Urinals at Seaburn public conveniences
Urinals at Seaburn public conveniences © Historic England
Urinals at Seaburn public conveniences © Historic England

Two North East Ladies' Loos Listed

Two rare Victorian and Edwardian public toilets in the North East have been listed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of Historic England, giving them greater protection and recognition.

The Bank Hill Ladies public convenience in Berwick-upon-Tweed opened in 1899 and the public conveniences on Seaburn seafront in Sunderland date from between 1901 and 1904. They are historically significant as they are both early examples of lavatories that catered for women.

Public loos were introduced in the second half of the 19th century. However, the vast majority of these facilities were strictly for men only.

One reason for this is 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 cynical ploy to control women’s movements 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. In 1889 a grand municipal women’s convenience opened at Piccadilly Circus, both in the heart of London's West End shopping district. The authorities and local businesses knew 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. 

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. There are captured in the myriad of types included on the List. The lavatories in Berwick and Seaburn reflect the emerging changing social status of women at the beginning of the 20th 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.
Veronica Fiorato, Team Leader for Listing in Northern England Historic England

Resembling a miniature rustic cottage, the design of Bank Hill Ladies public convenience artfully obscured its purpose to shield sensitive Victorians from the reality of public urination.

When it was opened in March 1899, it cost a penny to use and records show that on its first day it attracted 62 customers. The toilets remained in use until the 1950s. Since then it has been used as a council storage facility and as an ice cream parlour.  

The public conveniences at Seaburn catered for both ladies and gentlemen. Situated discreetly underground, they are adjacent to a tram shelter, which has 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.