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Listed status for toilets that helped free women from ‘urinary leash’

Historic England said its protection is not just for churches and stately homes.

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(Historic England/PA)

(Historic England/PA)

(Historic England/PA)

Victorian and Edwardian public toilets that helped women escape the “urinary leash” have been given Grade II listed status.

The 1899 Bank Hill ladies public convenience in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, and the 1904 toilets on Seaburn seafront in Sunderland are historically significant as they are rare early examples of lavatories that catered for women.

The first public toilets in the second half of the 19th century were opened in workplaces, railway stations, parks, shops, pubs and restaurants, but the vast majority were strictly for men only.

Victorian ladies were thought too modest to answer the call of nature when away from their homes.

It has also been suggested it was a cynical ploy to keep women close to home as the lack of facilities meant they were unable to travel far – a restriction known as the “urinary leash”.

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Seaburn toilets were opened in thr Edwardian era (Historic England/PA)

Seaburn toilets were opened in thr Edwardian era (Historic England/PA)

Seaburn toilets were opened in thr Edwardian era (Historic England/PA)

The first ladies’ lavatories were opened in London’s West End in the 1880s, meaning women could shop for longer.

But conveniences for women remained rare until after The First World War, when women won more social freedom.

The Berwick toilet was designed to look like a rustic cottage, artfully obscuring its purpose to shield sensitive Victorians from the reality of public urination.

It remained in use until the 1950s and has since been used as a council storage facility and even an ice cream parlour. 

The underground toilets at Seaburn catered for men and women. They were closed in the 1960s but were recently restored and opened again in 2018.

Debbie Mays, head of listing at Historic 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.

“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 end of the 19th and 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.”

PA