History of the Urinal at St Fagans Museum


Have you heard of these phrases? ‘Visit the ladies or gents’, ‘powder one’s nose’, ‘visit the lavatory’. They are all ways of saying ‘going to the toilet’!

It is also likely that you have heard the phrase ‘spending a penny’, even if you haven’t used it yourself!

Have you ever thought about the origin of this phrase? Let’s look at history to find out.

Britain’s first public toilets were the work of an engineer called George Jennings, who designed ‘as perfect a sanitary closet as can be made’. The charge for their use was one penny, which is where the phrase comes from! The price remained the same until decimalization was introduced in Britain in 1971.

George also excelled in creating underground public conveniences. The entrances to these had intricate metal railings and arches lit by lamps.

The interiors had slates originally and, later, ceramic tiles. Here is a photo of the gents’ toilets in Cardiff City Centre. It is also a listed building.

Where was the urinal in the Museum originally built?

The urinal in the St Fagans National Museum of History is from Llanwrtyd Wells in Powys.

When was the urinal built?

It was built in the early 1900s. Here is the urinal in its original setting.

Who built the urinal?

It was made by Walter Macfarlane Ltd, a firm based in Glasgow, Scotland. They also made other cast iron products such as verandas, bandstands and drinking fountains, which were exported to other countries. The urinal was given to the Museum by Brecknock Borough Council in 1978 and rebuilt here in 2010.

Here is the reconstructed urinal in the Museum.

If you have visited the Museum and seen the urinal you may have wondered, understandably, where the ladies’ toilet is! There isn’t a rebuilt one in the Museum. The reason for this is that there were very few toilets for women as in the early 20th century; they were more likely to stay at home and carry on with their domestic chores, looking after the children, cleaning and washing, etc.

Did you know that the author and playwright George Bernard Shaw campaigned for the provision of public toilets for women in London?

During the Second World War items made from cast iron were taken to be used as raw material for the war effort. As a result many urinals like the one in the Museum were completely destroyed. Traditional terraced houses like those in the South Wales valleys also had their iron railings taken away.

What is the Welsh word for toilet?

The Welsh word for toilet is tŷ bach, which means ‘little house’.

Points of interest

Llanwrtyd Wells, where the urinal was originally located, is famous for its annual World Bog Snorkelling championships. In 1984 it was also the setting for the BBC comedy series The Magnificent Evans, starring Ronnie Barker and the Welsh actor Myfanwy Talog, and was filmed in the Old Gwalia Bakery. You can also visit a shop called Gwalia Stores in St Fagans!

The Romans used urine to clean greasy stains from clothes. You can learn more about the Romans at the National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon.

The Tudors and the Victorians used urine to bleach white clothes when they were rinsed. The ammonia had a whitening effect. The Learning Department in the Museum organizes laundry sessions for primary school children to learn about washing clothes without electricity.

In Victorian Britain disease was rife. Following cholera epidemics, in 1848 the Government passed the Public Health Act which was aimed at improving sanitation conditions in the country.

Other buildings in the Museum can also teach us about sanitary conditions, e.g. potties to keep under the bed were sold in Gwalia Stores, as well as the outside toilets in Rhyd-y-car cottages before people had indoor facilities.


Building facts:

  • Original Location: Llanwrtyd Wells, Powys (Radnorshire)
  • Date originally built: Late 19th century
  • Dismantled and moved to St Fagans: 1978
  • Date opened to the public: 2010
  • Visiting information