(OK they might not be that luxurious…)
Our public facilities – toilets, bath-houses, drinking troughs – embody a proud civic heritage of social responsibility, as well as changing attitudes to public health and cleanliness.
Public toilets also tell a story of social change. The upheavals of the First World War saw the greater presence of lone female travellers, increasing demand for facilities for women. For their place in history and other reasons – even remarkable aesthetics – some historic lavatories are protected by listing.
Joe Flatman, Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England, takes us on a tour of some of the finest examples of public loos across the country:
Public Conveniences, Nelson Street, Hull, Grade II listed
The most recently listed loos are at Nelson Street in Hull, and date to 1926. They are a remarkably complete survival of a facility built for both men and women, when most toilets were built for men only. The joint facilities reflect changing social attitudes, as women travelled out and about more on their own – a testament in part to the freedoms many gained when they contributed to the war effort during the First World War. Constructed of high-quality materials with Art-Nouveau decorative detailing, in recent years these toilets have rightly and regularly featured in the Loo of the Year Awards.
Urinals on the Green, Bristol, Grade II listed
This early public convenience structure illustrates the growth of the Bristol suburbs in the late 19th century, and the facilities provided by the authorities in order to encourage the middle-class environment they aspired to. Manufactured by W. MacFarlane & Company Ltd’s Saracen Foundry in Glasgow, and moved to its current location in 1903-04, the rectangular cast-iron structure is formed of a slender iron frame with decorative panels.
Tram Shelter and Public Toilets, Brighton, Grade II listed
Proudly in use as a café and (still open) public toilets, including re-equipped disabled facilities, the 1926 loos on the Old Stein in Brighton were originally designed as a tram shelter and public convenience by the Borough Engineer, David Edwards, in a streamlined art-deco style; this is an architectural style most familiarly seen in London underground stations of the time.
Gentleman’s Public Convenience, Bournemouth, Grade II listed
The List entry for the gentlemen’s lavatories at Holdenhurt Road in Bournemouth describes them as ‘a witty and carefully detailed solution to a utilitarian structure’. Dating to 1905, these comprise a small circular structure part sunk below street in red brick in Edwardian ‘Lutyenesque’ style. They make a distinctive presence in this resort town, and like the later facilities at Brighton mentioned above, reflect the optimistic and cheery spirit of coastal towns of this period, to which hundreds of thousands of visitors flocked at the major public holidays.
Public Conveniences at Victoria Embankment, Nottingham, Grade II listed
Dating to 1901, the facilities internal treatment is of a high quality, with coloured bands of wall tiling, grey marble wash hand basins and urinals, raised geometric patterns on the ceiling, and mosaic and terrazzo floors, all combining to create rich decorations that have been preserved in a remarkable state of intactness, retaining almost all of their original fixtures and fittings. These are among the finest surviving such facilities in the country.
Public Lavatories, South End Green, Camden, London, Grade II listed
The toilets here have important cultural heritage for the LGBTQI community: they were a favourite ‘pick-up point’ of playwright Joe Orton, appearing in Prick Up Your Ears, the 1987 film about him.
Dating to 1897, the public lavatories were built by the London and North-Western Railway at a transport hub where trains and buses (originally trams) intersect to this day, the below-ground structure is entirely tiled in elegant green and white wall tiles and chequered black and white floor tiles.
Public Lavatories, Herefordshire, Grade II listed
Ledbury in Herefordshire has a charming set of public lavatories discreetly installed in an old range of outbuildings on an ancient lane in the heart of the historic town. Probably of 17th century date (although with newer facilities), the timber-framed buildings, with brick and plaster panels beneath a neatly tiled roof with dormers, blend in so well that many visitors probably pass them by, except those in need… Are these the most atmospheric public loos in England?
Urinal, Shropshire, Grade II listed
Elsewhere in the heart of England, Minsterley in Shropshire has another, less discreetly placed set of (men’s only) urinals at the square in the centre of the village. Probably of late 19th century date, the facilities may be modest but they include some fine metalwork with pierced geometrical patterns, a moulded top rail with cresting and a central dog ‘gargoyle’ to front. Each main metal plate also has boldly inscribed: ‘PLEASE ADJUST YOUR DRESS / BEFORE LEAVING.
Gentleman’s Urinal, Norwich, Grade II listed
The gentlemen’s urinals at St Crispin’s Road, Norwich are thought to be the oldest surviving pre-cast concrete urinals to survive in Britain. Dating to 1919 and designed by A. E. Collins, the City Engineer, they are a rare survival of the use of such technology for public toilets, which were normally of brick or – as in several of the examples here – simple sheet metal. The toilets have a glazed roof above a decagonal (ten–sided) single-storey structure; inside, cast concrete panels have an embossed repeating floral pattern.
Did you know that there are 90 public conveniences on the List? You can find them and other fascinating listed places on the List here. You can also Enrich the List with your own knowledge and images of these special places.
- News Story: Listing of Humber Bridge and Philip Larkin’s House mark celebrations of Hull’s heritage
- Explore the history of Kingston upon Hull with our free Walk History app.