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20th Century Pub pubs

When did ladies’ toilets in pubs become a thing?

We take it for granted today that a pub will have toilet facilities for women but this wasn’t always the case – and they arrived surprisingly late in the game.

What prompted us to look into this, as is so often the case these days, was a question asked on Twitter:

Though we’ve written extensively about 20th century pubs, and a fair bit about Victorian ones, and occasionally about pub toilets (oh, the glamour!) this wasn’t something we felt able to answer off the top of our heads.

Grabbing a couple of books, we gave a provisional response…

…and then spent yesterday evening and a little time this morning digging further.

The first stop was Mark Girouard’s Victorian Pubs from 1975. This hefty book goes into enormous detail on the development of pubs in the 19th century and, helpfully, includes quite a few floor plans of important or typical establishments.

SOURCE: Victorian Pubs, Mark Girouard, 1975.

In the example above, photographed from original architect’s plans, you can see that the only toilet facilities at all are two urinals on the far side of the billiard room. The pub in question is The Assembly House in Kentish Town, North London, built in 1896, as a big, beautiful state of the art city pub – not some ancient provincial grot-hole.

Is the omission of toilet facilities an oddity of this particular establishment? Perhaps they just forgot to put them in?

Well, other plans in the book – not always original, sometimes redrawn – show pubs from around the same time with urinals only, sometimes in the yard or leaning against an outer wall of the pub.

One particularly interesting example, The Queen Victoria in Southwark Park Road, actually lost its ‘WC’ in an 1891 refit, thereafter having only one small urinal – but more drinking space.

Girouard provides floor plans of all four floors of the grand Elephant and Castle, built in 1897. The ground floor has no toilet facilities at all; on the second floor, again accessible only via the ‘billiard saloon’, there are ‘Gents’. The hotel rooms on the third floor share a single ‘WC’ – presumably reserved for guests.

At this point, we paused to take stock and think about toilets more generally. (How did we end up like this?) Fortunately, Historic England provides a pocket history of the ‘public convenience’ online:

By the late Victorian era many local authorities were providing public conveniences. It was routine to find toilets in workplaces, railway stations, parks, shops, pubs, restaurants and an array of other places… The vast majority of the early facilities only served men. One explanation may be that Victorian society believed ‘modest’ women would not wish to be seen entering a public convenience… The lack of provision for women meant that they were often forced to stay close to home. This restriction is known as the ‘urinary leash’. Today some consider it to be a deliberate means of controlling women’s movements and ambitions outside of the home.

With that in mind, it makes sense that little would be done to provide ladies’ toilets in pubs, where women were not quite welcome or proper. That’s not to say women didn’t go to pubs or enjoy drinking – only that they were primarily male spaces where women were more-or-less grudgingly permitted, and judged.

It feels obvious but we can probably say, then, that ladies’ toilets in pubs became more common, then standard, as the presence of women in pubs became more common, then standard.

That aligns broadly with:

  • women’s liberation during and after World War I
  • the ‘improved public house’ movement.

In his 1947 book The Renaissance of the English Pub architect and historian Basil Oliver provides plans of many pubs built during the first half of the 20th century, on ‘improved’ lines. Most of these do include a ‘Ladies Lav’, ‘Ladies WC’ or even ‘Ladies cloaks’. He provides interesting commentary, too:

[On] the general question of lavatories, a most important one in planning a public house. Mr. H. R. Gardner, F.R.I.B.A., in an article on ‘The Modern Inn, Design and Planning’, refers to the arrangement of the entrances to men’s and women’s lavatories which, as he concisely puts it, ‘may be placed directly from their respective bars, with proper supervision, but in no way secluded; and on the other hand they may be placed near the entrances to the bars and dining room with less supervision but more seclusion. In the smaller houses economy may be achieved by placing one lavatory for men between the saloon and public bars, with an entrance from each.’… Town standards in sanitary arrangements are not invariably applicable to public houses in country towns and rural places. Even where lavatories are incorporated inside the building, in the up-to-date manner, it is usually desirable in any case to supplement them with urinals in yards and gardens. Customers expect to find them there and, if nuisance is to be avoided, such conveniences should be provided. The habits of centuries can be neither suddenly nor easily changed…

He also observes that “ample and convenient lavatory accommodation, for both sexes” was a notable feature of pubs in the Carlisle State Management Scheme, from 1916 onward. In Liverpool, he tells us, there was an expectation that brewers would include separate facilities for men and women on both the cheap and more exclusive sides of each pub. Here’s an example, The Farmers’ Arms, Huyton, from 1934:

SOURCE: The Renaissance of the English Pub, Basil Oliver, 1947.

So, to answer that original question, a pub with ladies’ toilets wouldn’t have been astonishing in 1930 but would have been a sign that it was an up-to-date establishment.

12 replies on “When did ladies’ toilets in pubs become a thing?”

I wonder if this influenced the idea that women don’t like beer.

Taking alcohol in smaller volumes with higher abv’s means your less likely to need to urinate, so if women were in the pub then they probably avoid beer.

In 1951, when my parents attempted to enter a pub in Swansea, South Wales, they were firmly informed that the pub did not serve women. I suspect that this was still true of a large number of pubs, in which case, of course, they had no need for female lavatorial facilities …

The Whip in Leeds was originally men only and when women were allowed in in the early 1970s, it still didn’t have a ladies toilet.

In Newark in the early 1970s the gents in most pubs was a shed in the yard. Basically a wall with a trough to take the piss away.

The Late Victorian and Edwardian pubs of Leeds often had magnificent gents, but the ladies were mostly on the first floor. I’m guessing because they were a later addition. The Victoria had public toilets right next to it.

In the 1980s I can remember being in pubs in Brussels that were unisex. To get to the ladies section women had to walk past the urinals.

Not impossible it was the latter. Or they might use the management facilities behind the scenes. Or pop out to a public toilet.

When we opened a bar (2 years ago) we made the deciion not to provide separate men’s and womens’ toilets. they were both single occupancy rooms with identical facilites and so we felt it was reasonable to leave them as toilets without a gender; there was a stength of feeling from our new customers that really supprised us. We got multiple complaints until we stuck signs on the door deliniating men and women.

When one is aiming from a distance and with considerable latitude in two directions, one’s aim is likely to be poor. Moreover, one is unlikely to become closely acquainted with the consequences of poor aiming by others, making precision seem less than vital. Keep the rotary sprayers to their own faciltiies, I say. (Plus I’ve never yet gone into a unisex bog, however small, without being concerned I’ll meet a woman coming out & freak her out.)

The Star Inn in Bath, has a couple of old planning applications attached to the wall, which show toilets being put in, and various alterations. They are stamped early 1900s and 1926 (I think, it’s obviously been a while since I was allowed in, so haven’t seen them), I think the later planning application is the one which put ladies into The Star which ages the ladies in The Star to 1926, which is mad really! Happy to be corrected by someone with a) a better memory than me, or b) actual knowledge!

I think The Geldart was the last pub in Cambridge to operate without ladies’ toilets, into early/mid-1990s. Any female customer declaring a need would be escorted by the landlady to the gents. She would forbid new entrants, let the female in once all occupants had left, and stand guard at the door.

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