Monday, 3 December 2012

Mrs Hughes: The Loo Lady

This tiny book may weigh in at only 67 pages but it’s an utterly fascinating read. Ladies’ Mile is “the remarkable and shocking story of twilight Bristol” as seen through the eyes of Victoria Hughes, who was a toilet attendant on Durdham Downs from 1929 to 1962.

The book was edited by David Foot, and published in 1977 by a small Bristol company called Abson, whose other titles included A Guide To Hip Language & Culture (35p), and How Not To Do Your Duty (36p). Such is the legacy of Mrs Hughes that in 2006 she was entered into the OxfordDictionary of National Biography, as reported in the Daily Telegraph

The reason for Mrs Hughes’ work being so particularly important is that she kept diaries and notebooks during her decades working on the Downs, in which she logged the comings and goings of various characters, as well as some bizarre scrapes she found herself in due to befriending them – including having to cycle home down Blackboy Hill wearing nothing but her raincoat one night, after becoming infesting with lice!

As you can imagine, working on the Downs in the small hours meant that the bulk of Mrs Hughes’ customers were ladies of the night, for whom the Downs was a key and profitable area in the pre and post war years. But all the while she is portrayed as a matronly lady who passes her time by knitting, and who keeps the kettle handy for anyone who needs a warming brew.

Ladies’ Mile was published when Mrs Hughes was 80 and enjoying her retirement, but even on publication in the late 1970s the subject matter was shocking to some readers. Those readers who might be offended by talk of women being forced to sell their bodies to feed their children, pensionable women who had no alternative but to sell themselves against a tree, and the grim realities of dealing with sexually transmitted diseases in the unenlightened times (and before penicillin) etc. Indeed, Mrs Hughes herself only started working as a ‘loo lady’ because her husband was unable to work due to a war injury and they had two children.

In 2012 it’s sadly rather more difficult to be shocked by such stories, as they’re so normalised by the news, TV and film. Yet there remained two aspects of Ladies’ Mile that really affected me.

The first was an anecdote at the very beginning of the book about a young woman who goes into a cubicle and doesn’t emerge for quite some time. When she does, she looks shaky and upset but refuses offers of help and scuttles away (apparently to a nearby pub). When Mrs Hughes goes into the cubicle, she finds a dead premature baby wrapped in newspaper and left inside “the white enamel container”. Mrs Hughes’ written response is very revealing about her own nature, and her determination to be kind and comforting to whomever uses her facilities: “The noonday miscarriage left me with conflicting thoughts. I hated the cold-blooded way she had brazenly confronted us and walked out as though nothing had happened. But I wanted to sympathise with her at the same time. I was haunted by her chalk-white face and hands that were trembling.”

And it’s this kindly attitude that must be remembered and born in mind when reading, all throughout Ladies’ Mile, Mrs Hughes’ seemingly throwaway references to the ‘whores’ and ‘tarts’ who use her facilities, and even to the casual manner she recalls the women who threatened, or achieved, suicide due to their utterly miserable lives. While this disrespectful language shocked me, I tried to keep in mind that the book was written in a long past generation when attitudes were not as understanding as they now are. Mrs Hughes herself states that she tried never to moralise or to tell the prostitutes to give up their trade.

Ladies’ Mile is long out of print, and second hand copies are extremely expensive. However, a number of Bristol libraries stock the book – which in itself in an achievement, because on publication in the late 1970s, many libraries were wary of carrying such a book!

Mrs Hughes’ toilets were commemorated with a blue plaque on 22 September 2003. The inscription reads: “Victoria Hughes 1897-1978, who befriended and cared for prostitutes when she worked here as a lavatory attendant from 1929-1962.” Please click here for details.

  • Article about Mrs Hughes on Flickr

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