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How Convenient are our Conveniences? The demise of the underground facilities in Dunedin 1910-1980s.

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Chapter Four: 'Modern' Toilets

“The time of the people climbing downstairs and disappearing into the earth should be over” Iona Williams, Dunedin City Councillor, 1987

The 1960s saw a wide scale change to the architectural style and design of public toilets in Dunedin. By the 1970s there was still demand for improved public facilities and there continued to be a demand for more facilities for women. Even though Dunedin City Council had designed the new toilets to be as vandal proof as possible, anti-social behaviour still plagued the toilet sites.


International Trends

Dunedin followed the international trends of public facilities and public sanitation, although in Dunedin demolitions occurred earlier than some countries overseas. In the United Kingdom economic pressures on local authorities during recession times meant that many toilets were closed due to high maintenance costs and increasing anti-social behaviour within the spaces. The entrances were simply locked, which was a cheaper alternative to demolition. Some areas brought back entry charges as a way to offset costs again.

Closer to New Zealand, Australia began to decommission their underground facilities due to the problems of ongoing vandalism, damage and public safety concerns. In recent times, underground conveniences built in the early 1900s were demolished and filled in. The earliest public underground in Sydney remains with a heritage status protecting it, having been built in 1907.


In 1974 continued complaints regarding the state of the undergrounds and Frederick Street toilets were presented to Council. The Frederick Street toilets were described as “many years [being] in a disgraceful state”. The City Health Inspector was at a loss at this description, as they were being cleaned three times a day.2 The Health Inspector explained to the Town Clerk that the Frederick Street toilets were built of concrete block with a concrete floor. “They were constructed about 20 years ago and have given reasonably good service. If they were rebuilt today, they would have a tiled surface in the interior with stainless steel fittings”.3 These surfaces meant it should be easier to maintain and it was harder to graffiti. The Town Clerk responded “it seems the only way to keep the toilets to an acceptable standard is by renovating them to a modern standard using up to date materials.”4 After this advice the General Committee recommended to the Finance Committee that it would be better to modernise the whole facility, than simply to repaint it in the long run. The women’s conveniences at Frederick Street were remodelled and brought up to an ‘acceptable’ standard the next year.


The Octagon rest rooms were inspected by the City Architect in 1977. Although he thought the general cleanliness and tidy appearance should be praised and the space was supervised well, the facility was “badly in need of renovating and updating to present the Council image in a more favourable light”.5 The atmosphere that was presented was depressing and all the furnishings and decor were showing signs of heavy wear and deterioration, especially the floor. The Rest Rooms were well used by a wide range of the general public and by improving the facilities so that the general appearance is pleasant and better appointed could “only do good and improve public relations between citizens, visitors and the Council.”6


Oldest Urinal – Manor Place

After largely being ignored for decades, the 1912 Manor Place urinal was identified as needing a decision to its future as maintenance and damage to it began to increase. The “old” urinal was recommended to be closed for a trial period of two months in 1976 as a first step towards closing it altogether. The Chief Health Inspector commented that it had been hard to clean and maintain and was a target for vandals. A notice went in the local newspapers regarding the closure and if there was no public reaction to the closure, it was planned that the urinal would be demolished.


Much like the London Street underground space in the 1960s, the urinal was offered to other departments within Council.8 The Parks and Recreation Department who ran the Market Reserve adjacent to the urinal had no objection. The Electricity Department also had no objection and stated it did not affect the substation underneath. The Transport Department recommended to lock the entrances up but have it available for their transport operators to use, until they have improved conveniences built for them. They offered to take on the responsibility for the cleaning of the space and the management of the trial period. This arrangement seems to have worked well for some years until in 1985 the Transport Department had no further use for the Manor Place toilet and offered it back to be reverted to a public toilet. “Because of continued vandalism, doors being kicked in and the use of the floor area for human waste, it has been decided by this Department, with the approval of the Tramways Union, to relinquish all responsibility for this toilet by our staff”.9 No further record on this urinal has been found but both doors were bricked up and only reopened for a heritage evaluation in 2017.


Continued Vandalism and Anti-Social Behaviour

Vandalism continued at unattended toilets across the city but also escalated to the women’s rest rooms even with attendants present. While the Octagon rest rooms were staffed by attendants they were also “subject to intrusion by young girls” in the 1970s. The Police, after receiving some complaints, managed to follow a group of girls into the restrooms one night and arrested four of them. The Council was very concerned about the behaviour of these young people who frequented the Octagon in the weekend and who would create a problem for the attendants in the Women’s Rest Rooms. The attendants were instructed to ring the police at first sign of trouble, and a telephone was installed for this purpose. The Council further requested that the police visit the premises on a more frequent basis. The Council understood that women police officers were limited, and the police were stretched to the limit in the weekends.10 Closing times were altered due to these “undesirable groups of young people” recommended by the General Committee and a four-week survey carried out showed little use of the rooms after 10pm on Mondays to Thursdays.11 

Through the early 1980s, there was a dramatic increase in misbehaviour by patrons at the Octagon rest rooms. The main problem element were small groups of “young people who harass staff and other patrons”.12 The Police became involved several times.



The Octagon undergrounds had continued use throughout the 1970s but as there were no attendants to supervise the subterranean space, vandalism continued. Toilet seats were set alight, doors broken, and light fixtures smashed. 

The Chief City Health Inspector reported that the roof over the men’s convenience in the Octagon has been leaking during wet weather and causing problems, which are becoming progressively worse. All the surrounding turf had to be lifted and replaced as the slab was waterproofed, the roof repainted, and armoured glass light covers were installed.  These extensive toilet repairs cost $3750. The Athenaeum also underwent extensive renovations on the City Architects request and cost $11,770 for improvements.

Further toilet surveys

Another major survey was carried out in the 1970s, following on from the Dunedin Rotary Club work in 1968. This time the survey was undertaken by the Dunedin Consumer Association in 1977.13 The findings were reported in the newspaper and recommended that the public may be best to carry their own toilet paper as toilet paper was continuing to go missing. “Toilet paper was lacking in many places, and it would be wise to carry one's own supplies”. The survey criticized the lack of signposting for toilets and suggested that signposting should be placed on street signs. “Additional amenities such as hooks and or shelves in the cubicle are essential in the women’s conveniences and few had any arrangements for disposal of sanitary towels”. Few had any facilities for children such as low toilets. The survey found that again the well-maintained premises suffered less vandalism than those that needed renovation. The survey stated that carelessness and thoughtlessness seemed to be the main problem. They suggested tiled walls was the best way Council could prevent vandalism and give the spaces a cleaner appearance, which Council had been trying to implement across the city facilities.

Complaints continued to appear in the local newspapers with one woman describing the Octagon rest room as “absolutely filthy” and a “positive disgrace” in 1978.14 She reported that High School girls were “smoking their heads off” in it. The Council responded and stated that the young people’s behaviour was not their business, and smokers were permitted, except in the waiting room.  The Chief Health Inspector believed that the toilets were kept tidy all the time by contractors who cleaned several times a day and “strongly resented” the comments. Council were adamant they were doing everything in their power to get cleaners into the spaces and the architecture was designed to prevent vandalism and misuse, yet certain sectors of society continued to wreck the facilities for everyone. This bad publicity and the survey results did little for the public perception of the public toilets.


It was in 1980 that the first sign of any homosexual activity was reported for the first time in Council records after a member of the public wrote to Council alleging ‘homosexual tendencies’ were occurring in the public toilets. The Council replied they could not do anything about the behaviour unless police could catch the activity in the act and even then, it was a police matter. “No complaints or allegations have been received in the past.” 15

The fear of misbehaving youth or untoward behaviour in the spaces led many to choosing not to use the undergrounds alone and some avoiding all the isolated toilets. The undergrounds were used as a threat by some parents to children to prevent misbehaving in town – “don’t be naughty or I will have to put you in the underground!” They were perceived as scary, smelly places. 

 Accessibility became a highlighted issue in the early 1960s with concern from the City Engineer and City Health Inspector on the narrow and dangerous stairways into the underground conveniences. The 1974 Paraplegic Games held in Dunedin brought this further to a head when Council quickly identified that there were no suitable public toilets for female paraplegic competitors in the city.  A plan was drawn to locate one in the Women’s Restroom in the Octagon, which had ground floor entry. At a cost of $250, the Council altered a space within the restroom to be wide enough for wheelchair use. Although this was not part of the yearly budget, expenditure was approved for the purpose. 

Demand increases

With the opening of the Visitors Centre in the old Municipal Building in the Octagon, visitors in increased numbers visited the Octagon area and the need for public toilets of a high standard had increased. There was deemed an urgent need for public facilities open for 24 hours a day and as close as possible to the Civic Centre complex.16


With the lack of toilets in this central area, issues arose with people fouling the Municipal Lane and Library area, as people seem reluctant to use the underground toilets, perhaps due to safety concerns, accessibility issues and the state of them. The lack of central city public toilets was on the agenda at the Council Services Committee meeting. Councillor JW McMeeking said it was an embarrassment that the city did not have sufficient toilets to service its centre.17 It was decided the matter needed further investigation.

1980s Review

The options were investigated and in the late 1980s a major review was held of the city’s public facilities, first since the late 1950s. Within this review, discussion arose about the future of the undergrounds in the central city. The ideal situation, said the Chief City Health Inspector, Mr Early, would be for “clean and easily accessible new facilities for both sexes to be provided somewhere in the Octagon”. It was suggested that the facilities should be above ground for ease of access, and this would also lead to a reduction of reticulation problems that continued to plague the Octagon underground. They would be in public view to minimise vandalism and would be open 24 hours. 

The Otago Daily Times editorial agreed with Mr Early.18 Not only were his ideas seen as a sensible provision for residents of any city the size of Dunedin, but any visitors who were seeking public conveniences would expect to find them somewhere in the Octagon, which had become regarded as the hub of the central business district and main shopping area, moving from the Exchange area. “It is a matter of Dunedin’s reputation and civic responsibility that such facilities should not only be freely provided, but also be of the highest standard of maintenance and hygiene”. Mr Early suggested the new toilets should replace the undergrounds and the women’s rest rooms in the Athenaeum building. The underground was not accessible to men in wheelchairs and had had no attention, other than essential maintenance, since upgrading in 1965, “so it is certainly a poor advertisement for the standards of modern convenience, comfort and hygiene in Dunedin”. The women’s rest room was not open all hours and had to be attended when open by staff.19 

Women were still suffering from lack of centrally situated toilets. Within the George Street shopping area there were several stores and other premises which did provide toilets for their customers. These included the main department stores of Arthur Barnett’s and Farmers Trading, the National Mutual Building, the Public Library, the Centre City Mall and three hotels. 


New toilets were established in the new malls such as Centre City Mall but the Centre City Mall had to shut their toilets due to vandalism issues and costs.20 The Golden Centre Mall also had toilets but after persistent vandalism and loitering problems these toilets were closed by the management. The manager of the Mall considered that reopening the toilets would involve major expense, would require close supervision in addition to cleaning and maintenance, and would result in a return to previous behaviour problems and therefore was not keen on the idea. There was no legal requirement that shopping malls needed to provide toilets. 

The chairman of the Services Committee of Dunedin City Council, Cr Iona Williams, said she felt toilets should eventually be placed on the ground floor of the old Municipal Chambers. She felt the high cost of staffing the women’s restroom would be better put towards a facility that was always available, especially when the rest room shut on Saturdays. Cr Williams said there were ways of overcoming vandalism by using appropriate fixtures and making sure the area was well lit.

The new Octagon facilities, although originally planned for 24 hour opening, were planned to be closed at certain hours to prevent damages and vandalism. However, the Otago Daily Times editor argued, that with shorter opening hours it would negate the whole point of them. “Possibly some form of supervision will have to be considered, not only to reduce the activities of vandals but also to ensure the toilets are cleaned regularly and kept in excellent condition”.21 Regular police patrols may also be required, and indeed other reports of disgraceful personal behaviour near the library building indicate that this will be desirable. “A combined effort of education, individual responsibility, proper supervision and police attention must convince the few irresponsible that their ideas will not be tolerated – and the rest of the public will have access to facilities which any decent city deserves”.22

Existing toilets constructed over the 1960s and 1970s were generally concrete block structures located in relatively isolated places such as in unsupervised carparks, where they had been subject to vandalism and loitering problems. “In such locations the actions of an antisocial minority discourage public toilet use by all but those with an urgent need”.23 Public toilets in relatively populated areas, such as in malls, were obviously a problem as well. It was argued that locations where there is a sense of proprietorship, such as within the larger stores or within clear view of parking booths at parking lots, may be less prone to vandalism. Alternatively, Council thought it could be possible to enter into agreements with property owners and contribute to the installation, maintenance or cleaning of toilets in stores or malls and give them more prominent identification.24  “A city that prides itself on its attractions for tourists and visitors should provide a high standard of clean and bright conveniences for them; the same standard can also be reasonably expected by its own residents.”25

It was found that good public toilets should have an attendant to prevent vandalism and it was suggested that some kind of payment to get in could help ease the problem.  Essentially recommending the return of attendants and a payment system was doing a complete reversal back to the original set up of the original undergrounds, which had been eradicated twenty years earlier. However, Councillor Iona Williams said that as the toilets were a public service, there will be no charge for their use and Council would make them accessible to all.


In 1987 public toilets were required to be provided at places of Assembly under Part 19 of the Consolidated Bylaws. These included public passenger terminals, and at licensed premises under the Sale of Liquor Act. The compulsory provision of public toilets on a wider basis was a health issue, rather than a District Scheme matter for the Council. Consideration was also given as to whether facilities in commercial buildings should have facilities open for the wider public. This distinction between customer and public toilets was important as it brought up the question of whether a private property owner should be required to address a public need. The Council felt they needed to seek legal advice on this.

Although compulsory provision of public toilets was a bylaw matter, the District Scheme Review provided an incentive for public toilet provision in the central city Commercial D zone. Under the plot ratio provisions there was a development bonus of 5 square meters of additional floor space for each 1 square meter of floor space available as public toilets or rest rooms. There was little uptake on this. A new bylaw could be considered to require new commercial buildings to provide customer or public toilets. 

Restroom closures

When the South City Mall complex was built in South Dunedin in 1978 the site of the restrooms was closed off as the area was taken up as a car park. By agreement with Council, the company building the mall replaced the women’s toilet and rest room facility and provided a new building of Council’s design in Hillside Road, adjacent to the Mall. It soon became obvious that since the mall opened the number using the rest rooms declined to the extent that there was virtually no one using the rest room. Previously the rest rooms had been a focal point for the elderly and young mothers, but this was no longer the case. The Council surmised that it seemed that there were not so many young mothers in the area who had a need to use the rest rooms and that the Mall now provided a more congenial atmosphere for the elderly to spend their time. The rest rooms were open and attended during the day Monday to Friday and on the late shopping night.  There was little justification and need for maintaining the facility and the opportunity arose to close the restroom, leaving only the toilets operational. Council had discussions with the Mall owners as to a possible use for the rooms with a view to having them occupied rather than being left in an unused state.26



As well as rest rooms being shut, various toilets were being shut down across the city and demolished in the late 1980s due to the out dated designs or lack of use. The Dowling Street carpark women’s conveniences closed on 20 October 1985, after the only use was by the attendant who worked at the carpark. It was later upgraded in 1987.  The Sydney Street conveniences were demolished in June 1986.

The Final Years of the Underground

The last remaining underground site in the Octagon survived until 1989 but it was a shadow of its former early twentieth century architectural design. After its extensive remodelling in the 1960s, the last underground space was viewed as a dark, unsafe, smelly space that the public only used as a last resort. The Octagon space came under scrutiny within the demand for central toilets and part of the Octagon redevelopment. 

There were two options put forward by the City Architect to the Chief Environmental Health Officer (as the Inspectors were now named).27 One was to retain the existing underground. The proposal for the lower Octagon could be redesigned to accommodate the existing toilets if they were to be retained and upgraded. As they were existing facilities, level access did not have to be provided and accessible toilets were available in the Civic Centre and the Library in the Octagon.

The second option was to provide new toilets which could be provided under the footpath in the Upper Octagon with level access provided under the Robbie Burns statue. As this site would be under road reserve the Act governing the Octagon reserve would not apply.

The City Architect also looked at the possibility of renting or redeveloping a property surrounding the Octagon, but these were all deemed unavailable or inappropriate for toilets.

There were three broad options: long term, medium term and short term. The long-term option was to provide temporary toilets until the Council had time to develop the correct long-term solution. The temporary toilets could be required for 2-5 years and were planned to be of reasonable standard. Chemical toilets were ruled out as they could not provide adequate standards. A purpose-built temporary building would require Council to forego at least half of the Harrop Street carpark and compromise the entrance to the Dunedin Centre. 

The medium-term option was to construct new men’s toilets in the Visitor Centre. Council could delay the demolition of the existing Octagon toilets or accept that there would be no men’s toilets until they were built in a few months near the Octagon, other than those in the Civic Centre or Library.

The short-term options were to upgrade the Athenaeum into a male and female facility. It was thought unlikely that the landlord would agree to the toilets being open for 24 hours. There was also the possibility that the facility may well be demolished within a year and the City would be again faced with the problem of providing temporary toilet facilities. There was the option of erecting a new toilet somewhere in the Octagon, possibly under Robbie Burns Statue. Council could also provide a combination of the previous options by constructing new men’s toilets in the Octagon, then constructing new women’s toilets in the Visitor Centre, which would allow development to proceed in the Athenaeum. Additional public toilets could be provided in the new Athenaeum development if required. The last option would be to provide toilets in another location, rather than near the Octagon.

The conclusion of the report was that none of the above options appeared to be ideal to the City Architect and all involved some form of compromise. In the City Architects opinion, no private developer was likely to provide the type of facility the Council desired and ultimately the Council would have to provide the toilet facilities itself on its own land. He argued that positive action should be taken to provide toilets on existing Council land or action taken to purchase suitable new property.

The decision was taken to demolish the undergrounds and close the Athenaeum and replace them with facilities in Municipal Lane in the Council owned building.

As part of the Octagon redevelopment plan, the roof of the undergrounds was broken in, the walls were cut down to halfway and filled in with rubble from the surrounding redevelopment and sealed shut. Some interior tiles were attempted to be salvaged and reused but the tiles broke when removed and marble surfaces could not be reused as when the porous surface warmed up, they smelt of urine.

These last undergrounds were closed in 1989 and saw the last of this subterranean architecture disappear from the city. The Municipal Lane toilets off the Octagon, opened in 1990 and had 24 hour, seven days a week opening, which remains to this day, complete with attendants.

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