Old Public Toilets Are Some of England’s Hippest Bars
WC Bars is opening a second location in an old Victorian public toilet, spaces which are in surprisingly high demand.
Plenty has changed since the United Kingdom’s Victorian era ended at the turn of the 20th century. For one, the world has Starbucks now, so finding a toilet is a lot easier than it used to be. But back in 1800s England, providing a place for Brits to do their business became a priority, and in densely-populated areas like London, many of these large lavatories were built underground. However, another modern reckoning is that secluded restrooms can attract unsavory behavior, and over the years, most of England’s Victorian public toilets have been decomissioned. Still, a handful of these Victorian structures have found a second life—speaking of unsavory behavior—as literal underground bars.
Following the success of WC Clapham, the now-plural WC Bars has announced plans to open a second location next month: WC Bloomsbury. Opened in 2014, the original location, based in the South London neighborhood of Clapham, offers “wine and charcuterie”—thus creating a double meaning for “WC,” which can also stand for “water closet”—in a lovingly restored and remodeled underground toilet space (which, for the record, is currently being refurbished again and is also planning to relaunch next month).
WC Bloomsbury will bring a similar concept to London’s West End. “It’s been a project we’ve been working on behind the scenes for a while now, so seeing it come to light is really exciting for us,” cofounder Jayke Mangion said announcing the opening. “We’ve worked hard to create a welcoming place in an unexpected and unique space. No pretenses, no egos, just an honest offering with honest prices. We’re all about everyone having a good time in a laidback, simple environment.”
The forthcoming Bloomsbury space is “Grade II listed,” meaning the government requires a certain level of preservation for historical purposes. Along those lines, marble flooring and wall tiles have been saved, original wooden stalls have turned into semi-private booths, and Victorian urinals have even been upholstered into seating—something to ponder while you drink wine and cocktails over small plates and sharing boards.
And the WC Bars team aren't the only Brits in the old bathroom bar game. For instance, Ladies and Gentleman turned underground lavatories in London’s Kentish Town into a self-proclaimed “five star dive bar.” And up north in Yorkshire, a Sheffield-based bar called Public was named “Best Place to Drink” in the UK in the 2018 OFM Awards, despite, you know, being housed in a literal toilet.
So why is England so obsessed with turning old water closets into watering holes? Mangion believes the answer is multifaceted. “Space is a commodity in [London],” he told me via email. “Some old loos have been turned into apartments as well as cafes. The city is full of entrepreneurial creatives, and for us, it was a labor of love also. To have something so old—over 120 years—which has a specific function but then turn it into something completely different appeals to us and is also appreciated by others.”
Meanwhile, it’s hard to open a Victorian toilet bar without access to a Victorian toilet, so you may wonder how prospective owners even find these spaced to begin with. “London has many abandoned ex-public loos, as well as miles and miles of abandoned tube lines—most of them Victorian in design and with loads of character in great locations,” Mangion explained. “They are now really in demand, and local councils see it as an opportunity for a revenue stream. As our first WC in Clapham has been so popular, as well as award-winning, we are lucky enough to be made aware of some them when they come to market.”
He then added, “Councils appreciate the fact that we do all we can to restore them to their original footprint as much as possible, are proven operators, and are independent.” Surely, the last thing you’d want to do is hand over an old rundown public toilet to someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.