Coin operated toilet lock

1890-1930 in England

Buy this image as a print 

License this image for commercial use at Science and Society Picture Library

Science Museum Group Collection
© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Coin operated lavatory door lock, stamped 'Howard's Patent 15876/12', with 'engaged ' and 'vacant' display window and slot for penny (1d) coins, c.1890-1930.

The first public toilet in Britain was opened in Fleet Street, London in 1852, at a time when urinating in the street – and worse – was commonplace. Public toilets were maintained and had to be paid for, which restricted the range of citizens who were likely to use them.

Coin operated door locks similar to this brass one would have been a familiar sight to those venturing into the toilets, which were very often built below street level. To lock the door and turn the sign from vacant to engaged, the user had to insert a 1d (one penny) coin into the slot. This is where the expression ‘to spend a penny’ originated.

On display

Science Museum: Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries

If you are visiting to see this object, please contact us in advance to make sure that it will be on display.


Public Health & Hygiene
Object Number:
toilet lock mechanism

Cite this page


We encourage the use and reuse of our collection data.

Data in the title, made, maker and details fields are released under Creative Commons Zero

Descriptions and all other text content are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 licence

Using our data


Download catalogue entry as json

View manifest in IIIF viewer

Add to Animal Crossing Art Generator

Download manifest IIIF

Our records are constantly being enhanced and improved, but please note that we cannot guarantee the accuracy of any information shown on this website.