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HomeThat Reminds MeThat Reminds Me: Izal, a proper pain in the derrière

That Reminds Me: Izal, a proper pain in the derrière

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AN abiding memory of primary school days is desperately needing a number two but holding it in until home time. One reason was the disgusting state of the bogs; out in the yard, open to the elements and seldom cleaned. The other was Izal lavatory paper.

For those lucky enough not to have encountered it, the excrescence that was Izal Medicated Toilet Tissue was invented in the late 19th century by a chemist named Jason Hall Worrall. The shiny sheets, used one at a time from wall dispensers, were supposedly rough on one side while the other bore a waterproof disinfectant derived from coal. Izal was ideal for outside khazis because it repelled moisture. For the same reason it was useless for wiping your bum, leaving it chapped and sore.

Izal, allegedly an anagram of Worrall’s sister Liza, was used initially in hospitals, schools and public conveniences before being rolled out in 1922 to a population which had until then mainly made do with torn-up newspaper impaled on a nail in the wall. In World War II it was printed with a cartoon of Adolf Hitler so the Fuhrer could kiss your arse. This was later replaced by the legend ‘Now wash your hands’.  

According to the adverts, ‘Mother knows best. She looks for fine tissue that’s smooth and soft and safe, for the hygiene and protection that only Izal Germocide gives.’

Well my mother knew better. She refused to have Izal in the house, opting instead for the more expensive and backside-friendly Andrex.

By the mid-50s, Izal’s domination was under threat. Soft toilet tissue had taken off in America and threatened to cross the Atlantic in a big way. In 1956, according to this site from the Wellcome Foundation,  Izal’s makers asked psychologists from the Tavistock Institute to investigate whether the public were ready for soft, unmedicated bog roll.

After more than 400 interviews the Tavistock reported that the market was ‘softening up’ but with regional variations. Glaswegians still swore by newspaper and in Yorkshire there was distrust in the new two-ply because it was seen as ‘unreliable’.

‘Any new paper would have to be marketed as strong and good value for money to win over these customers. And people were reluctant to change their bathroom fittings, so free roll-holders might be an incentive to change.

‘In London, Birmingham and Manchester women and young couples were making the move to soft paper. Men were more used to “rubbing or scraping” and would need to be trained to use soft paper without dirtying their hands. As for medication, people “turn their noses up” at Izal (literally, almost since the smell of the medication is one of the things which degrades it). Bromo was a strong competitor in the “hard” category and Andrex was becoming synonymous with “soft” so Izal needed to act fast if they were to get in on the game.

‘But speedy change was not to be in the British toilet-paper stakes (Americans liked soft paper but the psychologists recorded that Brits thought the Yanks were “extravagant” and prone to crazes that would pass.) So it was that in 1970, the British civil service were just beginning to consider whether they should adopt soft toilet tissue.

‘The Directory of Supply had advised that the annual bill for loo paper would increase from £370,000 to £1million in the switch to soft, so it would need to impress. Dr Daniel Thomson of the civil service Medical Adviser’s Office asked his friend Sir Graham Wilson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to investigate whether this newfangled soft paper was up to the job.

‘Wilson went to remarkable lengths to compare toilet papers. He studied them under the microscope, tested their absorbency (hard toilet paper takes two hours to absorb a drop of water!) and perhaps most crucially he conducted a “porosity test”. He pressed the third finger of his right hand on to paper with a stool sample underneath [and they say science isn’t glamorous!] then pressed this on to a Petri dish. Would germs get through?

‘Wilson’s report to Thomson explained that with soft paper “people’s fingers would be virtually in contact with the faecal material” and so “until the washing of hands after defecation becomes a universal practice” soft toilet tissue simply posed too great a risk to health.

‘Though the civil service could not accept toilet paper, British householders did.’

Andrex’s first incarnation had been in 1942, as a disposable two-ply paper handkerchief made by the London company St Andrew Mills Ltd and sold exclusively at Harrods.

In 1956 St Andrew Mills formed a joint venture with the Bowater company, specialising in tissue products including lavatory paper.

What really made Andrex take off was a TV ad in the early 70s showing an adorable yellow labrador pup trailing a toilet roll through the house – ‘It’s soft, strong . . . and very long.’ The original idea had been for a little girl to strew the paper but TV regulators put the kybosh on it because it would ‘encourage children to be wasteful’.

Since then some 130 ads have featured ‘the Andrex puppy’. The Ashworth family are devoted followers of the brand, particularly since it brought in ‘Supreme Quilts’, and have an Andrex pup of our own, Teddy. Here he is aged five weeks when we visited the breeder to choose from a litter of six. In fact Teddy chose us, immediately coming up and licking my hand.

And here he is now, a big lad aged two.

Izal retained some of its fans, including my late father-in-law, who swore by it and used it up to his death. It was also useful as tracing paper, and could when combined with a comb be used as a crude wind instrument akin to a kazoo.

The brand was sold to Jeyes in 1986 and was finally put out of its misery in 2010. Bizarrely, there is still a healthy market for Izal on eBay although I can’t imagine why, unless it’s as props for period dramas featuring school bogs.

Old jokes’ home

I can’t count to ten in French: un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept . . .  Aarrgghh! I’ve got a huit allergy.

A PS from PG

If the prophet Job were to walk into the room at this moment, I could sit swapping hard-luck stories with him till bedtime.

PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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