Outside the Jewellery Quarter Station in Birmingham I came across a cast iron structure known locally as, ‘The Temple of Relief’. In short an abandoned men’s urinal. But, this is no ordinary public convenience, in fact it is considered to be of such architectural and social importance that it is Grade 2 Listed. Upon closer inspection, I could see why.
The designs on the panels represent a nod to the neoclassical architect Robert Adam (1728-1792). A plaque on the outside confirms this: ‘It is designed with a “Floral Adamish” pattern, one of three distinct types used.’ The history behind this unusual structure is also fascinating.
At one time there would have been a number of iron clad urinals right across the City of Birmingham. However, today, only a few, including the one at Jewellery Quarter Station, have survived. Victorian propriety meant that urinating in the street and in full view of the public (female) glare was considered a taboo activity. A visit to a public convenience usually cost a penny, hence the origin of the phrase “I am going to spend a penny”, a polite euphemism for using the toilet. Although, nowadays this has increased thirty-fold. The last time I actually “spent a penny” I found myself parting with thirty pence at Waterloo Station!
The urinal was built c.1880 and manufactured at the Saracen Foundry in Possil, Glasgow. During the Victorian era, The Saracen Foundry was one of the greatest exporters of cast iron to the British Empire. Walter MacFarlane (1817-1885) and his two partners Thomas Russell (brother-in-law) and James Marshall (businessman) set-up W. MacFarlane & Co Ltd in 1850. In 1872, the firm moved into their new seven acre site at Possil. All of this took place at the height of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and on account of the Foundry’s high pollution levels, MacFarlane was given the nickname, ‘the Laird of Fossiltown’.
By the 1890s, the firm employed one thousand two hundred staff, MacFarlane became a local dignitary and served as City Councillor. The Foundry remained in business until 1967 when it closed and the vast ironworks demolished. The company finally went into liquidation in 1970. During its long history, W. MacFarlane & Co Ltd produced countless cast iron civil and commercial structures, ornamental and sanitary castings. Unfortunately, only a small number have survived which is why The Temple of Relief in Birmingham is of such historic importance.
MacFarlane had a brilliant vision for marketing and adjacent to the Foundry at Possil he built a huge showroom containing examples of the firm’s vast range of products. These items included: gutters; bandstands; baths; drinking fountains and even an entire Railway Station. The firm periodically published a trade catalogue. By the end of the nineteenth century this tome contained two thousand pages and six thousand illustrations.
Saracen Foundry’s metalwork was of an extremely high standard and demonstrated a harmonious marriage of art and craftmanship. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to discover that early on in his career, MacFarlane had worked for the Jeweller William Russell, (Argyle Street, Glasgow) and also as Apprentice blacksmith to James Buchanan (Stockwell Street, Glasgow). In addition, he spent ten years as a foundry foreman at Moses, McCulloch & Co, Gallowgate. His thorough knowledge of the iron and metal trade was clearly one of the main reasons for his success.
One of the numerous high-profile commissions that the Saracen Foundry received was to provide cast iron panels for the London department store Selfridges in 1928. In 1911, another important commission was a temporary cast iron structure to house the official ceremony of King George V’s investiture as crowned emperor of India, in Delhi.
So, the next time you pass an unusual structure that catches your eye, stop and take a closer look, you may well be astonished to find a fascinating history behind its public facade.
- Eveleigh, D. J., (2008) Privies and Water Closets, published by Shire publications. Charting the history of the humble toilet from the Elizabethan era to modern-day;
- BBC4 documentary The Toilet: An Unspoken History, presented by Ifor ap Glyn. Available on BBC iPlayer;
- BBC4 documentary series Metalworks! Episode three, ‘The Blacksmith’s Tale’. An interesting programme which features The Saracen Foundry (approximately forty-seven minutes in). Available on BBC iPlayer.