Spending a penny in Warracknabeal is a step back in time, Sarah Harris discovers. Photographs by Brendan McCarthy
When Hilary Willowsmith expressed a desire to join the Country Women’s Association (CWA), one of the doyennes of the local chapter asked: “Are you quite sure, dear?”
“Obviously she was the the one with doubts,” Hilary laughs. “I mean, how can you wear this much make-up and be uncertain about anything?”
Fortunately the self-confessed “glitter goth” – who last year made a dramatic tree change from Chapel Street, Prahran, to the Victorian Wimmera town of Warracknabeal – found a warm welcome in its landmark local loo.
“I remember the first time I stepped in here. It was like stepping back in time, with the beautiful lace tablecloth, visitors’ book and antimacassars on the back of armchairs,” she murmurs as we await the meeting of this most singular organisation to be called to order.
The Warracknabeal and District Ladies Restroom Committee may sound like a title borrowed from an Alexander McCall Smith novel, but this is a real institution of the Australian outback variety.
Time was when many country towns had similar restrooms – most under the auspices of the CWA or other existing voluntary organisations.
But the Warracknabeal restrooms, opened in 1928 in the heart of the town, is perhaps the last stand-alone private toilets with its own dedicated committee and membership – founded as a matter of convenience by women of the Wimmera.
“Before the restrooms were built the women used to come in from the farms with their husbands, travelling miles in horse and buggies,” committee treasurer Laurel Schulz explains.
“The men had the Coffee Palace, but the women were not welcome there. They didn’t have anywhere to go to feed their babies, change them or freshen up.
“So some of the farmers’ wives got together and decided they would form a committee. Mr Andrew Taylor owned the land that the restrooms are built on and he donated it to them as a start.
“They had concerts and all sorts of things to raise money as well as receiving donations.”
Since then the restrooms have served as a oasis for generations of women, only closing its doors for a brief spell in 2005 when the floorboards were replaced.
Now it’s the committee members themselves who are concerned about giving way.
“We are all getting very old. The average age of the committee is about 80. I’m 83 and I’m still treasurer, but I would dearly love to retire,” Laurel admits.
“It’s sort of been an inherited duty,” fellow committee member Elaine Aitkins reveals. “My mother-in-law was in it right from the very start and then one day she said, ‘You are a lot younger than me. You can take over.’ I have been here ever since.
“We are trying to get the younger ones involved,. There are women who are interested, but the thing is so many of them work.”
Although there are council-run public toilets right next door to the restrooms, few local women would countenance using them.
“It is just so much nicer and cleaner here,” Barbara Morrows says, dropping by with her granddaughters after school.
“I have been coming here for 46 years. When I came in from the farm I used to feed my babies in here and use the pushers they had for hire to get them about town.”
Flicking through the visitors’ book it is clear how much this quaint amenity is valued by travellers, like the troupe of passing bellydancers who were so impressed they left a $100 donation.
Another visitor, Val, wrote: “So charming. I love to come in here so we always make Warrack a stop on the way through to Adelaide – even when I don’t really need to use the restroom.”
A more recent entry in childish looping hand says simply: “Awesome!!!!” Then, perhaps realising this may seem a strange admonition to a group of 80-somethings, adding a qualifier: “It means not bad.”