Loos and pews

Published: Friday, December 12, 2014


Toilets are essential to the long term survival of the UK's churches and chapels, says Huw Edwards, broadcaster and journalist.

His comments were made in an article first published in The Lady magazine on 12 December 2014 which you can read in full below. Huw Edwards is a Vice President of the National Churches Trust.

If you are visiting London, I can highly recommend a trip to see Wesley's Chapel, the great Methodist church built on the fringes of the City by John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement. This remarkable complex of buildings includes John Wesley’s house, one of London’s finest surviving examples of a small Georgian residence, and contains many of his belongings and furniture.

While there, you may well be tempted to see one of London’s finest historic toilets. Dating back to 1899, they are a great example of the work of the famous Thomas Crapper, champion of the flushing toilet and inventor of the ballcock system.

Crapper, who contrary to popular belief did not give his name to the colloquial term for bowel movements (that particular word dates from Anglo-Saxon times), received the first royal warrant for sanitary-ware from Prince Edward in the 1880s, and the company he founded lasted until 1963.

Although the Wesley’s Chapel toilets are well over a century old, this place of worship is in a much better position than many other of the UK’s churches, chapels and meeting houses, all too many of which have no facilities available to cater for our urgent needs.

The most recent Church of England statistics show that only about half of its 16,000 churches have functioning conveniences. That means that people visiting many of our most beautiful and historic places of worship have to find other places to go when nature calls.

Answering the call

Andrew Perry, vicar of the 800 year-old St Nicholas church in Portslade near Brighton, is often to be found showing people to his house - even before wedding services - so that they can answer the call. He admits this is time he’d rather spend soothing the nerves of an often anxious bride and bridegroom.

In fact, the National Churches Trust, which for over 60 years has been funding the repair of churches, is receiving more and more requests for funding to install lavatories. Last year, toilets topped the list of funding requests to the Trust’s Community Grant programme for the third year running.

These facilities allow churches to be become more welcoming to worshippers, especially those with young children, and to people attending weddings or christenings. They’re also essential for churches wanting to increase use by the wider local community, for example by hosting playgroups, local clubs or charities and events such as concerts.

Increasing use

Of course, it’s important that toilets are installed in keeping with the architecture of the building. But while it’s true that churches, chapels and meeting houses are full of history, the people looking after them know that buildings can’t be stuck in the past. Many church buildings have adapted and changed over the decades and centuries. And installing modern facilities is essential to increasing their use and safeguarding their future.

Why not become a Friend of the National Churches Trust and help our work supporting the UK's churches, chapels and meeting houses.

Last year, the Trust helped provide 16 places of worship with new toilet facilities.

These included St Mary’s church in Hay-on-Wye in Powys, Wales. Originally built in the early 12th century, the church wanted to install toilets to benefit parishioners and children attending Sunday school and youth groups. But it also wanted to expand its music programme (the church is already used by the BBC during the Hay Literary Festival to record lunchtime concerts) and to bring in more of the local community for meetings and other activities. Proper facilities were also considered essential to allow the church to increase its income from people wanting to hire the church, thereby helping ensure its long term future.

The toilets at St Mary’s are now open for use and churchwarden Dr Terry Watson says the church community is delighted. The church is now planning a production of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Noyes Fludde’ next May. This will involve over 30 children taking part over two days of rehearsal and three days of production which would have been impossible without the new facilties.

Bath Quaker Meeting House

Bath Quaker Meeting House, which is right in the central historic quarter of the city, already had toilets, they were in the basement of the building and off limits to anyone unable to make it down two steep flights of stairs. Now a new fully-accessible toilet is available for anyone to use. Installed as part of a wider scheme, which included a lift for disabled people and a new kitchen, the scheme has just received the Mayor of Bath's 2014 Access Challenge Award which recognises a business or public place in Bath that has made a positive contribution to accessibility for people with disabilities.

Although grants to pay for toilets and other community facilities are in increasing demand, they make up only a small proportion of the National Churches Trust’s funding. The majority of the £1,557,000 grants it awarded or recommended in 2013 to 139 places of worship went to help fund urgent roof repairs. That’s because it’s vital to keep roofs in good condition - if a roof leaks, then the building gets damaged and you get a bigger problem.

The cost of installing community facilities and repairs is often far beyond the financial means of most congregations. And contrary to popular belief, central church authorities or the government do not make money available for church repairs. Instead, it’s up to the parish to find the money from local people.

Loos and roofs may not sound like the most glamorous subjects. But they are essential to the long-term survival of many of our nation’s finest churches.