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The ‘Golden Age’ of Newcastle’s Netties

Public Conveniences were, and arguably still should be, part of our urban furniture. As part of her wider project on the subject, Maud Webster examines the history and relationship between the toilets of Newcastle's thoroughfares and the people who used them.


Going to the toilet is a non-negotiable, everyday occurrence, and always has been. During the second half of the 19th century, Newcastle’s public toilet infrastructure rapidly developed, providing facilities for city users, including residents, entertainment-goers and shoppers but also for those who worked in the city’s bustling industries.

When in 1861, the engineering magazine The Builder condemned Newcastle’s public toilet provision, Newcastle’s outraged Town Surveyor at the time retorted:

“The “Netty” alluded to, as “only a single rail over a filthy cesspool” is actually a substantial Water Closet, of approved construction, [...] thoroughly whitewashed with quick lime at frequent intervals, is swept out regularly by the Scavengers of the district, and lighted every night with gas; and there is not more offensive odour or impurity, either within or about the erection, than can be looked for in any place of public convenience”.

Thomas Bryson was Newcastle's Town Surveyor from 1854 until his unfortunate death in 1867. Bryson urged the council to provide more public conveniences in the city, to match the growth of toilet provision in other major cities in England following multiple Cholera outbreaks and nationwide public health reforms.

Insufficient sewage and water systems, intense overcrowding and lack of sanitary facilities left most of Newcastle - especially in the impoverished areas of Pandon, Sandgate and Gateshead - vulnerable to outbreaks of epidemic disease.

Newcastle’s population increased nearly ten-fold during the 19th century, from 28,000 to 215,000 between 1820 and 1900, with new areas of housing expanding across the city. This rapid increase, as well as the rise of the city as an industrial powerhouse, meant the city’s Sanitary Committee needed to act quickly to ensure Newcastle’s sanitary systems could cope with such a large population.

Bryson continued encouraging the council to provide more toilets, arguing: “Additional public urinals would be of great service in the recently extended parts of the Borough”. Numbers of privies and urinals were recorded inconsistently; in 1849, there were 17 public privies, and in 1861, 54 public urinals. OS maps from 1894 show dozens of toilets dotted across the city, predominately in the centre and around the industrious Quayside, Ouseburn and market areas.

Newcastle’s Netty Design

The Victorians designed ornate structures to house their public privies and urinals, and plans now stored in the City Library display carefully thought-out buildings with meticulous attention to materials used. Considerate ventilation, sewage and disinfection strategies underlay intricate designs. Many toilets, including at Bigg Market, Shakespeare Street, Haymarket and Marlborough Cresent, were placed underground - usually with a glazed roof - allowing users private relief in a place that felt removed from the busy thoroughfare above. These more substantial toilets would include walls tiled with neat, glazed, white tiling, and eventually lit by gas (and later electricity), which made them safer spaces for use at night. Smaller urinal block designs - of one or two stalls - would often be intricately patterned and constructed from sturdy cast metal. Though no examples of these structures remain in Newcastle, several prevail (though in disuse) in other parts of England.

Though most toilets constructed in the city during the 19th century used Armitage Shanks cisterns, Newcastle soon had its own high-quality toilet manufacturer. Founded in 1903 and based in Scotswood, Newcastle, the Adamsez Sanitaryware Works produced internationally renowned products. The company created durable fittings, including urinals and cisterns, and examples of their work can be found today in the Royal Station Hotel and the Discovery Museum.

Plans for the Grey Court urinal. Source: Newcastle Libraries
Plans for the Bigg Market 'UFO' urinal. Source: Newcastle Libraries

Lavatories for ladies

All this progress in the public toilet facilities did not always benefit women. There were drastically fewer facilities available to women than to men, partly because more men worked in industry. In 1890, at a meeting of the Newcastle Sanitary Committee, a proposal for more lavatories for women to be placed in various parts of the city was put forth as it was “a matter in which Newcastle [was] behind other great towns".

The council got to work constructing more facilities for women: one such toilet was on High Bridge Street, near where it meets the Bigg Market. This slim building offered a narrow passageway; if you walked through this one hundred years ago you would pass by the attendant’s lobby, with a seat and stove, a sink, and five cubicles. The plans were stamped neatly with the Engineer’s Office’s approval in October 1899 and was constructed shortly after. Following its closure, it now houses a gin bar. The ‘UFO’ toilets on Bigg Market met a similar fate, becoming an upmarket wine bar owned by the same company.

Despite the council’s ambitions to provide more toilets for women, a lack of female conveniences continued well into the 20th century. In 1964, a report listed 63 male toilets but only 24 female toilets in the city. The term 'urinary leash' refers to how the lack of toilets for Victorian women restricted their abilities to access and use the city, only able to travel as far as their bladder allowed them. This term is still relevant today; the lack of toilets in most of England leaves those who rely on reliable toilet access (perhaps due to older age or various medical conditions) restricted in how they travel and use the city.

Ladies Convencies at Grainger Market. Source: Newcastle Libraries

Wealth from Waste

A firm approached the Town Council in 1851 offering to install public urinals on the condition that they collect the ‘produce’ for manures. Human urine was also used in the tanning industry, usually found in the outskirts of cities, such as in Elswick and Ouseburn, due to the horrific smell.

When toilets began charging for use - inviting users to ‘Spend a Penny’ - this meant the council could subsidise the cost of maintenance (and often the wage of an attendant). Proposals for Marlborough Crescent and the Bigg Market urinals display the attendant’s space in the centre of the floor, in a tiny, panopticon-style, wooden room.

Basic facilities such as toilets for workers in the city also bolstered economic opportunities for those coming to spend or sell at markets, work on the docks, or drive people around the city.

Gents Toilet at Heaton. Source: Beamish Collections

Wee Work

The drastic rise of toilets in Newcastle, especially in more industrious areas, was largely spurred by the need to provide for workers. Newcastle was a hub for farmers from across Northumberland and County Durham to sell their stock at markets, including the pig, sheep and cow markets which stood where the Centre for Life is now. Clusters of urinals and even multiple-stall privies provided for these markets, to provide relief for those that had travelled to the city to sell stock.

Urinals were also frequently found next to Cabmen’s Shelters, which were places for drivers of Hansom (horse-drawn) carts to grab a quick bite or have a rest, such as by the urinal at Haymarket. These are facilities which would also benefit ‘nomadic’ workers today, including Uber, Deliveroo and taxi drivers. Newcastle’s Quayside - historically an industrial hub, looking completely different to how it does today - had plenty of urinals for the men who worked on the docks.

Was this era of public toilet provision golden for everyone?

Whilst extensive, the ‘golden age’ of public toilet provision in Newcastle was not so golden for those it neglected. The lack of toilets for women and inaccessible design, often underground, prevented many with physical disabilities access to the toilet.

These issues prevail today; the chronic lack of public toilet provision restricts the ability of those dependent on reliable toilet access to use the city. This includes those who are homeless, who work outside in the city for long periods and people with medical conditions which cause them to need the toilet more frequently.

There are no council-run toilets in Newcastle. A heavy lack of funding for local councils, coupled with no Government-led directives requiring councils to offer public toilets, has left the issue at the bottom of a long list of priorities. In their ‘heyday’, public toilets were abundant but lacked accessibility for many groups. Hopefully, with increased funding and improved policy, Newcastle will again have plenty of public loos - but with thoughtful and inclusive design.

The Shakespeare Street Gents Toilets, Newcastle. Source: Beamish Collections


Maud Webster is a multidisciplinary creative and researcher, originally from Norwich but now living in Newcastle. 

Maud’s particular creative focus is the intersection between the built environment, culture, design and communication.   They recently worked with Newcastle University's Dr Shane McCorristine on a exhibition on the Rise and Decline of Newcastle's Public Toilets, as well as creating a audio walk guide funded by New Writing North exploring the same subject. 

Head to to see all the research.   Find them on Twitter @mdwbstr27 (for however long the site lasts...)


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