Alison Steadman in Ladies. Photo: Mike Garnell
Published: 30 January, 2017
by JANE CLINTON
IT reads like a very modern protest: the campaign against the lack of public lavatories on our high streets.
But a new radio play, Ladies, starring Alison Steadman, in fact charts the real-life battle by a group of women to get lavatories for women installed in Park Street (now Parkway) in Camden at the turn of the 20th century,
The year was 1903 and Camden Town’s population and workforce of women were growing. The only problem was, with no staff lavatories in the workplace and little chance to relieve themselves on their way to and from work, the movement of women was greatly curtailed.
Many women could only manage half a day before they would have to return home to use the toilet.
In more desperate circumstances they would resort to using the back alleys to relieve themselves; their long dresses the only means to protect their modesty.
The adverse effect economically, politically and socially on women, particularly working-class women, was immense.
Resistance to public lavatories for women (mainly by men) was bound up with outdated notions of femininity, decorum and, in some cases, a fear of the impact the freedom of movement of women could have on social (read patriarchal) order.
With public conveniences women would no longer be confined to the home but would be able to roam the streets freely. It was an idea that terrified the old, male, guard.
Ladies, was written by Laura Harvey, made by the Wireless Theatre Company and directed by Cherry Cookson and was inspired by a London Loos Tour Laura went on.
The comic potential of the Edwardian Ladies Sanitary Association’s proposal to build a women’s public convenience is exploited to great effect in the play, but the seriousness of the issue is also keenly felt.
Emancipation from the shackles of the home foreshadowed a greater independence for women.
Unsurprisingly, when the proposal for public conveniences for women was made to St Pancras Vestry Council, it was met with horror and incredulity. But this only served to strengthen the women’s resolve.
Barriers were put up, plans were stalled and when a wooden model of the proposed toilets was constructed on the junction of Park Street and Camden High Street, many believed the increase in traffic “collisions” with the model were in fact acts of sabotage by disgruntled opponents.
Some were simply against the idea of women having public conveniences, while others believed such a development would bring down property prices.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw, who was a Vestryman and served St Pancras between 1897 and 1903, was a supporter of women’s public conveniences. He believed the “traffic accidents” to be the work of pranksters and described the five-year battle for the installation of the conveniences as a “grotesque struggle”.
Eventually, however, on December 20, 1905, following a report from the Highways, Sewers and Public Works Committee, the borough quietly agreed to a public Ladies convenience in Park Street. It still stands to this day at the junction between Parkway and Camden High Street.
For Alison Steadman, who plays the officious and unforgiving (but fictitious) Ines of the Edwardian Ladies Sanitary Association, the play is timely given the recent closure of so many public lavatories.
“We’re closing everything: post offices and public conveniences,” she told Review at a live recording of the play at The Lion & Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town.
“Someone was saying yesterday that if you go around London there are virtually no public toilets left. It’s absolutely disgraceful.
“What is it? Suddenly as human beings have our bodies changed? Do we need to not use toilets anymore? It’s just bonkers. It’s councils saving money, that is what it is. It’s crazy.
“We don’t need one on every street corner, but we do need them and it’s no use saying you can go into pubs. Pubs don’t like you using their toilets unless you are a customer, nor do cafés.”
Despite the sweep of time, it is a rallying cry for public lavatories that echoes the battle fought and won by women in Camden all those years ago.
• Ladies is available to download for £1.49 from the Wireless Theatre Company at www.wirelesstheatrecompany.co.uk/product/ladies/
• Tribune readers are eligible for a £5 discount token off the annual subscription to the Wireless Theatre Company. Go to www.wirelesstheatrecompany.co.uk and use the code LadiesCNJ, which is valid until February 24, 2017.