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

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This thesis sought to investigate several important questions and explain the myriad of reasons why the underground facilities have largely disappeared from New Zealand, using Dunedin as a reflection of wider New Zealand society.

Chapter One briefly covered the establishment of public conveniences in 1861 and the development and discussion of supply to the city. It outlined the decision to build subterranean structures and the influence the City Engineer and Town Clerk, Richard Richards had on the Council decision. Dunedin city followed and were influenced by international trends in hygiene and sanitation.  The plan to build underground was adopted first in London and spread across Europe as attitudes towards bodily functions changed to the idea that ‘hidden’ was best. After decades of providing men-only brick water closets and urinals over ten sites across the city, the Dunedin City Council made a large investment in establishing the underground conveniences and provided a long-awaited facility for women. A commitment was made to provide state of the art, modern facilities for both sanitation reasons and for promoting the city as a hygienic, modern city. They were designed to be aesthetically pleasing with attention to details such as interior materials used. They were hugely popular when they opened and were highly used.

Chapter Two examined the decline of the underground’s conveniences between the period of 1930-1960. The 1950s saw a major shift in both the public and the Council thinking towards the convenience’s spaces. The public wanted prominent, accessible, comfortable, and attractive spaces, while the Dunedin City Council began providing any new conveniences above ground. Siting the structures at ground level was an attempt to try and avoid the continually rising 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 became surplus and unwanted.1 The chapter outlined the development of the women’s rest rooms and their rise in popularity across the 1920s-1940s. The rest rooms were popular facilities, which were developed and run by various volunteer women's organisations with some funding from the Council. This popularity in the rest rooms directly affected the sole women’s underground convenience, leading the Octagon women’s underground to be closed permanently in 1950. The rest rooms were accessible, more homely in their design and provided many more services than the undergrounds spaces did for women.

The demolitions of the underground conveniences in the 1960s are examined in Chapter Three. After the effort and cost to construct them, these underground conveniences became disused and abused in the 1960s.  Increasing vandalism led to increasing maintenance costs that made the Dunedin City Council developed a new policy to build conveniences above ground only. This was largely an attempt to prevent vandalism and anti-social behaviour within the spaces. It was also part of ensuring safety for the public, as the public were often wary of using the spaces. Findable and accessible toilets were favoured by both the Council and the public, although some businesses were still concerned about toilets being located near them due to the behaviour that occurred in and around the structures. Damage and misuse of the spaces led to changes in architecture to combat the excessive vandalism. Council redesigned the interiors with stainless steel fittings and hid all the workings behind walls and tiles if possible.  All of these changes meant that the London Street and Custom House Square antiquated underground conveniences were demolished and out of use in the early 1960s.

Attendants were no longer employed in the 1960s in the convenience spaces and the lack of these staff working on site affected the way the spaces were treated.  With no one in attendance in the spaces, misuse and vandalism were rife and increasingly more maintenance and upkeep were required to keep the spaces up to a basic standard. Commercial cleaners were a more economical way of managing the space for the Council. However, this lack of constant supervision led to more vandalism and mistreatment of the spaces, especially the more isolated ones. The 1960s and 1970s reviews undertaken by the public of the conveniences reported that the toilets that were supervised were in a better condition than those that were not. The undergrounds that had no attendants, the London Street and the Octagon site, were easy pickings for those who wanted to cause destruction.

Chapter Four outlined the new style of architecture in the above ground structures featuring stainless steel interiors. Rest rooms also declined over the late twentieth century. The negative attitude towards the “old” and “antiquated” was part of a wider movement of architectural changes in Dunedin, as major redevelopments occurred in the southern central business district where many public conveniences were located. There was no longer a need to have conveniences out of site, underground or hidden amongst shrubberies, as the public’s and Council’s attitude changed over the decades. 

Today local authorities need to meet the New Zealand Public Toilet Standard.2  This provides design information and advice on the numbers, location, type and quality, including features and fittings for public toilets in any location. Guidance is also given on the cleaning and sanitation standards. Toilet facilities composed of all-gender, single, fully enclosed, self-contained units are also proposed and traditional separate gender facilities are also covered, although this has not been updated since 1999.

However, the same issues remain around public facilities today that have always occurred in the public conveniences over the twentieth century. A 2013 study by Otago University public health researchers, Nick Wilson and George Thomson, researched and reported on many of the same issues that had troubled local authorities in the past. The soap and water situation at many public toilets were deemed inadequate from a public health perspective, both in terms of the spread of infectious diseases and pandemic preparedness. "But sub-optimal provision of public toilets is also a concern in terms of New Zealand's reputation as a tourist destination."3  The researchers stated that councils had to meet limited requirements around cleanliness, but that was not enough to ensure all facilities had soap and water. The authors put forward the idea of government funding to encourage minimum standards for public toilets, which they said would benefit both local travellers and visiting tourists.4

The last remaining underground site in the Octagon survived until 1989 but it was a shadow of its former architectural design. After its extensive remodelling in the 1960s, the last underground space was viewed as a dark, smelly space that the public only used as a last resort. Modern toilets retained cleaners and more recently attendants have returned but today’s modern facilities are quite different to the former turn of the century underground designs. As Councillor Iona Williams stated in 1987, “The time of the people climbing downstairs and disappearing into the earth should be over”.

Dunedin’s early public conveniences were subterranean spaces that protected Victorian modesty and yet were modern and state-of-the-art in their design and construction. Social perceptions of the spaces drastically changed over the century, architectural design was heavily influenced and evolved as local authorities tried to curb excessive costs of damage and vandalism and the phasing out of attendant’s positions all led to the demise of the underground spaces. They survived for over fifty years in the city, before visible, above ground conveniences became the norm as societal and aesthetic attitudes towards the humble convenience evolved.

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