The first prime minister of Britain, Robert Walpole, went to Eton College. So did Boris Johnson and David Cameron and more than a dozen others.
Prince William and Prince Harry went there. So did the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, the novelists Henry Fielding and George Orwell, the actors Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, and the economist John Maynard Keynes.
And they all used the toilet.
But the current group of boys at the elite boarding school will not be doing so in the immediate future.
On Tuesday, Eton students did not return to school as scheduled after winter break. Flooding of the Thames had overloaded sewers and caused toilets to back up.
“Following extensive flooding in the region, the Thames Water sewers which serve the town of Eton flooded,” the school said in a statement to The New York Times on Wednesday. “Therefore boys could not return for the scheduled start of term on 9 January, and the College has moved to remote teaching. We are in regular contact with Thames Water as they seek to resolve the situation, and we look forward to welcoming boys back as soon as possible.”
The statement discreetly avoided using the word “toilet.”
“The sewers in the center of Eton won’t cope with the arrival of nearly 1,350 boys,” it said in a slightly more frank letter to parents reported by Bloomberg and other news media outlets. It costs 50,000 British pounds per year, or about $63,500, for boys ages 13 to 18 to attend the school just outside London.
There has been significant flooding in England this month after heavy rainfall. The Thames in some places reached water levels not seen in a decade.
The utility company Thames Water had warned earlier in the week that the weeks of rainfall and high ground water levels had “put huge pressure on our sewers and pumping stations. Water is entering our network above and below ground, and flows from flooded rivers are adding to the problem in some areas.”
In a statement about the Eton closure on Wednesday to The Press Association, the company said: “We are sorry to staff and students who have been impacted. Our teams will be carrying out a cleanup in the coming days once the river levels recede.”
Of course, the bathroom situation at Eton is not the United Kingdom’s most pressing issue. But the incongruity of such a grand institution being laid low by a mundane problem could not help but attract some smiles here and there.
Eton dates to 1440, when it was founded by no less a personage than Henry VI. (His later deposition and death in the Tower of London were unrelated.)
The school initially offered only Latin courses, then Greek and other subjects were slowly added (mathematics, for example, didn’t arrive until 1851).
The school’s traditions include the wearing of a formal uniform, including a tailcoat and stiff collar. Another is the Eton wall game, which involves boys pushing a ball along a wall under arcane rules for an hour, with most games ending with a score of 0-0.
While those traditions continue, the school has made efforts to modernize, celebrating Black and L.G.B.T.Q.+ history months and appointing a director of inclusion education, for example. While still attracting many wealthy and well-connected pupils, Eton has made efforts to add more scholarship students.
But for now, all of that is on hold because of a somewhat earthier problem.