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

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Chapter One: Public Conveniences and the Rise of Undergrounds

The often-overlooked turn-of-the-century public conveniences are more than just reminders of a common public service. They provide direct evidence for the changing social attitudes towards the provision of public sanitation. The period of 1910-1989 was a period of great transformation for public conveniences and this is evident in the changing architectural and aesthetic approaches in their design, construction and visibility.  They brought many challenges to Dunedin and its local authority, Dunedin City Council, who was tasked with supplying them and warranted a large investment and commitment. While Council considered the supply of the public conveniences as a success, there were also many challenges. 

Public Opinion and Above Ground Conveniences

Both residents and local authorities were concerned over the filthiness and the poor level of hygiene in Dunedin in the nineteenth century. As historian Pamela Wood argues the settlers’ social attitudes towards cleanliness and dirt played an integral part in their vision of the New World and Dunedin developed like other colonial and frontier towns.1 The new colonists feared that conditions could fall to the “Old World” standards and that Dunedin would duplicate the diseases and cramped conditions of ‘Home’. 

The Dunedin Town Board (1855-1865) initially struggled to establish infrastructure with regards to roads and sanitation. It was not until 1862 that the Board erected Dunedin’s first public convenience located in Jetty Street. Over the next 45 years the city of Dunedin’s population had grown to 36,068, yet there were only ten conveniences across Dunedin. All ten were exclusively for male use. 


Members of the public wrote to the local newspapers about the lack of provision of conveniences, with ‘E.H’ noting in 1900 that the “public urinals are a disgrace; very often over the boot tops in filthy water”.2  In 1900, the fear of filth and poor hygiene came to the fore when the worldwide Bubonic Plague broke across the world. The plague scare was the backdrop to the 1901 pitch of the underground conveniences to Dunedin City Council by J. and R. Scott, sanitary engineers. 

    We hereby enclose a sketch plan of underground water closets and urinals which we are prepared to erect under certain conditions. The town is at present without a public water closet, and the urinals are not in a good sanitary state. If the Council see their way to accept our proposal we guarantee to erect a suitable building at the back of Cargill’s Monument, with first class up-to-date sanitary appliances, which will be a credit to our city and on a par with the Home country.3

The Scott’s would manage them for 10 years, while taking the profits made from charging for the conveniences use. 4 In return, Council would supply them with free gas and water. The pitch by the sanitary engineers went nowhere, as there were no finances to allocate to the work and the debate continued.

Members of the public weighed in on the dispute for supply of public conveniences. In 1903 a letter written in the Otago Daily Times newspaper argued “the City Council, Drainage Board, and other innumerable boards are shamefully, if not disgustingly, neglectful in not providing better accommodation for the convenience of the travelling and general public.5  Andrew W. Bremner wrote to the Editor to say that “I have called attention to the want or scarcity of public conveniences in our "progressive" city, but so far the corporation has been quite apathetic in the matter”.6

To meet demand, Dunedin City Council built four above ground urinals in 1904 in prominent locations where they felt they were most in need. However, their attempt was not acceptable for many and complaints flooded in. One in particular, the Frederick Street iron structure, caused much protest. The Editor of the Otago Daily Times under the title “A Public Eyesore” stated that the Council should be beautifying the city but were doing the opposite by placing the unattractive structures in high profile areas.7 The Knox Church Deacons' Court wrote urging the Council to remove the urinal, arguing that no convenience should be built near a school or religious building.  “It was an ugly building, it was a menace to traffic, and it was placed in a position where it could not fail to be offensive to the large number of women and children”.8 S.M. Park from the Knox Church Deacon’s Court stated that he understood the difficulty Council must face in obtaining suitable sites for the facilities, but hundreds of girls and young women attend the nearby church. He believed it was in the interests of public morality and decency it should be built elsewhere, away from the boys and girls who attended the Sunday School.9 Park went on to suggest that if a convenience is needed in that location, it should be put underground. 

The underground convenience was favoured due to being ‘hidden’ in Victorian and Edwardian society. The European ideal that all bodily activities should be removed from view led to an international trend in underground facilities.10  London built the first underground convenience in the world in 1855. As is demonstrated by the Deacon’s Court, the nineteenth and early twentieth century society saw public urination as indecent and the public toilet became the only appropriate place for these bodily functions.11 However, it was also undesirable to have a public convenience near one’s home or business as it was deemed inappropriate and unwanted by many. 

The Council was limited in its ability to action the request for undergrounds. The difference between an iron above ground structure at £70 or an underground convenience at £1500 was sizeable and the Council did not have the budget to do anything but build the more economical above ground urinals.

The Undergrounds Proposed

An important turning point in the public toilet discussion came with a new employee, Richard Watkins Richards, who was appointed to the dual role of Town Clerk and City Engineer of the Dunedin City Council in 1904.12


Richards was born in Pembroke, Wales in 1863 and came to New South Wales as a child. In 1879, he joined the Sydney City Council staff as an articled surveyor in the City Surveyor’s Department and became a surveyor and draughtsman. He gained the position of City Surveyor for Sydney in 1887. In 1902, he left the Sydney City Council to work in private practice as a civil and consulting engineer. Two years later he took the appointment at Dunedin City Council.13 As Richards had recently arrived from Sydney, he had seen a greater focus by authorities on public health and sanitation when the first bubonic outbreak occurred in Australia. As part of this, Richards was tasked with designing and building Sydney’s first underground convenience in May 1901.14  Therefore, in the Dunedin public sanitation debate Mr Richards could speak from experience when outlining the options around public conveniences for Dunedin.15

In the Dunedin City Council Departmental Reports of 1905-06, Richards argued that underground structures had displaced the “unsightly arrangements” of above ground facilities in Europe, and that Dunedin had many open spaces especially adapted for the construction of underground conveniences which would be worthy of the Council’s consideration.16 Sydney City Council had commissioned Richards to visit Europe in 1896 to report on various aspects of municipal government there. Using Birmingham as an example, he outlined to Dunedin City Council the charging model used for Birmingham’s underground facilities, which provided a continuous income after the initial cost. Having such facilities would enable Dunedin to build a good reputation as a well-kept, well-appointed modern city, which was an ideal that many in the public held as important.17 

Despite Richards’ argument, the Dunedin City Council took no action. The inaction saw the public increasingly voice their frustration about the conveniences in the local newspapers. “Sanitas” noted that “There must be few towns the size of Dunedin where the public conveniences are so few and far between as in this town. Why are they not placed contiguous to the theatres and other places of amusement, with some distinguishing mark to denote their position to strangers?”. He further stated, “I trust that these frequent comments on the subject may be the means of a strenuous effort being made to remedy the crying evil of a natural want”.18

Making Headway with Underground Conveniences

Richards persisted with his argument and wrote a comprehensive “voluminous” report that he presented to the Dunedin City Council Works Committee in 1907, outlining and fully specifying the construction of up to date underground conveniences.19  With the Works Committee’s recommendation, the report was sent to Council with the advice that “Council to be recommended to erect public convenience for ladies and gentlemen at the Octagon; cost not to exceed £1500”.20

The report was discussed at some length in the July 1907 Council meeting. Councillors were torn between the necessity and the costs of the underground options. The subterranean spaces were described in the newspaper as “superstructures” and had the cost to go with it.21 Richards argued that underground conveniences were costly but could be more economically constructed than overseas ones. Dunedin could still maintain the high sanitary conditions and easy maintenance that the other structures have, while saving on the construction costs. 

After the convincing report, Council instructed Mr Richards to begin preparing plans and specifications for the undergrounds in July 1907, working to a cost of around £1500. Locations were also discussed, with two possible sites of the lower Octagon and at The Triangle (later named Queens Gardens) suggested. While these plans were approved in July, by August the Council deferred the work again to the next year’s financial allocations.22 

Over the next year, debate continued to swirl around the lack and state of the facilities, particularly around the lack of conveniences for women. Dunedin City Councillor Keast reporting on a recent trip to Melbourne, stated that he was impressed by many things there, especially the undergrounds provided for both sexes. “Some of the conveniences here would not be tolerated for a moment there” concluded Councillor Keast.23 

Outgoing Mayor J. Braithwaite in his valedictory speech in 1906 stated “Want of funds prevented us starting the swimming baths, underground conveniences, and other improvements. The Council are keenly alive to their necessity”.24  While money was limited, the public also wanted to keep Dunedin’s reputation as a well-kept and beautiful city.

The demand for public facilities became urgent by 1909. Dunedin City Councillor Barr noted to the Otago Daily Times that the public facilities at Dowling Street and the rear of the Town Hall were particularly unpleasant places.25 He had also seen Christchurch’s undergrounds conveniences, which were built in 1907 (the first in New Zealand), at the back of the Godley Statue, Cathedral Square and said they were admirable in every way. 

In 1909 a special fund was finally allocated from the Finance Committee for ‘special works’ for the city to the value of £4795.26 It was confirmed at the 10 February meeting in 1909 for “execution of city works to be hereafter specified”.27 The Finance department had already recommended to Council that it might allocate a portion of this sum for the construction of underground public conveniences.28 With this financial backing, Dunedin City Council made the decision to build two underground conveniences in Dunedin, and importantly one for women.29 The Council decision to build a separate space for women underground was overdue, but very welcome. 

The very first locations in Dunedin for the underground conveniences were chosen because of their central position and their potential to have the facilities hidden.30 The City Engineer was dispatched to inspect the suggested sites for suitability for the construction of the subterranean structures. The two sites were the lower Octagon, near the Thomas Burns Monument and the Custom House Square, under the Cargill’s Monument. Equally important, was space for the above ground shrubbery and rockeries, which played a large and important part in ‘hiding’ patrons from the public as they entered the facilities. The engineer reported back to Council with positive reports that both sites would be suitable for what he saw as current and future use.31

Architectural Features

As well as being practically invisible, Dunedin’s underground conveniences or ‘Comfort Stations’, as they were termed, were designed to be aesthetically pleasing and state of the art. Urinals and closets were from the Twyford company - the No 7 ‘Adament’ urinal range and the white closet ‘Sentinel’ washdown product.32 The Twyford’s were among the first of the great sanitarians in England. They were contemporaries of George Jennings, who invented the first public flush toilets and designed the first underground public convenience, and Thomas Crapper, who founded a sanitary equipment company and invented the s-bend trap in 1880. Twyford’s inventions were hailed as landmarks in the course of domestic sanitary reform.33

By the time of the death of King Edward VII in 1910, water closet and urinal styles had changed from the fancy decorative style of the Victorian age. The early twentieth century design brought a more austere, functional approach, and the elaborate ornamentation of the Victorian age had given way to plainer, more rounded designs. Water closets were now clean and uncluttered, and lavatories were more discreet on simple pedestals. There were practical reasons for this - it was easier to keep clean and less likely to get dirty. A simple colour palette was also favoured in Dunedin with most tiles ordered in white and from ‘Home’. The interiors in the underground facilities were fitted with wall to ceiling tiles (for easy cleaning), skirting, and dados and enriched with cornice tiles. The Custom House Square convenience had a little more design element with ornamental “Florite” frieze and dado. Manor Place also had a frieze with arts and craft style green tiles which still exist in the structure today. 

The ‘Adament’ range of urinals were made from porcelain enamelled fireclay with an automatic flush cistern developed in 1889. These became extremely popular around the world. The large, hexagonal ‘Adament’ urinal could accommodate six in comfort, beneath a little tower, like a cupola, on top.34 Dunedin did not have the hexagonal style, instead the ‘Adament’ urinals used in the Octagon undergrounds were built parallel against an exterior wall. The Custom House Square urinals had five urinals back to back with a more decorative top cupola. 

Other aesthetic elements included the woodwork. The cupboards and towel rollers were made from kauri and all the joinery work was completed in Tasmanian wood.35 The seats in the attendant’s spaces were also made from kauri and there were brass coat and hat hooks, as well as electric heaters and looking glasses installed. 

While these spaces were designed with modernity and privacy in mind, the challenges of being underground meant they had to be constructed to withstand their subterranean environment. The roof was designed to withstand the traffic load and the walls and floors needed to be watertight to hold back the water table and rainwater (bitumen was used to make them waterproof).36 Water from the street had to be stopped from running down the stairs, and when it did flood, the water had to be pumped out.37 The Customhouse Square undergrounds were the first to suffer from leaks as soon as 1912, and the Octagon facilities had storm water leaking through for some time when it was reported in March 1919.38 As time went on the Octagon site had numerous issues with leaks.

Ventilation was also very important in the subterranean spaces and the toilets had uptake ventilation pipes up the streets above. These were necessary fixtures but were also decorative with the cast iron bases of the ventilation pillars displaying ornamental patterns.39 In 1919 the ventilation at the Octagon undergrounds was not sufficient and a fan and electric motor was installed to try and improve this.40

Another issue was with lighting the subterranean space. As well as the artificial light, the spaces all had skylights to let the natural light in and pavement lights with glass lens lights.41 Outside gas lamps and later electric lights were used to light the accessway and stairs, which were left burning all night.

The New Undergrounds

Both tenders for the two locations were sent out as two separate jobs. The contractors McKinnon and Hamilton, of North East Valley, won the tender for the Octagon men’s and women’s undergrounds with their price of £1610. These consisted of ten urinals, four water closets and lavatory (hand basin) for gentlemen and four water closets and lavatory for women, with room for attendant accommodation.42 Unlike Auckland city, Dunedin provided a central location and a separate but adjoining convenience for women and both facilities had similar aesthetics.43

Mr A. Ferry, Roslyn, won the other contract for the Custom House Square conveniences for the price of £1130. These were for men only and had ten urinals, two water closets and lavatory with accommodation for an attendant (with a late change to include a wash basin in lieu of a water closet).44 This convenience was £480 cheaper than the dual use ones of the Octagon but was more decorative according to the specifications.45

With an estimated build time of six months, the excavation of the Octagon site started in March 1910. However, even though the Octagon site had begun first, the Custom House Square site opened first.  The tiles ordered for the Octagon site held up the progress as the shipment arrived late on 24 September 1910. The Customhouse Square undergrounds opened on time with little fanfare in the city on the 8 November 1910. The Octagon undergrounds officially opened a few weeks later on 20 December 1910.46 

The Finance Committees 1909 special fund for the underground conveniences allowed for a third, and simpler, underground in London Street to be built in 1910.47 This was outside the Albert Arms Hotel and was in a more prominent location, on the street corner of a busy intersection. This site had no planned shrubbery nor any monuments to obscure it. A. Ferry won the contract. It was designed for male use and cost £565 13s.48 The London Street convenience opened in 1911.


Public Response

The public certainly supported the new facilities. The numbers that were reported within a few weeks after opening of the facilities showed there was a demand for the conveniences. Shortly after the Octagon and Custom House Square facilities opened, the numbers of people who used them were tallied – 42,720 people in the first four weeks (the population of Dunedin in 1911-12 was 41, 432).49 Even by today's comparisons, this number seems large. However, the Custom House Square area of Dunedin was a very busy, thriving area at the time, as is evident in the film footage below. 

Within six months, the Custom House conveniences were expanded due to the demand. The underground space extended further, and three more water closets were built with the lavatory and attendants’ areas also enlarged.50


To help cover costs, Dunedin followed other cities in Europe and chose the “penny in the slot”, an automatic lock system, on the water closets as a way of generating income (the urinals were free). For a small installation cost, they raised significant money and were monitored by the attendants.51 Within four weeks of opening, the two main undergrounds brought in an income of £28. This generation of an income would go some way to cover the running costs. The undergrounds were a large financial commitment for the local authority and this way of generating income ensured there was some resource for ongoing maintenance and staffing.


The General Committee’s reports on statistics and finances are fragmented in the archives. There are no records other than opening income and numbers recorded in the newspaper. Consistent reporting only begins in 1916 in the Council’s Annual Reports. Reports after 1916 indicate that the Ladies conveniences in the Octagon were generating the most income in most years. This is logical, as water closets had to be paid for, while men could use the urinals for free. The reports for 1925-26 show a large increase in usage statistics as Dunedin hosted the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition over this period. The Exhibition ran for a year and had in excess of 3 million visitors – increasing the numbers in the city as well. 

Although the records are generally fragmented, for a short period the Dunedin City Council Annual Reports also included the expenditure on all public conveniences in relation to the income the undergrounds were generating (the only facilities that had charges). As is evident in the table below, there was a significant gap between income and maintenance costs causing financial strain in the local authority.

Above Ground Conveniences

During the same years as the undergrounds were being built, Dunedin City Council built more above ground facilities to keep up with demand. The King Edward Street public conveniences were built to cover the Kensington area in 1912. They were designed for men in the modern style with tiles and had a urinal and water closets. They had a visiting attendant, rather than one stationed on the premises. They had a controversial beginning as a neighbouring property owner tried to call a halt to the construction of the King Edward Street public convenience as it was being built near his new building. His lawyers advised the Dunedin City Council that their client felt disgraced and did not want his lady customer’s eyes and noses offended from the public convenience being so close. The building owner made a “request that Council will not carry out the intention of erecting so “nasty” a place in such close proximity to his premises”.52 The Council had been forewarned by Richards that public opinion was often against the positioning for public conveniences. He mentioned that “other authorities had begun to make provisions for public conveniences, despite the routine objections or a super sensitive decency that the public often voiced”.53 Perhaps due to Richards warnings, the Council decided the public demand outweighed the single complaint.


The Manor Place conveniences built in 1912, still stand today. A structure with urinals was on site for many years but in 1912 a petition signed by concerned neighbouring residents and ratepayers complained about the structure. They were concerned about its aesthetics within the cityscape and its offensiveness to members of the public. They called for an underground convenience for both sexes, especially due to its proximity to two of the City Reserves and the proposed upgrade for the Oval reserve.54 The site was also the only public urinals between Jetty Street and Kensington. Chief Building Surveyor G.W. Gough agreed that a more modern structure like the one in Kensington could replace the old one. Using the special fund money allocated in 1909, the Council agreed to a new modern above ground convenience - for men only.55 


Mr A. Ferry won the contract to build the Manor Place convenience at a cost of £295 (he had built both the Custom House Square and London Street undergrounds) complete with Twyford’s stoneware and the Twyford’s Adament design.56 The Manor Place urinals lined the exterior walls and formed the octagonal shape of the structure itself, mirroring the city’s prominent landmark. In 1919, the City Engineer described the Manor Place structure as an “object of beauty, draped as it is in lovely native shrubs”. The shrubbery was even more important to the aesthetics of an above ground station, as it provided concealment for self-conscious patrons. 


While the petitioners concern was that the above ground facilities were detrimental to areas in which they were situated, their call was only partly fulfilled. While the area got a new modern convenience, it was not underground, nor were any facilities supplied for women. The Council chose the cheaper above ground structure, as the special fund allocated only allowed limited works to be completed.

Semi-underground Conveniences

As well as underground and above ground conveniences, the Council also provided semi-underground toilets. The Crawford Street semi-undergrounds, built in 1924, provided convenience for people attending the shows and events at the nearby Agriculture Hall and His Majesty’s Theatre. Situated in the middle of Crawford Street itself, the toilets caused headaches for patrons and Council alike as patrons exited straight into oncoming traffic. Only a raised concrete path around the toilet separated people from the busy two-way street. A number of accidents and injuries resulted - a City Engineers report in 1941 outlined one incident where a truck rammed into the convenience causing extensive damage. In response, it was suggested that a railing be built around the convenience to prevent people from walking straight into traffic. The conveniences were removed in 1949, after finally being deemed too dangerous.

The Attendants

As with other cities, Dunedin City Council employed attendants to run and maintain the underground conveniences. There were four male and two female attendants initially stationed in the Octagon conveniences and male attendants at the Custom House Square conveniences, who worked shift hours. Dunedin’s other facilities had visiting attendants. Council decided that the attendants had to be old servants of the Corporation or a widow of an ex staff member of the Corporation.57  There was a lot of interest in these positions and the original job applications remain in the Dunedin City Council Archives. 

The attendants were essential in keeping the undergrounds in a hygienic state. They also managed behaviour and security within the subterranean spaces. They were required to work 8 hours a day, 7 days a week and received 12 days leave a year on full pay. Their role was essentially “caretakers work and not arduous” reported the Town Clerk in 1912.58 Yet the Otago Trades and Labor Council passed a resolution expressing their regret at the attitude of Dunedin City Council regarding the working conditions imposed on them.59 When their wages were brought up in City Council discussion, Councillor Todd defended the wages and claimed that they were well paid staff and they were also supplied with coats in the winter as well.60 He also mentioned that if staff continued to bother individual councillors about their wages they would probably be dismissed and replaced.  The position was not considered to be difficult or strenuous work such as a labourer. However, the position did come with issues and risks, as this City Engineers report noted in 1919:

Complaint has been made lately of a nuisance on the Station itself, thus: - When the closing hour for the adjacent pubs arrived gentlemen who have been undergoing bar treatment come out into the street. The treatment is said to effect their minds and paralyses their bodies to some extent. They fill up the underground place and are complained of as bringing in alcoholic pandemonium of vulgarity, obscenity, and blasphemy to the loathing and disgust of the officer in charge, and all untreated persons within hearing. The paralysis of the gastric nerves, due to the bar treatment, causes some to empty their stomachs about the place, but the mess is immediately cleaned up and no complaint comes from the surface.61 

There were also incidents where the attendants were assaulted. In 1923, for example, the Council Minutes included a note that attendants had recently been assaulted in a “cowardly manner”.62 The Council requested that the Police make more regular and frequent visits to the undergrounds while on duty, particularly in the evening. The Custom House Square had problems with drunken crowds on Saturday nights and the Police were often requested by Council to patrol these areas late at night. In 1919, for example, Police were requested to specifically check in on the undergrounds on a group of men who were alleged to be drinking there.63 In 1939 the decision was made for the Custom House Square to be open all night to deal with visitors to the City, after many recent special events increased demand. The convenience was without an attendant from 11pm and the Superintendent of Police intimated that his officers would visit the site regularly during this time.64

There were also complaints made against attendants. In 1919, Miss A.M Reid made complaint about a very intoxicated attendant. The attendant in question, was a reliever who only worked for a fortnight and had already left the employment of council. Other patrons complained of being verbally assaulted and refused clean towels by some attendants.65

Wider Dunedin

Boroughs had historically been operated by their own councils. After 1905, these borough councils began to amalgamate with the Dunedin City. Suburban residents and ratepayers then began to request their own public facilities from the Dunedin City Council. 

The simplest and most economical approach was to build onto already existing premises – namely the Tramways buildings. Mornington applied for a public convenience in 1930, and while it was deferred to the next years financial spend, the convenience was built and attached to the tram terminus for £170.66 Roslyn got a water closet in 1932 (in addition to a previous earlier urinal) at a Tramways stop and another attached to the fire station building.67

1920’s Public Demand

During the 1920s, the public continued to demand more underground facilities. One ratepayer who was “privileged to grouch”, stated that the lack of public conveniences in Dunedin was deplorable, “surely underground conveniences could be erected at, say, Forbury Corner, St. Clair, St. Kilda terminus, Cargill Corner, also other places too numerous to call to mind”.68 None of these areas directly requested or suggested underground conveniences officially. St Kilda, running as an independent borough, applied for funding in 1925 to the Dunedin City Tramways Department for a contribution towards the costs of a public convenience attached to the St Kilda tramway terminus. They were turned down.69  

At the same time as more conveniences were being asked for by one sector of the community, there were still those in the community who wanted them removed. The Dunedin City Council received a letter in 1931 from a butcher’s premises at Kensington asking that the nearby convenience be removed because a) the premises were detrimental to the applicant’s business, b) they were an eye sore c) they were a breeding ground for flies and d) generally constitute a nuisance.70 The Council argued they could see no grounds for the proprietor’s complaints. Council argued that the land was the only site available in the area and was established to meet the public’s demand. The structure was substantial with a ‘modern interior’ and was regularly seen to and cleaned. 

Women’s Conveniences

In the history of Dunedin’s public conveniences, a lack of women’s toilets was also a particular issue. “Country Mother” wrote in 1924

“Where are the women citizens who are responsible for the health of women and children? What are they doing for their country sisters, and why is there no rest room such as they have in other towns? As a visitor to your fair city on a public holiday, the only conveniences that I know about are at the railway station and the Octagon, and unlike the ever-fortunate male sex, the inevitable penny must be forthcoming for each and all. It is high time women were elected on the City Council, where their influence would enable free conveniences for women and children to be established in the town. I am, etc” 71

Why were so few conveniences provided for women? Department stores did provide conveniences for their customers as the more time customers spent at their store, they would spend more. Large Dunedin companies included Brown and Ewing’s, Drapery Supply Association, and Kirkpatrick and Glendining & Co.  Although local Dunedin department stores provided restrooms for women from the 1870s, this was limited to those women who could afford to shop in these stores. The local authority did not supply any public conveniences for women before 1908 so those who did not enter the larger stores had no options.  This limited women’s ability to move freely in the public space.72 Dunedin was simply part of the international pattern which did not provide facilities for women. 

By 1904, however, some councillors were arguing in Council meetings for women’s public conveniences. Councillor Barr made it clear that while it had been stated by some that the first underground conveniences would not be used by women, experience elsewhere showed that this was a mistake and that over the course of time they would be used quite freely. "We should remember particularly," continued Cr Barr, "the needs of visitors to the city, more especially women who are not at home in the large shops and elsewhere.”73 

The public continued to voice the problematic exclusion of women from these public spaces. Some were concerned that visiting women, who had no friends in the city, would not know of the stores which held the rest rooms.74 As historian Bronwyn Daly wrote, because women were not provided with toilets, it reinforced the idea that they were unwanted, unassimilated to that environment.75 Others remarked, “Many other deficiencies mark Dunedin, and particularly so in regard to public conveniences for both sexes. This city is utterly lacking in even the most common conveniences in this respect” wrote “Ratepayer”.76 

Dunedin’s women were not alone in suffering under this indignity. Various women’s organisations around the world were lobbying for access to public spaces, recognising the connection between access to public facilities for women and their place in wider society.77 In England it was a main platform of the suffragette movement.78 Although London had the first underground conveniences in the world, built in 1855, it was another 40 years before women got their first conveniences, in the form of a dual-sex facility. In August 1893, the first convenience opened for women at Holborn. McCabe noted soon after its opening that it has been used extensively used by both males and females.79  The Commissioners of Sewers in the City of London went on to build five more underground conveniences the next year – all for exclusively male use.

In 1908, the first Dunedin public toilets built for women were beside the tearooms at St Clair and were built a year before the underground conveniences in the city.80 St Clair Beach was a popular family destination, especially once tram travel had become more common and was a “respectable” activity to enjoy with the family. The provision of conveniences also had a positive economic flow on effect for the Tramways Department, with sales of the trips to the seaside and tearoom provisions. Dunedin City Council took over the running of the conveniences in 1910.

As well as prevailing social attitudes towards acceptance of women in the public sphere, a more pressing issue for local authorities was the cost needed to build women’s facilities. Providing water closets for women was more expensive than men’s facilities. In an analysis into the London dual facility in 1895, McCabe noted it cost 175% more to build these type verses the men’s only convenience.81 The undergrounds cost more in general to construct, not only due to being subterranean but also due to the space, water closets and lavatories required. In contrast above ground urinals were cheap and could be erected for £20 each. Women’s conveniences, however, had the ability to bring in more income in the form of charging for use.

1927 saw the continuation of arguments about the inadequate facilities for women. “We find that the needs of our womenfolk are almost entirely ignored. The position is unjust, harmful, and a disgrace to the city. No time should be lost in having the matter remedied. Because the sex affected is not given to letter writing and is in main restrained by inherited feelings of false modesty - is no excuse whatever for the authorities not providing better or more numerous conveniences for women”, writes a “Mere Man”.82

A new plan was developed to improve the Queens Gardens conveniences, always provided for men, which would now include accommodation or a rest room for women. This was hotly debated in 1927 as the site was not seen as appropriate by many due to the traffic and its distance from shopping areas.83 While the City Council itself approved of the site, the Amenities Society were against a structure being there. It was their view that it would be unsightly on the reserve, despite the fact the men’s urinals had stood there for many years. The Council decided to go ahead with the plans for a ladies’ facility on the condition that the Ladies’ (later Women’s) Committee contribute a sum of not less than £150 towards it.84 Tenders were invited and while Council received nine tenders, none were accepted.85 The standing conveniences were ordered to be removed April 1928.86 The space on the reserve was vacated and no further women’s conveniences were supplied. 

The Ladies Advisory Committee

From the late 1920s the Ladies’ Advisory Committee were active in attending to the immediate supervision of the local rest rooms (located in Princes Street and the Botanic Gardens). As well as being asked to contribute financially towards facilities (like the Queens Gardens plans) they worked in an advisory role for the Council. The Ladies Advisory Committee reported to the DCC General Committee on their work over the year and it was noted in the Annual Report of 1929-30 “that the measure of [their] success which has rewarded their efforts must be a source of no little satisfaction, not only to the Committee, but to the many women who do not obtain the benefit of the facilities provided”.87 The clerk went on to pass the sincerest thanks of the Council and citizens due to the valuable services which the Ladies Committee have given in the interests of the comfort, health and convenience of the women and children.88 

During the 1930s there was the usual demand for more conveniences, but a new feature was added to the argument – the demand for free women’s conveniences. “Surely our town could supply conveniences as freely for women and children as it does for men” wrote “A.F”. “Why should even the rest rooms not be free, and why should it be necessary to ascend steep stairs to them - which elderly women and mothers with babies and small children find difficulty in climbing?”89

The Dunedin City Council continued to rely on the Ladies Advisory Committee to run the public rest rooms. The income generated, however, was so small that there was little available money made to expand public conveniences in the city. In 1934, for example, a new convenience and rest room was opened at Cargill’s Corner, South Dunedin and the Ladies Committee suggested the addition of branch rooms.90 In reply the Council advised that under existing conditions, there was no prospect of them undertaking further financial commitments.  The Council continued to use the Ladies Committee as advisors. In the late 1930s when the Octagon undergrounds were inspected by the Ladies Committee, for example, several improvements were made to the premises as a result. The conveniences were said to have been updated to “good order for the purpose for which they were designed”.91


The period of 1910-1929 saw great transformations in the story of Dunedin’s public conveniences especially in their design, construction and visibility. A large investment had been made by Dunedin City Council in establishing the underground conveniences and a long-awaited facility was also provided for women. Rest rooms began to gain momentum in the city as the public demanded better facilities. While Council considered the supply of the public conveniences as a success (numbers showed that the public certainly used the undergrounds in large numbers), there was a large cost in maintaining these facilities for the public need. The public continued to demand more facilities. The challenges over the coming decades would be increasing vandalism combined with high maintenance costs, as well as the rise of the women’s rest rooms leading to a change of use of the underground conveniences. 

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