The two rare ladies loos which have been given Grade II listed status

Two North East ladies loos have been listed partly for their role in women’s struggle for social equality.

The loos, in Berwick and on Seaburn seafront in Sunderland, have been singled out as early examples of conveniences which catered for women, giving them greater social freedom.

The Bank Hill Berwick loo which opened in 1899 was disguised as a half-timbered cottage, while the Seaburn convenience, which dates from 1901-1904, is discreetly sited underground..

“The Berwick convenience is in the form of a rustic to protect the modesty of Berwick ladies,” said Myra Tolan-Smith, a senior North listing advisor for Historic England.

“The Berwick and Seaburn loos are rare examples of early lavatories for women and they reflect the social status of women and the mindset of those times.

“The Seaburn loos, which also catered for gentlemen, are a fantastic survival with their original fixtures and fittings. The National Heritage List for England is not just about stately homes.”

Public loos were introduced in the second half of the 19th century and were installed in workplaces, railway stations, parks, shops, pubs and restaurants. However, the vast majority were strictly for men only.

One reason was that Victorian ladies were considered too modest to answer the call of nature when away from their homes.

Another theory is that it was a means to control women’s social activities and ambitions outside of the home. The lack of facilities meant that women were often forced to stay close to home, a restriction known as the “urinary leash.”

The first public ladies lavatories didn’t arrive until the late 1800s and the impetus behind them was largely commercial.

The Ladies Lavatory Company only opened its first near Oxford Circus in London in 1884 and in 1889 a grand municipal women’s convenience opened at Piccadilly Circus, both in the heart of the West End’s shopping district.

(Image: handout)

Businesses realised that it made financial sense to keep female shoppers there as long as possible. If they could “spend a penny” when necessary, they would be more likely to spend money in the shops.

Even so, ladies public toilets still remained relatively uncommon until after the First World War, when women were given greater social freedom.

Veronica Fiorato, team leader for listing in Northern England, said: “Many people often think of listed buildings only as churches, castles and grand stately homes but buildings like toilets are also an important part of our nation’s rich history.

“The lavatories in Berwick and Seaburn reflect the emerging changing social status of women at the beginning of the 20 th century. The appearance of toilets like these represented the gradual opening up of a world of new leisure and work opportunities previously unavailable to women.”

When the Berwick convenience opened in March 1889 it cost a penny to use and records show that on its first day it attracted 62 customers.

The toilet remained in use until the 1950s and since then has been used as a council storage facility and last functioned as an ice cream parlour called the Loovre.

The underground Seaburn public conveniences are adjacent to a tram shelter, which has itself also been listed. The lavatories retain many of their original features including hand basins, urinals and toilets, as well as the decorative partitions in the washroom, and cubicles.

They closed in the 1960s but were recently restored and opened again in 2018.

Other listed loos in the North East include:

The fort is home to Britain’s best preserved Roman toilets.

The 800 soldiers garrisoned at the fort weren’t given any privacy when they needed to go to the loo.

The toilet block, which can still be seen today, was open plan so the men sat next to each other and chatted while they let nature take its course.

Toilet paper wasn’t around then and so the alternative was a sponge on a stick, washed and shared by the men.

  • Pill box at Seaton Sluice in Northumberland.

Part of a First Word War costal emplacement, archaeologists believe the pill box was probably a defensible latrine..

The phrase “spend a penny” refers to the amount it cost to use public facilities.

The newly listed toilets in Berwick had an attendant who took the penny from each customer.

Later a penny coin was used to operate locks on public toilets.

There was panic buying of loo rolls earlier this year. But mass manufacturing of modern toilet paper did not begin until the late 19th century.

In 1879, British businessman Walter Alcock created toilet paper on a roll. He was the first to come up with the perforated toilet roll, a development on the flat sheet.

Chronicle Live – Sunderland