spend a penny

After the last post, on “in for a penny, in for a pound,” I simply had to go look up this phrase, which means ‘use a public lavatory.’

It refers to the use of coin operated locks on public toilets and was heard mostly in the UK. Such locks were first introduced at a public toilet outside the Royal Exchange, London, in the 1850s. The term itself is later though. The first recorded citation of it is in H. Lewis’s Strange Story, 1945: “‘Us girls,’ she said, ‘are going to spend a penny!'”

‘Spend a penny’ has now gone out of use, partly because charges have changed and partly because it was always a euphemism, which now seems rather dated. The writing was on the wall for this phrase in 1977, when the Daily Telegraph printed an article headed “2p to spend a penny.”

However, an article published yesterday in The Independent, an English newspaper, says that National Rail charging the public to relieve themselves has brought train stations millions of pounds in extra income.

The sums involved in ‘spending a penny’ range, for example, from £1.1 million in Manchester Piccadilly to £2.3 million in London Victoria over the last three years.

Dare I say that’s a lot of water down the drains?

And, in at least one case, more than half of that amount is retained in profit instead of going back into maintaining the toilets, in spite of the train company saying the charge is there to prevent vandalism and maintain toilets for those who need the loo.

The paper interviewed the head of policy at the independent watchdog Transport Focus, who said, “Passengers dislike having to pay to use toilets at stations, particularly when they have forked out on an expensive train ticket,” he said. “It is important that money raised is spent on maintaining and improving facilities at stations.”

Being somewhat literal-minded, I keep imagining what it would be like to accumulate a couple of million pounds in tuppence pieces. Though I don’t suppose tuppence coins exist now that the Euro rules in Europe. Too bad! I always liked the names the English used for their coins.

  One thought on “spend a penny

  1. Alice Becker
    September 7, 2015 at 10:19 am

    See a penny, pick it up and all day you’ll have good luck:)



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