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

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Chapter Two: The Decline of the Undergrounds 1930-1960

The public underground conveniences continued to meet the needs of the public and provide income for Dunedin City Council into the 1920s. However, from the late 1920s, women’s groups began to demand more from their public facilities. There was an increasing drive from women to pressure the Council to provide improved and modern restrooms. This challenge, as well as increasing costs for maintenance and frequent vandalism, stretched the budgets to the limit. A shift in social attitudes towards the public facilities led to the underground conveniences becoming unpopular as their limited access and subterranean environment brought increasing challenges. All of this led to a dramatic change in architectural style for public facilities.

Changing Spaces

Dunedin saw a shift in both public attitudes and architecture over the 1940s and 1950s as the city moved from providing underground conveniences to rest rooms. Rest rooms were larger and more elaborate facilities with a wide range of services. The idea of ‘rest’ was linked to ideals of maternity, of providing spaces to change babies’ nappies, heat bottles and generally have a rest from the public space.1 This is opposite from the underground convenience which offered one function only. The rest rooms also provided a private space away from men where women and children could rest within the public sphere. 

The underground conveniences were built as modern spaces with up to date European styling at the turn of the century. However, within 20 years, the public began to demand more “modern” facilities. What led to this change in attitude around what was deemed as modern facilities and how could Council provide these?

Rest Rooms

Women had petitioned council in the early 1900s for rest rooms, especially for out of town visitors. The only Dunedin public facility provided was the women’s underground convenience opened in 1910.  While this was a great step forward in providing spaces in public for women, it continued to be the only public convenience supplied by the Council in the central city for the early twentieth century. The mid-1920s saw many women’s groups lobbying Council for “modern” rest rooms and creches for the city. There was a societal shift in attitude as women had become more accepted in public life, and mothers received the most attention in the 1920s and facilities were therefore provided for them. Also, the modern rest room had ‘less emphasis on women as creatures with a need to urinate or worse and more on women as mothers, as creatures with a need to rest’.2

Modern rest rooms were spaces that were more inclusive – they were easily accessible, preferably on a ground floor and provided wider services than just a water closet when a person was in need. New buildings across New Zealand took on a homelier appearance, drawing from the Arts and Crafts and bungalow styles of architecture. The relaxed, comfortable style reflected the new usage and ideas around public toilets for women.3

The demand for more women’s public conveniences was a world-wide trend as more women organisations demanded more access to public space. While some overseas campaigns attempted for years to get local authorities to build public facilities for women, in New Zealand women’s groups and associations ran the facilities themselves. They organised, fund raised and ran their own rest rooms and creches for the local public with Council support and some funding.4

This was certainly the case in Dunedin. The first rest room and creche was developed for the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition in 1925-26. The Women’s Rest Room Committee established this rest room, which was made up of a loose association of women’s groups, such as the Young Women’s Christian Association and Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The Committee aimed to provide a space for women and children flowing into the city, where they could rest from the busy public space the Exhibition created. The committee raised the necessary funds from voluntary subscriptions and were aided by Mayoresses in country towns around the Otago region. 5 The structure was retained after the exhibition itself was dismantled. The Women’s Rest Room Committee decided to donate the rest room to the city as a gift from the women of Otago and it was relocated to the main entry at the local Botanic Gardens. The Mayor at the time, HL Tapley, spoke at an afternoon tea event held for the Women’s Committee. He agreed with the Committee that it was essential to have somewhere for mothers and country folk and their children to rest when they come to town and that Council would happily accept the gift.6 Even though these were well meaning words presented in public, Dunedin City Council still would not provide further toilets or rest rooms for women out of the yearly budgets.

The Women’s National Council at their meeting in May 1926 decried Dunedin as “backward” with its lack of women’s rest rooms and argued that the success of the Exhibition rest room showed the necessity of these facilities in the City.7 The Trained Nurses’ Association representative Miss Holford stated the need to provide mothers with a rest room with an attached creche. The Nurses Association had been working on getting support for the project and had secured municipal and other organisations support. The cost was estimated to be £3000 which would provide a rest room, creche and parcel depot with a plan to fund raise the amount by public subscription. At this meeting it was suggested that a suitable site may be The Triangle (Queens Gardens) which was seen to be in a central, accessible position. The meeting attendees expressed approval of building rest rooms in Dunedin and the Women’s National Council agreed to do everything possible to move the project forward.

Dozens of representatives of the various women’s organisations presented a deputation to the Dunedin City Council meeting in June 1926 on the necessity of the establishment of a women’s rest room. These groups expressed that they felt it was the council’s “clear duty” to provide these necessaries.8 The Deputy Mayor responded that the councillors had listened with great interest to the speakers and were impressed with the seriousness of the position. The council would “most sympathetically discuss” what had been placed before them.9 While endorsing the necessity of the facilities, the Council were still not prepared to fully fund them, and the women’s organisations continued the responsibility to facilitate this need. 

The Reserves Section of Dunedin City Council did recommend a ladies and gentlemen’s public convenience on the South Western corner of the Triangle, one of the locations suggested by the deputation in December 1926. It was to be built on the condition that the Women’s Committee contribute a sum towards the building of it. This was not a rest room however, simply an above ground structure with a women’s side attached. The Dunedin Amenities Society objected strongly to this plan, which did not go ahead. While Council deliberated on further locations for potential women’s toilets, rest rooms were successfully established in Princes Street by the Women’s Rest Room Committee. 

What did a restroom have that an underground convenience did not? These facilities had water closets and lavatories but also numerous other services for public use to purchase or free of charge. They were also an important space for women to have a break from the public spaces. Rest rooms around the world shared similar key characteristics. A rest room had at least two separate areas, with one area containing toilet facilities. An adjoining area was used as a large lounge space, with furniture for women and children. These lounge areas often featured such amenities as tables and chairs and cots for babies and small children.10 Spaces in the Princes Street and George Street buildings were leased by the local women’s groups who received funding from the Dunedin City Council towards running costs. Items that were available included: 

Ideally, an attendant or matron supervised the rest room, who was charged with attending to the needs of the women who visited the rest room and keeping the rest room clean and in good working order. Two attendants were employed by Dunedin City Council to oversee the running of restroom in the same way that they employed staff in the undergrounds.  These staff worked a combined 84 hours a week at the two rest rooms in Dunedin in the 1920s.

The property acquired in Dunedin was at 121 Princes Street in a central position, in a nine roomed house with passage accessed by a staircase. The Princes Street restrooms opened on 20 July 1927 with formal proceedings including the Mayoress of Dunedin officially opening the rooms. The position was importantly centrally located, alongside the Commercial Bank, and for the “purposes of tired women it is desirable also in that the windows are on a busy part of a busy street." The City Council’s Rest Rooms Committee had the rooms repapered and organised the plumbing and the furnishings were the responsibility of the Women’s Rest Rooms Committee.

There were two rooms, one for women without children with writing tables and the other was for those women accompanied by children. The mothers and children’s room had two Plunket cots for babies, and “more than half the furniture is of the dwarf character used in kindergartens and nurseries”. There were also donations from the public of a doll’s house and cushions. The attendant’s room opened off the main room with toilets near this.11

A further restroom opened at Cargill’s Corner by the Women’s Standing Committee (also known as Women’s Rest Room Committee) on 25 October 1935.12 The Women’s Standing Committee used the gift of £20 from the funds of existing rest rooms for furnishing the space and they believed it would compare favourably to the City and Botanic Gardens rest rooms.13

The rest rooms across Dunedin proved to be very popular. It was estimated that 10,000 women made use of the rooms during Christmas and New Year period of 1937-38 and of these it was considered that two-thirds were country women and visitors from other centres.14 During the holiday periods the rest rooms in the Gardens were also extensively used, with several thousand women taking advantage of the facilities. The Cargill’s Corner rest rooms initially did not attract the same numbers, but as their presence became known greater numbers used them. The use was gratifying to the Women’s Rest Room Committee as they proved to the City Council there was a need. “When the proposal was first advanced the committee was told there was no necessity for such rooms, and when finally, the rooms in Princes street were handed over for the purpose the corporation, it was stated, considered the project more or less doomed to failure. 


Quite recently the rooms were reconditioned, and the staff increased, factors which speak for themselves”.15 The demand was such on the city rooms, that the Women’s Committee intended to approach Dunedin City Council requesting additional rooms be opened near Frederick Street. This area was very busy part of town with buses starting from the Frederick Street corner to the hill suburbs and the Hospital was nearby. The whole area was only serviced by the London Street underground for men.

Although it had been a struggle to obtain suitable premises in this area, in 1939 new rest rooms were opened by the Women’s Rest Room Committee in George Street near the Frederick Street intersection. The space had a large rest room and a writing room. They planned to also build a room in which parcels may be left, and there were extensive toilet arrangements. Although the Committee had tried to lease ground floor rooms it was not possible to obtain them, “but the stairs are very easy and should be negotiated without trouble by the aged”.16 


The popularity of the existing rooms did not diminish. Record attendances were noted at the rest rooms over Labour weekend, and “the continued high patronage has revealed time and again that the value of the rooms has not been exaggerated”.17

With this high level of use the Women’s Rest Room Committee continued to improve the spaces. The installation of radio sets was an addition to the various rooms and an electric water heater had been introduced at the Gardens rooms. The original rooms in Princes Street and the Gardens received new furniture. The three rooms across the City and a creche were now used in ever increasing numbers in 1940. “Patronage of the Princes street rooms has risen by several hundred women a week”.18 This was attributed to the increased number of women working during the day, having been recalled to factory or office work through the enlistment of men in World War II. Women were leaving their children in care of the creche, whose husbands were away on active service. Country women, in town for a day’s shopping, were also supporters of the nursery.19


While the Women’s Rest Room Committee worked tirelessly in providing these facilities to the public, the Council were supervising the work and aiding the Committee with building work where they could. While Council funds were being provided for the women’s restrooms and creches, very little money was going towards the public undergrounds.

On the 30 September 1940 the Women’s Rest Room Committee decided to cease all control of the various restrooms around the city. The Rest Room Committee in a letter to Council stated they felt they had done their part and had worked hard on getting the rest rooms up and running in the city. “We would like to remind your Council that we presented the Gardens Rest Room building to the City Council and at no time has your Council ever contributed to stocks or furniture, and…my position has been entirely honorary” wrote Mrs Herbert, secretary of the Committee.20 The Council thanked the Committee for their generous service to the city.

The Chief Sanitary Inspector was now in charge of running the restrooms. This involved Council taking over paying wages, employing staff, providing and updating stocks and furniture. There were initial teething issues as Council came to grips with running the restrooms. The first estimates that were to be prepared by the Chief Sanitary Inspector were incorrect as he had failed to include the rental of the rest room in George Street and was unaware of an additional attendant employed in the weekends. A supplementary vote to cover this expenditure was referred to the Finance Committee to cover this.21

Dunedin City Council further asked the Women’s Rest Room Committee to continue to advise them in matters to do with the operation of the rest rooms.22 The Women’s Rest Room Committee wrote “though we are relinquishing the financial branch of the Rooms we shall have pleasure in working with your Council in the capacity of an advisory committee”.23

Rise of Vandalism and Abuse

Problems arising from vandalism continued to increase over the twentieth century and the 1930s and 1940s saw a rise in vandalism and abuse of the city’s public spaces. Underground facilities were particularly vulnerable to this being hidden away from the public eye view and when unattended overnight, people could still access the spaces by simply climbing over the railing and gates. 

From the beginning, the underground conveniences suffered from damage at the hands of patrons. Problems such as broken toilet seats and smashed doors occurred regularly. Council always tried to recover costs from the individuals themselves. The police helped to monitor these spaces as best they could and were often requested by Council to make special checks of the subterranean spaces while they were on duty in the area. In one case before the courts, two men were charged with ‘casting of offensive matters.’ The Magistrate commented that some of the issue was the opening hours - it was absurd to close public conveniences at 11 o’clock at night - “casting of offensive matters, especially by strangers to the city, had been subject of many complaints.”24  In 1939 because of representations made by the Magistrate of the Police Court, arrangements were made to keep the Customhouse Square facilities open all night. However, this would be for a trial period only and the Police had promised to monitor it as Council were not providing attendants to work in the conveniences during these hours.25


The Museum grounds conveniences also caused problems, even though they were above ground because they were in a secluded position. Council originally chose to erect the building in a more prominent position, but they received opposition and complaints about the original site, so were compelled to move it. As well as the site being abused, it also ended up being locked to prevent use, as the drain it had to attach to constantly became blocked. In 1940, it was suggested the site be moved to a more prominent accessible site fronting the side entrance of the Museum. 

The St Clair convenience site was particularly bad and by 1950 had issues with fittings being interfered with, water supply being turned off, sanitary towels thrown on the floor or in the water closet’s causing blockages. “The walls of this convenience are continuously being covered in rude drawings and writings usually in lipstick, crayon, knives, or nail files.26 These toilets were cleaned every second day and had already had previous issues with smashed windows which were reported to the Police. However, the police could not do much about it and the Council continued to pay for repairs and reported these acts of vandalism to police.

The Evening Star reported in 1955 that ratepayers had been footing the bill for this vandalism. “In every five-year period, for at least the last quarter century, residents of Dunedin have footed a £1000 bill for repairs to the city conveniences”.27 This was on top of what estimates had allowed. Vandals seemed determined to break the light bulbs in the conveniences with up to 6 light bulbs a week being smashed at a cost of £50-60 a year. Even iron lamp covers were not enough to protect the bulbs, with offenders simply pushing through sticks through to the bulb to break them. Most conveniences were vandalised at night and not only were the conveniences dangerous to patrons with no lights they also “acted as party sites for late-nighters who preferred to stay on the streets rather than return to their homes”.28 Even when police were brought in, they were helpless, and the Council felt it was impossible to catch the offenders.

As a way of curbing this anti-social behaviour, Council planned to situate new conveniences in more prominent places in the hope that the vandalism and mistreatment would stop.29 Most of the buildings and appointments were out-dated and the Council planned to gradually replace the older facilities, though it was “difficult to provide modern facilities in the face of continued mistreatment of these public utilities”.30 


As well as increasing costs needed to repair damage caused by vandalism, there was also a rising cost in the maintenance of the undergrounds and other conveniences around the city. The Council departmental report for 1944-45 stated that the Princes Street rest room was in a bad state of repair and further provision was going to be necessary as the accommodation provided was now inadequate, particularly for mothers with babies.31 

With its unique location in the middle of a busy two-way street, the Crawford Street semi-underground convenience caused issues for patrons and the Council. The conveniences stuck out but also had no protective iron railing around the structure like the other undergrounds in the City did. It had a slightly raised footpath but there was concern from the public in 1940 that a person whose “mind was preoccupied when leaving the convenience” may be killed by coming traffic if they stepped into the road. The Chief Sanitary Inspector argued that a person exercising normal alertness would not need a rail and warned the railing itself could prove problematic for traffic.32 The next year a truck collided with the structure itself causing damage to both the truck and conveniences.33 In 1949, these were removed.


A proposal was put forward in 1945 to lengthen the railings and remove the gates of the Custom House Square undergrounds after a complaint was laid with the council that the railings were too short.34 These complaints arose after one incident led to a man falling down the stairs into the underground space. The man lay unconscious at the bottom of the stairs as people continued to walk over him, and reports stated he stunk of liquor. “I have observed persons of all ages and with various disabilities negotiating these steps, but I have never noticed a sober person having any difficulty” stated Mr Stokes, Chief Sanitary Inspector. He was adamant that this particular incident was because the man was under the influence, but he was of the opinion that lengthening of the railings and the removal of the gates would assist elderly persons and those with disabilities, particularly returned soldiers.35 He therefore recommended the work and authorised the removal of the gates to increase access.

The subterranean spaces were cold and damp. One attendant suffered from bronchitis and could not continue to work underground as it affected his health.36 Other attendants often resigned due to ill health. Leaks began to appear in the Custom House Square undergrounds in 1950. The cause was attributed to the turnaround of the heavy trolley buses causing vibrations that effected water service and in turn affected the stability of the walls.37 This type of traffic was not taken into consideration when the undergrounds were first constructed. 

The George Street restrooms became harder and harder to improve due to its awkward staircase. By 1954 it was closed and Council had replaced it with a small women’s rest room and bus shelter at ground level approved in May 1955.38 


Athenaeum decision

With three restrooms operating in the city area, usage numbers continued to rise. However, again the sites had issues with access, like the underground women’s convenience in the Octagon. The main central rest rooms were both located up steep, narrow staircases meaning it was very difficult for anyone with disabilities or prams and luggage to make their way up to the space. One letter writer wrote in response to complaints of the staircase - "Young Mother"complains that the stairs at the Women's Rest Rooms are dangerous to climb with a baby in arms, another by the hand, and parcels.39  They were not fit for purpose and were old premises and were difficult to clean effectively.

Some in the community were not supportive of women having any extra spaces during the time of war. 

“Personally, I think it is very selfish and weak for women to be wishing for anything more of that kind in times like these, when our men and Empire are fighting for their lives. All extras in the way of comforts should be given to our fighting forces. The women are lucky indeed in having these three comfortable rest rooms. I also agree with the person who said, “Let the affairs of our city be run by the men who have the brains and experience.” The idea of a woman mayor of our city—what impudence! Dunedin would look undignified with a woman as mayor. l am, etc., Empire First.40

The Dunedin Housewives Association wrote to the Council in 1945 requesting that the Council make the Women’s rest rooms a priority in the upcoming budgets. They outlined the issues they thought were most pressing. Better access for the elderly and young mothers in getting up to the restrooms was a priority.41 They were also concerned about the cramped space and argued that there should be better accommodation provided for the attendants with improved heating. Twenty-two women’s organisations had signed the letter to the council stating they wanted a new location for the restrooms away from the Princes Street site.42 The Housewives’ Association suggested the old Fire Station building in Harrop Street, or any nearby site that was available.43 The Association did not favour alterations to the present Princes Street property, because, if altered, it would be artificially lit day and night, as well as requiring the installation of an air conditioning plant. This would not be suitable for rest rooms for women and children. “Who wants a modern black hole of Calcutta in our midst?” Mrs Rust, the secretary of the Association asked.44 It is essential that wherever the rest rooms are to be, access to them must be on the street level. 


Women’s rest room accommodation was under discussion at the 23 April meeting of Dunedin City Council in 1945. Councillor Connelly moved that a new building should be built to replace the old rest rooms and provision needed to be made to Councils next year’s estimates.45 The Finance Committee stated that this proposal was quite impractical at the present time, as it would cost a lot of money, which could not come from rates. Councillor McMillan pointed out that there needed to be increased accommodation for women, and he urged any new rooms should be planned as part of reserves or included in day nurseries if possible. He suggested the Queens Gardens would be a suitable site.46

The Council notified the groups that they were investigating the issue and several sites were suggested as suitable. However, the Queens Garden site, suggested by Councillor McMillan and the deputation from women’s organisations, received strong reaction from the Dunedin Amenities Society. While they supported the case for Women’s Rest Rooms in general, they were strongly opposed to one being located on the Queens Gardens, Octagon or Market Reserve.47 Members had expressed their opinion at the meeting of the Dunedin Amenities Society in May 1945, that rest room accommodation should be provided near the main shopping areas and that George Street was a much more suitable site for a second rest room. They believed the two rest rooms and other added lavatory accommodation would meet the needs of the public in years to come.48

During the rise of popularity in rest rooms, the women’s undergrounds were still frequented, but their access made them undesirable to visit. They did not have the added extras a rest room did, and the stairs continued to prevent access for some. While great effort was made to screen the Women’s undergrounds in the Octagon for its opening and later in 1932 (where further screening and rockeries were added) the rest rooms did not have the same stigma – while using the underground conveniences could be an embarrassment for some, entry into a rest room was not so fraught as a woman could be making use of any number of the facilities provided. The rest rooms were also seen as a safer environment to visit.

The following Notice of Motion was adopted by Dunedin City Council on 18 December 1945: “That it be a recommendation from the Council that estimates, and plans be prepared to enable the erection of a modern Women’s Rest Room”. The original motion also included “on the Council’s property adjoining the present Women’s Rest Room in Princes Street to be proceeded with next year”.49 

This was further considered by the Finance Committee who were waiting on a report from the City Engineers and Electricity Department to see if this area could be utilised. On closer examination by the Engineers, it was felt it would be preferable to obtain a much-needed additional office space for Council staff in closer proximity to the Municipal Chambers, rather than use it as a rest room.50

Money remained an issue as the Council sought to fund this needed space. The Finance Committee reported that it had given special consideration towards funding for women’s rest rooms but that it found it “impossible to provide for such a major outlay out of revenue”.51 Again, delay frustrated some councillors as “the present rest rooms were totally inadequate, and it was no compliment to the council that these conditions should continue”, one Councillor stated.52 

The Dunedin Women’s Branch of the New Zealand Labour wrote to Council several times hoping the women of Dunedin would not have to wait “yet another year” for essential rest rooms.53 A column in the Otago Daily Times noted ‘It is an urgent necessity every mother will readily agree, and as soon as a suitable site is obtained, the Mayor, Mr Cameron, assures me the council will do all it can to erect such a building”. It continued by mentioning a letter received to the column that stated it should be women who find the suitable site.  “The women should say where it is to be; and that is just what we are asked, in fact challenged, to do ‘Find the site.’ We need a downstairs site if possible and we need a site near the centre of the city. So that is the present position—are there any suggestions of suitable sites that are available for present purchase? Here is your chance. Dunedin women, can you find a suitable site for a rest room? ”54

At the meeting of 18 August 1947, Dunedin City Council finally announced it would lease the Athenaeum building for the purpose of a public restroom. The site was a good location being right in the Octagon, across the road from the Octagon undergrounds. A sum of £5000 had been allocated by the Finance Committee for alterations to the Athenaeum, which was allocated from the Water Department estimates after it was calculated they would under spend.55 After somewhat protracted negotiations between the Athenaeum Committee and the General Committee of the City Council, agreement was reached between the two bodies on the method of alterations and the lease of portion of the Athenaeum building to the City Council.56 The lease was for 21 years with a right for renewal for another 21 years and covered the whole of the ground floor. The building was to be completely renovated, with the agreement that if the Athenaeum Committee did take the building back, they would get the benefit of the improvements. 


Mrs W. K. Cameron, president of the Dunedin branch of the National Council of Women stated, “We are very, very pleased with the site,” to the Evening Star. “This new site is going to be much better for mothers with children and old people, who will not need to struggle with stairs, ’added Mrs Cameron.57 

The public were notified of the proposal for the city’s new rest rooms. The council declared that they hoped to open the new premises in 5-6 months’ time. Tenders were duly called, and five were received, the lowest being £6343 from the Love Construction Company. In addition to this amount, provision had to be made for certain furnishings, the architect’s fees and the total sum required rose to £7255.58 As this was considerably more than the amount allocated for the work, the question of a supplemental vote had to be referred to the Finance Committee. “I am happy to say that this committee, taking a broad view of the position, has reported favourably and the lowest tender was accepted,” Councillor Smith said.59 Being in a central position and on the ground floor, the rooms should prove a great convenience to the women of Dunedin and their young families, Councillor Smith went on to say. 

The new premises were reported in detail in the local newspapers. When patrons entered on the ground floor the mother’s room was located right near the entrance. There was room for mothers to push their prams into the room and facilities included areas for changing and feeding babies. A children’s lavatory opened off this space in one corner. An electric power point and equipment would enable milk to be heated as well. And importantly, there were no charges for use of equipment in the mother’s room.60 There were 10 lavatories (no longer called wc’s) facing six basins, make up shelves and mirrors. The whole area was partitioned off from the entrance corridor for privacy. Between the lavatories and the lounge there were two extra “dressing toilets”, small compact spaces equipped with basins and mirrors.61

The main room was a 17ft by 11ft lounge with upholstered furniture and seating for women waiting engagements or wanting a rest. There was also a writing bay, 12ft by 10ft, off the main room which was partitioned off. At the end of the entrance corridor within the rest rooms was a reception bay, where the attendant was stationed from 8am-11pm. Parcels could be left there and first aid equipment and various accessories, such as safety pins could be purchased.

The lino was brown and green inlaid and the whole colour scheme was to be an “attractive light shade”, as opposed to the dark underground conveniences. “The whole thing should be very attractive. The general furnishings and decorations will blend with the colour scheme adopted” anticipated Mr McDowell Smith, City Architect.62 


The women’s rest room opened on 29 August 1950.63 The Mayoress Lady Cameron officially turned the key in the lock and the Mayor Sir Donald Cameron presided at the public function to be held in the lounge.64 The same week advertisements ran in the local papers advising that both the Princes Street and nearby women’s underground conveniences were now closed.65


Within a month the new and improved restrooms were already bringing in more revenue than the Princes Street rest room and undergrounds combined.66

What was to become of the Octagon women’s undergrounds? The space could not compete with the rest rooms across the room for services. The future of the space was considered by Council after the Chief Sanitary Inspector wrote a report outlining potential options. 

Closure of Women’s Undergrounds

Once the women’s undergrounds were officially closed, the Dunedin City Council needed to decide what to do with the vacant space. They had originally debated the possibility of remodelling the women’s undergrounds and combining the space with the men’s undergrounds. The Chief Sanitary Inspector had requested that a decision be made as the Athenaeum rest rooms were about to open and recommended the plan to combine the two spaces together. However, while an amount was placed on the estimates it was later deleted and the alterations were not proceeded with.


While the Chief Sanitary Inspector’s advice to combine the underground space was not taken on board, a decision was made to open the women’s underground at night in 1951 to coincide with the rest rooms closure overnight. This ensured longer hours available for public use. The Chief Sanitary Inspector thought this was unnecessary as women would not use this space at night. Only 16 women used the space in the first month. He was further proved correct when over the period of 3 ½ years, from 18 October 1951 to 4 May 1955, only 13 people used the undergrounds.67 He again argued for an arch to open the space between the men’s and women’s sections, which would also improve ventilation in the subterranean space. Five years later, the City Engineers were finally given the go ahead to drive through and open up the Octagon conveniences. This would mean a loss of two water closet’s but was seen the most economical way forward. However, the archway never went ahead on the grounds of the expense and the “general policy of eliminating underground conveniences, with their dangerous steps for elderly and the fact that vandalism and misuse were more difficult to suppress in this type of convenience”. 68  The women’s conveniences were “locked and useless” and its entrance and steps became filled with leaves and all kinds of refuse.


Over the period of 1940-50s underground attendants became harder to attract into the position. With previous assaults and options of working in the rest rooms, the positions became harder and harder to fill. The wider impact of World War II did not affect employment in the position as it suited people who were after lighter duties (and therefore would not have been enlisted). Those returning from War were given preference for the attendant positions. Mr Carter, who was a returned soldier in 1945 with 4 children, could apply, even though he was late in his application, for a vacancy at the men’s conveniences in the Octagon. 69 He suffered from neurosis and this position would suit his condition as he preferred to work on his own. His application was considered with two others who applied. Out of the two other men who applied, one had a disability which prevented him from performing his usual duties and preference was given to him over the other more abled bodied applicant.

In 1945, the Sanitary Inspector had to make temporary arrangements to have enough staff to run the conveniences. He was forced to re-employ two retired employees, neither of which had been medically examined (which was a requirement) and he was doubtful they would pass. He recommended to Council that they be employed until he could fill the positions with suitable candidates.70

The position of female attendant in the Princes Street rest rooms was reported as a “very responsible and heavy one”.71 The attendant was expected to be very hardworking, honest and able to deal with the public who in many instances require “firm handling”.72  The attendants in the Princes Street site were not able to leave the building once they came on duty and were required to constantly clean to keep up the “shining condition” it is always found in.

Female convenience and rest room staff were given an increase in wages in 1945 to bring them into line with their northern counterparts, which may have attracted a few more people into the positions.73 There was “jealousy and dissatisfaction” amongst the Princes Street attendants over rates of pay as one senior attendant (who had done many years of service) was paid more than her newer counterparts. It was agreed that a more harmonious work environment could be reached if all the women employed would be paid the same salary when she retired. For vacancies advertised for ‘Female Attendants Octagon Conveniences’ in 1946, only three applications were received, while at the Princes Street Restrooms seven applications were received. 

In 1950 the Chief Sanitary Inspector was still stating “excellent service is being rendered to the community by the Rest Rooms and Conveniences, but it is still difficult to secure suitable staff to maintain the premises.” 74 One attendant suffered from bronchitis and could not continue to work underground as it affected his health.75  By 1959 extra cleaning services of a urinal cleaner were required for late afternoons and early evening. A Urinal Cleaner worked a 40 hour week and then received time and half on weekends on top of attendants who worked two shifts of 8 hours a day.76

Proposal for New City Conveniences

An investigation into the possibility of replacing all the underground conveniences with more modern structures at footpath level was initiated in 1957. There were three women’s rest rooms, six women’s conveniences and 15 men’s conveniences maintained by the Council in Dunedin and the three men’s conveniences underground remained. “These have served the city for about 50 years and are subject to considerable vandalism”.77 The investigation showed it had become increasingly difficult to maintain the undergrounds to the required standard due largely to the difficulty in attracting suitable employees for the role of attendant. The Council agreed with the Chief City Health Inspector’s report that every effort should be made to replace the undergrounds conveniences with more modern structures at ground floor level. This was a shift in thinking – no longer was the underground convenience favoured due to being ‘hidden’ away from the public’s eyes. It was the fact it was “hidden away” which caused Council problems with high rates of vandalism and abuse. The acquisition of ground for the purpose “will be difficult and expensive” but the matter would be reviewed for attention when potential land became available.

The City Engineers were tasked with investigating sites for potential new city conveniences in March 1960.78 As part of the investigation in the Exchange area, one site was identified in the basement of the Social Security building, near the Custom House undergrounds. This was problematic due to its awkward shape; existing heating pipes and its access was a couple of steps below ground level. The Pix Café, in the Stock Exchange building was a basement level area occupied by tea rooms. It was 1000 square feet and the floor was at footpath level. It was also considered suitable to be used for male and females. This quickly became a key site.


The Council’s Finance Committee recommended the site of Pix Café in the Stock Exchange building should be purchased to provide conveniences in the area. The accommodation would include 8 urinal stall, 3 toilet’s and wash basin for men and 3 toilet’s and 2 wash basins for women. Women would also have a rest room measuring 18ft by 14ft. The need was urgent in the area and the committee hoped their recommendation would be approved quickly, even more so as the department store Brown Ewing’s’ had recently closed their private rest rooms.  The Finance Committee also recommended that the land and buildings owned by Dunedin City Council in Princes Street be offered for sale as the first step towards the provision of additional office space and showroom accommodation for Council departments.79  The premises on the Bond Street frontage of the Stock Exchange building were taken over and converted for use as a men’s and women’s convenience and opened in November 1960. It provided a new design in public toilets featuring stainless steel bowls on concrete floors. Gone were the porcelain urinals and water closets, decorative tiling and the penny in the slot systems. 


Extensive repairs were undertaken on the Octagon men’s undergrounds in 1959 but within two years the roof was leaking again “the age and general deterioration of the structure, with its ancient design and fittings, render it unfit to be used much longer without considerable expense” reported the Chief Sanitary Inspector.80 As well as the underground conveniences the Athenaeum rest rooms also needed repairs in 1959 to its entrance way and to repair leaks in the roof and improvement to its ventilation of the rest rooms and to renovate the mother’s room.

The underground conveniences continued to meet the basic needs of the public during the 1930s to the 1950s. However, the drive from women’s groups demanding improved and modern restrooms and increasing costs for maintenance and constant vandalism, stretched the Council budgets who struggled to fund the underground conveniences. There was a major shift in both the public and the Council thinking. The public wanted prominent, accessible, comfortable, and attractive spaces while the Dunedin City Council began to follow a policy of providing any new conveniences above ground to try and avoid high costs of vandalism and abuse. All of this led to a dramatic change in architectural style for public facilities. The Council agreed that “every effort should be made to replace these buildings with more modern structures at ground floor level”  and within 50 years the undergrounds had become surplus and unwanted.81 

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