.

You can sign the petition to save the Hayes toilets here: https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/cardiff-council-to-save-the-hayes-victorian-toilets

There are some photos here http://www.flickr.com/photos/roath_park_mark/sets/72057594052332359/

Christmas in Wales 1900

The Victorians reinvented the idea of Christmas. Although they were drawing upon and reinvigorating older traditions of festivity and generosity, by the late nineteenth century Christmas had become a celebration focused on home and family and its now-familiar trappings – cards, trees, turkey, and Father Christmas – were all well established. Indeed, sending Christmas cards was so popular by 1900 that there were repeated deliveries of mail by hardworking postal staff in Cardiff throughout Christmas Day.

Taking note of the moral of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol (1843), the Victorians were determined to make merry. This was as true of Wales as of England.  Although the Boer War, the price of coal and wet weather were all causing concern, the Western Mail felt able to proclaim that Christmas 1900 would be as ‘if one great wave of joy were sweeping over the face of the land, invigorating our emotions, tickling us into smiles, making our limbs dance and our whole being thrill in an epidemic of gladness.’

Central to such joy was the establishment of Christmas as a time for family.  This was not always straightforward.  The migration of men to the coalfields of south Wales and girls to towns for domestic service and shopwork meant that families were not always living in the same place.  Christmas was thus a time for reuniting families, something helped by the provision of a fairly comprehensive rail service on Christmas Day itself.  There were, however, complaints that limited Christmas services to rural west Wales were preventing some young men and women from returning home for the festivities.

At the heart of family gatherings was Christmas lunch.  Roasted turkey, goose or beef, accompanied by vegetables and followed by plum pudding had become the expected Christmas meal but this was beyond the means of all.  There were even claims in London that some Welsh people ate mutton at Christmas but pretended it was beef and supplemented it with roasted blackbird.  This was angrily denied by the Western Mail but poverty was very real.  State pensions were nine years away and some old people relied on local donations of Christmas food.  Many poor children’s only proper festive meal came courtesy of a charitable dinner at their school on Christmas Day itself.

That local dignitaries and churches funded such events was clear evidence that the religious and charitable ethos of Christmas was strong.  Llandaff Cathedral held Christmas services at 7am, 10am, 11am and midday. Churches were adorned with greenery for the day but chapels were more puritan.  Not only were they not decorated, some did not even hold Christmas Day services.

It was not just religious bodies that held public appeals for the poor and ill.  In Swansea, for example, the Cambrian newspaper organized the distribution of 2,000 toys to children in charitable institutions in the town. Even the inmates of the workhouses were given special dinners courtesy of the Poor Law Guardians and other donors.  In Cardiff, this consisted of roast beef, plum pudding and a pint of beer for the men and half a pint for the women.  There were, however, limits to Christmas charity.  In Denbigh, there were Christmas complaints that poor relief had been given to people brought up like hooligans and who lived liked fighting cocks.

Christmas had also begun to develop its commercial overtones thanks to the growing tradition of gift giving. Shops were brightly decorated and busy advertising presents for children and adults.  To increase sales after Christmas advertisements began to talk of New Year’s gifts.  The most common presents were fancy goods and toys, clothes and bedding, and food and drink.  But for the better off there was photographic equipment, bronze work, cutlery and clocks.  A store in Swansea was even advertising ‘Useful and Artistic Furniture suitable for Christmas presents’.

Christmas Day was also a time for entertainment and people traveled to towns to take part.  Most shops were shut and the pubs had short hours but eisteddfodau were held across Wales and senior football and rugby matches were played.

In theatres and music halls, there were few performances on Christmas Day itself but Boxing Day in Cardiff held plenty of treats from Aladdin at the Theatre Royal (which promised ‘pretty music, pretty dresses, pretty dances, pretty songs, and pretty girls’) to the Dowlais Male Voice Party at the Park Hall. At the Philharmonic Hall on St Mary Street, there was a pantomime called ‘The Christmas Dream’.  An advertisement described it as an elaborate production in twenty scenes portraying a Christmas of ‘Ye Goode Olden Tymes’. If that was not enough, the theatre also had roller-skating and a waxwork exhibition.

There was less cheer in the Rhondda where local magistrates rejected an application for the pubs to stay open to 11.45pm rather than 11pm on Christmas Eve.  In the same area, a 73-year-old partially-crippled peddler was arrested on Christmas morning after his wife was discovered having been beaten to death.  They had apparently argued over his drinking.  In Cardiff, however, police and magistrates reported a quiet and sober Christmas week, with not a single case of cutting and wounding or violent assault.  Yet the fact that this was a matter for comment at all shows the danger of imagining that all Christmases past were simply a matter of peace and goodwill to all men.