The Attendants

As with other cities, Dunedin City Council employed attendants to run and maintain the underground conveniences. The Attendants were employed by Dunedin’s local authority as early as 1861. The Dunedin Town Board employed a man to clean the Princes Street and Jetty Street urinals, although this was largely ineffective judging from the continual complaints!

The construction of the undergrounds enabled attendants to be stationed onsite to clean, maintain, and attend to the public. The attendants had to be “old servants of the corporation” or widows of ex-employees.

Extract of plan for Octagon undergrounds, showing Attendants offices, 1910. Dunedin City Council Archives, City Engineers Series, CE 14/2/2b

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. The original job applications remain in the Dunedin City Council Archives.

Application for position of Attendant, 1910. Dunedin City Council Archives, Town Clerk Series, TC33 1910-1911, GEN U/1, 1572

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. After World War II returned servicemen were favoured in these roles.

However, the position did come with issues and risks, as this City Engineers report noted in 1919:

Extract from City Engineers report, 1919. Dunedin City Council Archives, City Engineers Series, CE Correspondence 1918-1928, Vol 18 “Custom Stations”

There were also incidents where the attendants were assaulted and the Police assisted Council in monitoring the behaviour in and around the underground conveniences.

These staff were always proud of their work in keeping their stations and surrounding areas clean. After the Customhouse (Exchange) undergrounds closed in 1961 the brass plaque and decorations on Cargill’s Monument (which sat just above ground) were very much neglected. An attendant had always polished these!

Conditions of Appointment: Attendant, Mens Conveniences, Octagon 1945. Dunedin City Council Archives, Town Clerk Series, TC33 1945 GEN A/3

During and after the 1940s, Dunedin City Council struggled to retain good staff and found it increasingly difficult to employ attendants.

Extract from General Committee in Dunedin City Council Departmental Report, 1949-50. Dunedin City Council Archives, Town Clerk Series

An ongoing issue for the Council was vandalism and misuse that occurred regularly resulting in increasing maintenance costs. The undergrounds were especially vulnerable due to being out of sight.

Dunedin City Council Archives, Town Clerk Series, TC33 GEN C/2, Letter 7528

In 1964, difficulties of employing staff and vandalism led to Council’s decision to discontinue the practice of employing staff to clean the men’s conveniences.  A contract cleaning company was employed to clean Dunedin’s toilets instead. The London Street and Customhouse (Exchange) undergrounds had already closed by this date.

Bond Street toilets, Evening Star, 7 January 1969


Richard Watkins Richards – The man behind Dunedin’s Underground Conveniences

Richard Watkins Richards held the dual position of Town Clerk and City Engineer at Dunedin City Council from 1904-1911. He put forward a report in 1905 to Council outlining the benefits of the new, modern underground conveniences that were popular around the world.

Evening Star, 5 July 1907, Issue 12706

He designed the first underground structures in Dunedin – the Gentleman’s and Ladies in the Octagon, and the Gentlemen’s only in Custom House Square.

DCC Archives, CE 14/2/2b

He could report with some expertise – he had designed the first one in Sydney on Moore Street (now Martin Place) in 1901. He did battle with the Dunedin councillors on the issue of cost. An underground convenience was estimated at £1500 – compared to an above ground urinal at £20 this was a huge cost to a local authority. Richards argued that they could be built cheaper and still meet all the needs.

Richard Watkins Richards, 1863-1920 (City of Sydney Archives)

He was sent away to design the first ones for Dunedin with a budget of £1200. It was put on hold until Council came up with the money – they created a special fund in 1909 for the cause and the first undergrounds were opened in November and December 1910.

The Town Clerk Richard Richards and his Staff 1910, Otago Witness, 22/6/1910

Richards returned to Council service in Sydney in 1912 and became Lord Mayor of Sydney from 1914-1915 and again in 1919-1920 until his death in 1920. He was created a Knight Bachelor in 1920. For more on Richard Richards see the City of Sydney Aldermen website .

The magic of film!

Here’s some quick stats for you:

  • 3420 people visited the Custom House Square underground in less than 2 days in 1911!
  • Shortly after the Octagon and Custom House Square facilities opened the numbers of people who used them were tallied – 46,000 people a month!

These stats seem huge (remembering 10 years earlier there were only 10 public urinals available across the city) and it seems hard to comprehend.

That is why the film footage below is gold – look at the people! What a throbbing metropolis Dunedin was in 1912. And if you look to the left hand corner about 10 seconds in you can see men going down the stairs of the Custom House Square undergrounds, showing the demand. I was so excited when I found this on the fabulous Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision website. Their wonderful staff edited the film for me.

A busy Princes Street, Dunedin, 1912. Segment from F8350 [Dunedin, 1912], from material preserved and made available by Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision
This further strengthens my decision to do a thesis using a digital platform – different media can bring the past to life!



The Importance of Shrubbery

The very first locations for the underground conveniences were chosen because of their central position and that they were secluded. The key to having privacy and seclusion was obviously placing the facilities underground but above ground shrubbery played a large part in ‘hiding’ patrons from the public as they entered the facilities.

DCC Minutes – discussing options around further shrubbery if needed, 1909
A 1919 DCC City Engineers Report regarding the Comfort Station – Ladies Section – “draped in shrubs”. DCC City Engineers Correspondence 1918-28 Vol 18 Reports
DCC Minutes, reporting a rockery with shrubs now being erected in 1932

The local authority worked hard to supply the shrubs to create the secluded access ways into the facilities and the City Engineer was proud of the work around this – Manor Place urinal was described “an object of beauty – draped as it is in lovely native shrubs” in 1919.

Manor Place Station, City Engineers Report, 1919. DCC City Engineers Correspondence 1918-28 Vol 18 Reports.

Even in the 1940s, you can see the Octagon is largely grass and flowerbeds except for the side with the toilet entrances – these have shrubs.

1947 Calendar of Octagon featuring the Thomas Burns Memorial (which was demolished the next year) and the shrubbery behind this marking the entrances to the underground facilities.

Shurbbery was important to the ideal that these facilities were not obvious or seen – this attitude did change over the 20th Century.

Earliest Dunedin loos

The earliest publicly provided facilities I have been able to trace in the Dunedin City Council Archives collection are in 1861, recorded in the Dunedin Town Board letterbooks.

In 1861 the Town Board made a request to the government of the day to set apart portions of the Beach Reserve area (now where Cargill’s Monument is) for Public Water Closets.

Request for public water closets, Dunedin Town Board, 13 December 1861
1859 shot of the Beach Reserve area, Dunedin. The first public water closets provided by Dunedin Town Board were located here (see arrow). Te Papa Collections, O.030501

The original toilets were shifted slightly to a new spot on the reclaimed ground in 1864. A report from the Inspector of Nuisances Nimon came in shortly after on 24 March 1864 complaining of the filthy state of them.

Dunedin Town Board Minutes, 24 March 1864, DCC Archives, TC 1/1

In April, the Town Board employed a man at one shilling a day to clean them.

Employment of Attendant, 5 April 1864, Dunedin Town Board Minutes, DCC Archives, TC 1/1

The public facilities were seen as a way to improve the sanitation but as this Otago Daily Times article shows Dunedin suffered poor sanitary conditions in the “back slums” in 1864. The author states if the reader dared to venture off the main streets “let him adventure boldly behind its thin screen of decent houses and he will find himself in a marsh, covered with flax bushes, and irrigated by several streams as black as Styx”. The author dramatically goes on to state that “the copious black stream he has been tracing to its sources, has, however, shrunk into a narrow ditch of a yellowish green and extremely fetid filth, which flows sluggishly over a quaking black morass into which a walking-stick may be thrust to the handle without finding bottom.”

So 1860s Dunedin – not the nicest place to be!