Famous netty saved ... that's a relief!

ITS Victorian builders would have been flushed with pride.

More than a century after it was built, the pull of a chain heralded a new era for South Tyneside's most famous public convenience.

The Westoe Netty – subject of an iconic painting by South Shields artist Bob Olley – has become the latest attraction at Beamish Museum, in County Durham, where the men's urinal, dating from 1890, has been lovingly restored in almost every detail.

And while it can't be used for its original purpose, it is still an important symbol of the history of public hygiene in North East England and of the region's entrepreneurial spirit, said John Cuthbert, managing director of Northumbrian Water.

He joined Bob Olley in officially unveiling the netty, whose rebuilding Northumbrian Water helped to fund.

The urinal, which used to stand in Chichester Road and was used by generations of pitmen going to and from Westoe Colliery, was rescued from oblivion in 1996, when Mr Olley and a group of volunteers stepped in to save it, virtually brick by brick.

Surveying the rebuilt loo, which had been poshed-up with blue velvet curtains specially for the occasion, Mr Olley joked: "It looks a lot cleaner than when we took it down!"

More seriously, he said: "It's fascinating to think that the year that it was built was the same year that writer Agatha Christie and comedian Stan Laurel were born, and artist Vincent Van Gogh died.

"It gives it a historical perspective, and you begin to think of all the conversations that must have taken place inside that small space, about events such as the sinking of the Titanic, for instance, or the Battle of the Somme.

"It's a magnificent job that's been done. I'm really proud," said Mr Olley, whose 11-year-old grandson, Sam Olley, helped to recreate the famous scene inside the urinal, seen in his grandfather's painting.

The restoration was a partnership scheme between Northumbrian Water, the Beamish Development Trust and the Friends of Beamish Museum.

Also present at the official opening were members of the Sight Service for visually impaired people in South Tyneside, the North East Council on Addictions (NECA) and young people, all of whom created artwork for an exhibition inspired by associated items – outside privies and so on – in the Beamish collection.