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

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Nineteenth and early twentieth century public conveniences in New Zealand are becoming a rare and endangered part of our wider cultural and built heritage.  These often-overlooked facilities are more than just reminders of a common public service. They provide direct evidence for changing social attitudes to the provision of public conveniences and evidence showing significant changes in architectural and aesthetic approaches to their design, construction and visibility.  

Whereas many of previous works have used a gendered framework, this thesis will focus on the change in public convenience architecture from the grand and elaborate underground conveniences to the cheaper above-ground cubicles which were cheaper to maintain. It will also examine the demise of undergrounds toilets through the perceptions and attitudes towards the public conveniences from both the public and the local authorities view, using examples from the city of Dunedin’s rich history and heritage. How did the community’s attitudes towards public facilities and bodily functions change over the decades? Did this influence the way toilets were designed and constructed? Did the local authority views align with those of the public’s views?

Furthermore, this thesis will focus on the staff that were stationed or visited the underground conveniences. The attendants have been omitted from previous works and will consider the importance of these positions. 

The thesis will examine the formative period of the publicly provided urinals and water closets in the twentieth century. It will briefly cover the first one provided in 1861 by the Dunedin Town Board and the provisions to the success of the modern underground facilities in 1910 by Dunedin City Council. It will focus on the demise of the underground facilities over the 1950s and 1960s, showing how other options for conveniences were shaped by social attitudes towards sanitation, hygiene and modesty. It will analyse the challenges the local authority faced in providing these needed facilities over the decades and the challenges these built structures presented until the closure of the last remaining underground in Dunedin in 1989. 

This thesis seeks to investigate some important questions. What led to the decision to build subterranean structures? What was the idea behind building them in seemingly difficult positions underground? After the effort and cost to construct them, why did these underground conveniences become out of favour in the 1960s, only 50 years after their construction? When did they disappear from use?

How did the staff affect usage? It is arguably important to research how and why the attendants were phased out and whether this lack of oversight and capital was a crucial factor that led to the underground conveniences overall demise.

This thesis aims to answer these questions and explain the many reasons why the underground facilities have largely disappeared from New Zealand, using Dunedin as a reflection of wider New Zealand society.


Literature Review 

A small number of works have been published about nineteenth and twentieth century underground conveniences in New Zealand.

Over the last twenty years there has been a growing body of scholarly literature regarding public space, gender and women’s exclusion from these public spaces. The first detailed examination into New Zealand conveniences was Caroline Daley’s ‘Flushed with pride? Women’s quest for public toilets in New Zealand’, Women’s Studies Journal 16, 1 (2000).1  With a focus on Auckland, Daley covered the campaigning that women undertook for women’s public toilets and rest rooms in New Zealand. Daley outlined the issues the underground facilities presented for women, such as problematic access for elderly and those women with prams, charging for women’s use, as well as shortened opening hours and how these issues contributed to the struggle for gender equality in the public space in the late nineteenth century to the 1940s.

Further focusing on the gendering of citizens and the provision of public toilets for women, Annabel Cooper, Robin Law, Jane Malthus and Pamela Wood in “Rooms of Their Own: Public toilets and gendered citizens in a New Zealand city, 1860‐1940” based their research on Dunedin.2 The article covered the early development of the public conveniences for men, the underground facilities and then later rest rooms that women groups campaigned for. As the article concludes in 1940 (when the undergrounds were still popular and in frequent use) there is no discussion of the social attitudes that began to change after this date.

Pamela Wood’s excellent work on Dunedin’s early sanitary history examined the underground toilets and their establishment in 1910 as Dunedin followed the same progression as other colonial or frontier towns.3  She argues how the social attitudes towards cleanliness and dirt of the settlers played its part in their vision of the New World. The 1870s saw toilet provision for women workers, and the 1880s saw department stores providing for their customers, yet the public conveniences development trailed behind. Wood covers the debate over the first Dunedin undergrounds in 1900 and the discussion over their expense. Men’s urinals were more economical as facilities for women had to have separate entrances and separate water closets, resulting in a more expensive build. The undergrounds were permanent fixtures, seen as up to date and more sightly, a place where both public decorum and civic pride could be satisfied.4 

Additional exploration has been undertaken by urban historian Maureen Flanagan into how the male leadership of London, Dublin, Toronto and Chicago sought to preserve the centuries-old patriarchal tradition of separate public and private spheres and limit women’s access to public spaces with a focus on public conveniences.5   As in New Zealand, women in each of these cities sought to break down the public and private spheres to make the city more liveable for all its residents and fought for women’s private needs to become part of the city’s public spaces.

Sarah McCabe’s study is one of the only works that studies the architecture of the underground facilities focusing on London.7  She examined the main reasons for the need of the undergrounds – the city’s need to improve sanitary provisions, to comply with the British Public Health Act 1848 and 1891 and London’s population growth.  1855 saw the world’s first underground convenience and she discusses the lack of provision for women in the public space. McCabe explores the architecture and ironwork of the public conveniences and the builder’s evidence of civic pride in the structures and the use of high-quality materials. London undergrounds were largely closed in the late 1970s-1980s in London, which is slightly later than the Dunedin circumstances.

Nigel Isaacs has produced several articles covering the history of public toilets from an architectural history perspective. His article ‘Public Conveniences’ compares the Dunedin undergrounds with that of above ground facilities in Wellington, using the primary sources from Dunedin City Council Archives and Wellington City Council collection.8 He discusses how societies attitudes changed toward what was deemed acceptable in a colonial society as New Zealand moved from frontier towns to civilisation.  The unique architecture of the underground structures is a focus and Isaacs explores the challenges the subterranean environment posed for the city engineers.  He touches on the changing use of the spaces that have survived today.

Auckland City Council produced a heritage report on the Auckland City underground facilities in 2015.9 The report examines the change in public opinion as men’s urinals were supplied to protect women’s “decency” from being violated as urinating in the open became socially unacceptable. Auckland had the same demand for public facilities around tram lines that Dunedin did. Auckland built its first women’s undergrounds in the city in 1915 (five years after Dunedin’s) and continued to build underground structures well into the 1930s and some are still used today. The architecture of each underground facility has been reported in detail in this heritage report.10

Another set of research throughout New Zealand and Australia has been undertaken as part of heritage assessments  and potential re-use feasibility studies on the surviving subterranean structures.11  While these reports do cover the dates of closure, little has been done on the reasons for why the underground conveniences closed. The decline of the London undergrounds has briefly been covered by McCabe in her thesis, but the decline has never been studied in a New Zealand context.


This study will focus on the underground structures in Dunedin that have disappeared but are traceable through the Dunedin City Council archives collection. This topic sits at the emerging intersection between cultural, social and public history. It will analyse the primary material further through the lens of a discourse framework by comparing the Council records and staff attitudes versus the public view, through researching the public response through newspaper articles and inwards correspondence to Council regarding the supply and condition of the conveniences.

The Dunedin City Council Archives hold the main primary sources for this thesis. These archives hold records created by the Dunedin City Council and its predecessors on the administration of the city from 1855-2002. Many records about conveniences have been destroyed over the years as the topic was deemed as of low-level archival interest but Dunedin City Council Archives still have voluminous information on this. One frustrating element was that from 1920 onwards only a sample of every five years had been retained (which is a common archival practice) which resulted in gaps in the records and data. The council departments were also inconsistent when reporting financial data over the time period, resulting in comparison over decades near impossible to evaluate. The income and expenditure were analysed, where this was possible, from Council reports.  The City Engineers records have been used extensively, which contain correspondence, memos, minutes, plans, and photographs from 1880 to 1996 for information on the architecture, design and build of the structures. The Chief Sanitary Inspector reports were invaluable for recording the issues within the spaces and handling the complaints around them. The Town Clerk Correspondence Series from 1906-1996 was another excellent primary resource for all discussions and reports around the public conveniences across all Council departments. Higher level decisions went through the Dunedin Town Board (1855-1865) and the Dunedin City Council Minutes (1865-1980s). In the later twentieth century, the Dunedin City Council Architect’s files were invaluable for interpreting new modern designs and structures of the conveniences. As the records are not detailed in the boroughs (now suburbs of Dunedin) until they merged into the larger Dunedin City Council, the focus has been on the inner city, where the undergrounds were located, with some reference to suburban facilities.


This thesis is presented using the open source platform Scalar (, used for academic theses in the United States. Scalar is an open source authoring and publishing platform that is designed for authors to write long-form, born-digital scholarship online. Scalar enables users to assemble media from multiple sources and juxtapose them with their own writing in a variety of ways and displays similar to a website.12  

Using this platform, the core elements of historical scholarship (critical engagement with primary and secondary sources, and a clear analytical argument) will still be first and forefront and the standards will be the same as a hardcopy thesis. Developments in digital publication platforms and digital humanities methods have increasingly made it possible to produce a work of historical scholarship that does not take the form of a narrative dissertation. With this digital open source format, it can also be used for public engagement and extend their interest and knowledge of early Dunedin history. Readers can log into the work itself and read the thesis as they would a hard copy or can be opened to the public which would be accessible through a web search. There will be no hard copy output.

The digital format allows demonstration of virtual reality platforms. The virtual format clearly demonstrates the lack of accessibility of the toilets and shows one of the reasons for their demise. The virtual reality designs were developed with architectural designers to develop a virtual tour of the now demolished Octagon underground. Using original plans and contract specifications for the conveniences from the Dunedin City Council Archives, the virtual reality programme shows what the spaces were like to physically walk through. The staircases were narrow and wound down into the facility. They were tight to negotiate but once in the space, people can appreciate the beautiful structures that were built, with skylights and interiors that were modern, fashionable and aesthetically pleasing. This has been showcased to the public as part of community outreach and education on the subterranean spaces and can be viewed through the Scalar platform. 



An interactive timeline and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software maps have been created to showcase the locations and city within the thesis and the work contains film footage, including the interior of the last remaining 1912 toilet in Dunedin to support the argument. These can be viewed in isolation or while reading through the chapters. The chapters have a chronological timeline, but readers can click on various chapters throughout the Scalar site as required through hyperlinks. All the footnotes are embedded hyperlinks that when readers hover over them, they can display information and readers can click directly to a website link if applicable.

Chapter One briefly covers the establishment of public conveniences in 1861 and the development and discussion of supply to the city over the nineteenth century. It covers the arguments for and against the building of more facilities in the town and the reasons for and against the underground facilities. The public were disgraced by the state of the current conveniences and were concerned about Dunedin’s reputation with visitors. The chapter covers in detail the design and build of the undergrounds after the Town Clerk successfully argued his case to Dunedin City Council for the structures. The chapter looks at the number of above ground and semi undergrounds toilets built to meet public demand. The role of the attendants is outlined here focusing on their tasks and risks with the position.

Chapter Two examines the decline of the underground conveniences between the period of 1930-1960. Vandalism and damage of the spaces began to rise. What led to the damage and misuse of the spaces? This chapter looks at how the Council dealt with these issues. The chapter outlines importance of the development of the women’s rest rooms and their rise in popularity across the 1920s-1940s. The rest rooms were a large change in architectural design, they were homelier and a nice place to escape and rest from the public sphere. Although run by women organisations to begin with, Council took over the running of them. The popularity of the rest room spaces directly affected the women’s underground conveniences, with less and less using the women’s underground convenience. Council undertook a review of all the city’s toilets in 1957 in view to improving the spaces.

The demolitions of the underground conveniences in the 1960s are examined in Chapter Three. The city-wide review of the facilities in 1957 led Council to make new policies. The ever-increasing vandalism led to rising maintenance costs resulting in a new policy - to build conveniences above ground only. A new desire to provide modern facilities for the public that could be still economically run resulted in Council building plainer, concrete block structures. The undergrounds were deemed as surplus and were difficult to maintain with many suffering leaks and drainage issues. Gone were the antiquated porcelain details and stainless steel interiors became the norm. The Octagon men’s space was completely remodelled and upgraded during the 1960s but remained underground as it became difficult to find sites to situate above ground toilets in the same area. The new modern spaces were designed to minimise vandalism and make them easier to supervise for police. Attendants in this period were also phased out and commercial cleaners were employed. This affected the security of the spaces with more responsibility for the police. Findability, accessibility and basic hygiene were also issues that the public desired. 

Chapter Four outlines the new style of architecture in the above ground structures featuring stainless steel interiors. The negative attitude towards the “old” and “antiquated” was part of a wider movement of architectural changes in Dunedin, with a major redevelopment of 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 and altered over the decades. Council struggled with locations to site the toilets in the 1970s and 1980s as Dunedin’s main shopping area moved within the city and public demand grew for more conveniently placed toilets. A major review of the toilets in 1988 led to Council reviewing bylaws and discussing a myriad of future options for the public facilities. The review led to the Council decision to close the last undergrounds and the rest rooms, with the undergrounds being demolished in 1989.

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