R.I.P. W.C. (1930s Southern Railway toilets, Havant station, Hampshire, UK)

So farewell then, Havant station’s 1930s railway toilets. It is doubtful whether many passengers will mourn their loss, but they are another piece of railway heritage that has slipped beyond grasp. If you care about the story of our railways, expressed through their built environment (and if you don’t, then why are you even reading this website in the first place? You might have become lost…), their loss is another tiny piece of that story that is now unreadable. Like pages falling from a fragile book until it is rendered incomprehensible, these little losses of station heritage risk us losing the thread of railway history. And so, in memoriam, this is their story, and their part in a wider question of the preservation of historic railway station features.

The toilets were unusual in somehow escaping significant upgrading or replacement since Havant station was rebuilt by the Southern Railway in the 1930s. As such they retained their original Southern Railway decorative scheme and many original fittings, despite having deteriorated into a poor state of repair. Or at least they did, until a few weeks ago.

Unfortunately, the condition of the toilets had been getting worse for decades, becoming increasingly dirty and out of line with modern passenger expectations. Finishes had become damaged and grime had accumulated in the cracks.

Station operator South Western Railway (SWR) has been undertaking a programme to improve toilets across its estate of stations in the last couple of years. This has been a welcome development for passengers, but while most of the toilets which have been refurbished had no great design significance, probably last being updated some 20-30 years ago, Havant’s had a great deal more historic value, despite the terrible state of repair they had found themselves in by late 2022.

The purpose of this article is not to shame or blame SWR for the programme which swept away Havant station toilets’ original features. SWR were doing their best to respond to legitimate passenger concerns about the state of some of their station toilets. It was just unfortunate that in this case the company and its contractors didn’t realise the rarity of what they had on their hands, which is hardly a first in the world of railway heritage. Unfortunately it meant that no consideration was given to whether it might have been possible to repair and upgrade the toilets to meet modern standards while retaining their heritage decorative scheme and fittings.

Instead, Havant’s toilets reopened in early 2023 with their mosaic floors replaced by wood-effect laminate, original wall tiles by generic modern ones, and historic sanitary ware by similarly generic modern examples.

So what was so good about Havant’s toilets? Why are they even on this website in the first place?

Although all the original fittings in the toilets (including the original wall tiles and the vaguely Art Deco metalwork over the stalls) were enjoyable to fans of inter-war design, the standout features of Havant’s toilets were their beautiful mosaic floors, even if they had been allowed to go to rack and ruin by the station’s various operators in the pre- and post-privatisation eras.

↑↓ Details of 1930s mosaic flooring at Havant. Ignore the mess that it and the contemporaneous wall tiles had been allowed to get into, and admire the craftwork. As well as the coloured banding around the edges, note that the skirting on the walls is also made from tesserae

Under its chief architect James Robb Scott, the Southern Railway built a number of station toilets in the inter-war period with similar decorative schemes to that at Havant. Only a handful of stations were definitely known to retain (at least substantial parts of) these decorative schemes by the end of 2022. It is possible there are other survivors, as they have not always been well documented; do leave a comment if you know of any. To illustrate that point, the Railway Heritage Trust found another survivor at an SWR station just as this article was about to be published (as I said earlier, the purpose of this article is not to shame SWR; in this case they have recognised what they have and now that the Railway Heritage Trust is involved I think this example is relatively safe):

Examples at a very few stations survive in various degrees of intactness but are no longer accessible to the general public. This photo shows Brighton station’s gentlemen’s toilets when they were still in public use (up until about 2005), and again the floor is a work of art:

Brighton station toilets. They are currently inaccessible to the public, but are still extant. Photo by Colin Palmer from London, England, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Peckham Rye’s 1930s toilets are still in use, but are no longer the actual station toilets (of which more anon). So Havant’s were the last remaining Southern Railway inter-war toilets in active day-to-day railway use, until December last year when they suddenly weren’t.

The mosaic floors of the Southern Railway’s inter-war toilets, easily their best and most distinctive feature, were a product of Jesse Rust & Co (later trading as Rust’s Vitreous Mosaic Co), a company founded in 1856 and which specialised in the production of decorative wall and floor mosaics. Proprietor Jesse Rust gained various patents in the 1860s for his glass-based tesserae, which had a characteristic lustre and could take extremely vivid colours.

Jesse Rust & Co’s works included mosaic installations in buildings of national significance such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Manchester Town Hall, as well as churches and countless commercial premises. Much of that work has been lost over the years though, presumably in similar circumstances to Havant station.

Indeed, the Victoria and Albert Museum has lost a number of its own Rust floor mosaics, but does hold in its collection a trade sample of Jesse Rust & Co’s mosaic tesserae. It demonstrates the startling range of colours the company could supply its tesserae in, and the extraordinary vibrancy they still retain. These qualities help explain the continuing appeal of Jesse Rust & Co’s work.

↑ Jesse Rust & Co mosaic sample. Image © Victoria & Albert Museum, London, reproduced through provisions for non-commercial online use

One recently restored example of Jesse Rust & Co’s work on the railway network can be found at Findlater’s Corner, near the road entrance to London Bridge station. A long derelict retail unit has been brought back to life by long-term leaseholder The Arch Company, with funding and support from the Railway Heritage Trust. The restoration uncovered several mosaics relating to the unit’s earlier life as the Express Dairy Tea Rooms, an outfit which took advantage of the radically improved access to fresh milk from the countryside, enabled by the railway which passed overhead.

Today, those mosaics once again gleam, a testament to the quality of Jesse Rust & Co’s original work and its patent glass tesserae, and the recent restoration project.

Jesse Rust & Co mosaics at Findlater’s Corner, January 2023. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]

Being essentially decorative and intended to have a primarily visual use, retail unit exteriors are one thing to restore. Toilet facilities that have to be used day in and day out by large numbers of people are quite another, having to tolerate substantial physical wear and tear. This might explain why no-one considered a restoration project at Havant station’s toilets, rather than the new-for-old replacement that was carried out.

Nevertheless, it is possible to restore historic railway toilets to modern standards, meeting the expectations of 21st Century railway passengers.

Newcastle platform 12 toilets. Image © LNER via its news pages

Dating from 1890, the gentlemen’s toilets on platform 12 of Newcastle were reopened in 2021 after refurbishment by station operator LNER, which preserved their historic features while also ensuring they met modern expectations. Surviving features have been beautifully restored, complemented by era-appropriate modern fittings where new ones were needed. The project won the National Railway Heritage Awards’ conservation category in 2021, and was part-funded by (again) the Railway Heritage Trust.

Newcastle isn’t the only example of sensitively restored historic station toilets. Network Rail’s Public Toilets in Managed Stations design manual NR/GN/CIV/200/04 notes those at Manchester Victoria too. I would add Wemyss Bay to the list, although the modern fittings like the stall partitions aren’t as sensitive to their historic context as might be hoped (or at least weren’t in 2018 when I visited).

Gentlemen’s toilets, Weymss Bay station, 2018. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]

Perhaps the best example of what could have been done at Havant can be found at Peckham Rye station, which now features the only publicly accessible 1930s Southern Railway toilets in something like their original condition. Although the main station building dates from 1865, it was substantially remodelled by the Southern Railway in the 1930s, including the installation of new ‘santitary courts’ as toilet facilities were often rather wonderfully described by the company at the time.

Having been closed and locked out of use since 1962, the 1930s toilets at Peckham Rye escaped the various modernisation programmes that caused the loss of most other Southern Railway inter-war toilets across the railway network. Unfortunately, although part of a Grade II listed building, Peckham Rye’s historic toilets did not escape the attentions of a Network Rail arch inspection team which in 2010 mistakenly demolished most of the interior of the ladies’ before it was stopped in time to save the gentlemen’s.

Peckham Rye station is currently undergoing a long-term restoration, under the watchful eye of architect Benedict O’Looney Architects, which has developed an enviable reputation for railway restoration projects. He was also, you might be unsurprised to learn, the architect for the Findlater’s Corner restoration.

O’Looney oversaw the restoration of Peckham Rye station’s toilets, with the Jesse Rust & Co mosaic floor cleaned and meticulously repaired (a gallery of the project shows the care and attention that went into the project). Where the partitions and WCs of the ladies’ toilets had been demolished, new mosaic tiles in a contrasting colour were used to infill the floor.

The toilets are now part of The Coal Rooms, a bar and restaurant within Peckham Rye station. The old ladies’ toilets, having been accidentally opened up into a large single space, forms the The Coal Rooms’ private dining room. The beautifully restored gentlemen’s toilet is now something of a selling point for The Coal Rooms:

The splendidly restored floor in the tweet above shows what could have been achieved at Havant if only things had played out differently.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Although a local community group was developing a plan to raise funding and ask SWR to restore the Havant station toilets as historic features, the contractors moved in before the local group had the chance to fully develop the proposal. And the contractors, simply doing what they were asked to do, didn’t stop to query with anyone whether it might be worth trying to save the historic fittings and decoration, assuming they even recognised them as historic in the first place.

One silver lining in the modernisation of the gentlemen’s toilets is that the modern sanitary ware has been installed on a new false wall. According to the photos in a recent Facebook post about the work, it appears that in the void between the new wall and the original exterior wall, the 1930s sanitary ware still exists along with small sections of the original wall tiles and mosaic floor.

The case of Havant station’s disappearing 1930s toilets posits an interesting and wider question about railway heritage, namely how to ensure the preservation of small but deserving historic features at railway stations.

Historic fixtures and fittings at listed stations are afforded some degree of protection as part of the fabric – although the example of Peckham Rye shows that even this is no guarantee against accidental removal/destruction.

Then there is the Railway Heritage Designation Advisory Board, overseen by the Science Museum, which recommends railway artefacts and records which should be preserved for the nation. The designation list is fascinating, but unsurprisingly concentrates on nationally significant items and records.

The missing element in heritage preservation on the national railway network is a list of the items which are perhaps less important than those on the designated list, but which are nevertheless historically interesting in relation to the particular station at which they are located. These are the small historical artefacts which give stations character, but which can be lost because they have never been recorded.

Imagine if there was a schedule of such items for each station, against which any proposed upgrade/refurbishment works had to be checked. Works could then take account of these historic items rather than destroying them. It might not be possible to save everything (it never is) but this approach would at least mean someone somewhere in the rail industry would have to give some thought as to how historic features could be retained.

Think of the number of historic features that have slowly been disappearing from railway stations over the years. Light fittings (whatever happened to Chichester’s Mid-Century Modern chandeliers?), water fountains, wooden floors, original doors and windows, weighbridges, seating, handrails, metalwork, fencing, and (of course) toilet interiors. How many could have been retained and adapted for modern needs if someone had thought about it, rather than being destroyed when station upgrades or alterations were carried out?

On the very day I started writing this article, I was reminded that nearly all station weighing machines seem to have vanished over the last couple of decades.

They used to be absolutely everywhere. Is the one at York sufficiently protected by the station’s listing? And what would we lose if it isn’t, and one day the last railway weighing machine is cleared away as a redundant piece of equipment, no longer wanted on the 21st Century railway?

Where smaller but interesting historic features survive, it’s not always clear whether it is by design or simply a happy accident. If the rail industry wants to be sure it is looking after historic features at stations, then it needs to think about the processes it puts in place to achieve this. Otherwise well-meaning modernisation projects will just keep on accidentally sweeping away the heritage that gives context and character to Britain’s railway stations. ⯀

Further Reading and Bibliography

The website of the Railway Heritage Trust

A visit to Brighton’s redundant station toilets

A history of Jesse Rust & Co, and Rust himself, at the Wandsworth Historical Society’s website

More on the restoration of Peckham Rye’s toilets at Southwark Council’s planning portal (in particular do check out the documents with type “photographs and photomontages”)

Benedict O’Looney Architects website

…and anything linked to in the text above


To be alerted to new articles, and for more transport architecture, design, branding and cultural references in between, do consider following The Beauty of Transport on Twitter: @BeautyOfTranspt.

5 thoughts on “R.I.P. W.C. (1930s Southern Railway toilets, Havant station, Hampshire, UK)

  1. Bring back the I Speak Your Weight machines !

    Great fun to step on the platform behind someone and see the reaction when TWENTY-FOUR STONE TWELVE boomed out…

  2. Hello
    I was furious when SWT and Network Rail removed the lovely ogee moulded wooden stair rails from Petersfield station and replaced them with double orange metal ones. They are still extant at Waterloo ,I think.
    I wrote to the philistines at NR but no response

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.