Spend a penny, spare a thought

On Friday the Herald Sun carried a story titled ‘Flush fight: a sexist history of Melbourne’s public toilets’, rehearsing the chronology of social and technological change that saw Melbourne’s first public urinal for men opened in 1859, and the first underground public toilet for women in 1902.

Toilets have been a popular news item over the years—there’s always a quirky interest in this somewhat taboo topic (and an endless supply of puns). Going back through the files I see it was almost thirty years ago now that Bob Millington’s Age article on 22 December 1987 (‘For all its conveniences, Melbourne is no place for a lady’) cited my research on toilet history, eventually published in ‘History caught short: the Russell Street underground Conveniences’ (Trust News 24, 5, 1996, 22-24) and more substantially as part of a chapter of Melbourne Street Life in 1998. Throughout the 1990s, toilets regularly caught the news cycle —‘Conveniences: putting historical record straight’(Sunday Age, 30 August 1992); Rachel Buchanan ‘The end of the line for the loo’ (Age, 4 August 1995)—and on radio too, with Terry Laidler and Doug Aiton on 3LO and on ABC Radio National Breakfast in January and February 1997.

A decade later, scholarly historical interest was turned into heritage action. Clay Lucas reported in the Age on 5 July 2007 on the imminent listing of a suite of Melbourne’s underground toilets on the Victorian Heritage Register (‘Heritage listing may end a lav-hate relationship’). On 12 September 2007, a Heritage Victoria press release announced the official listing of four of Melbourne’s historic underground public toilets. The original nomination was submitted in September 2005 by a team under my direction including students Peg Fraser, Belyndy Rowe and Alice McConnell from my ‘Applications in Public History’ seminar. Course and assessment tasks were tied to practical experience in the history and heritage industry, and this was a terrific outcome of a hands-on project and testament to the skills and dedication of the students, who argued in their documentation for the historical, scientific and social significance to the state of Victoria of this unique ensemble of underground toilets:

The underground toilets represent a pivotal moment in the transformation of urban public space and indeed, of the definition of the urban ‘public’.  They are historically significant because they symbolise the emergence of Melbourne as a modern prosperous city.  Changing attitudes to acceptable public behaviour and the drive toward the democratisation of public space came into conflict with Victorian values of modesty and morality. This was resolved by moving the toilets underground – accessible yet out of the public gaze. Particularly for women, the opening of the public toilets heralded a new freedom to move, work and socialise in the public environment.

Peg and I then wrote a chapter for Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner’s edited collection, Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender (Philadelphia Temple University Press), launched at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York in November 2009. Unfortunately we weren’t at the launch, but a highlight of the evening was the arrival of Alex Schweder’s custom-designed toilet paper, which apparently caused a small frenzy amongst the Sotheby crew who were desperate to own ‘a Schweder original’.


As Andrew Ross noted in his review of the collection, scholarly contributions on the ‘phallocentrism of urban planning’ and the gendering of public space ‘nicely illustrate the necessity of taking seriously the interrelationship of physical structures and discourse in the creation of cultural meaning’.

Elsewhere, Caroline Daley published ‘Flushed with pride? Women’s quest for public toilets in New Zealand’ in Women’s Studies Journal 16, 1 (2000), while Chicago urban historian Maureen Flanagan reprised the historical landscape in comparative terms in ‘Private needs, public space: public toilets provision in the Anglo-Atlantic patriarchal city: London, Dublin, Toronto and Chicago’ in Urban History 41, 2 (2014), 265-290, exploring how ‘the male leadership of each city sought to preserve the centuries-old patriarchal tradition of separate public and private spheres’.

In Sydney in 2003, Dr Lisa Murray and the team in the History program at the City of Sydney curated an online exhibition Water, water every where’, exploring among other things some of the debates surrounding the provision of public toilets for women and reproducing documents from the City of Sydney Archives. The first stand-alone public convenience for women in Sydney city was built in Hyde Park (South) cnr Elizabeth and Park streets in 1910.

Flush: exhibition catalogue 2005

Back in Melbourne again, together with the Rexroth Mannasmann Collective and Nicky Adams, I curated the exhibition Flush, which ran at the City Gallery from 29 September 2005 to 21 January 2006. The show featured items from the City of Melbourne’s archive and Art and Heritage Collection, as well as a collection of historic toilet rolls from the National Trust, and asked artists to respond to the collection and to Melbourne’s public conveniences. Flush also incorporated the third Golden Toilet awards, in which Melbourne architects and planners participated in a design competition for a significant CBD toilet site.

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Kim Fletcher, ‘Since I was three I have had the smallest bladder in the world’, mixed media dolls (Flush exhibition 2005)

Writers, researchers and institutions continue to seek historical information on these humble urban sites. We have given advice to the MCC on the wording of historic plaques (2008), information to researchers from WTFN Entertainment seeking material on Melbourne’s oldest toilets for a Tony Robinson History Channel production (2011), and comparative data to National Geographic Russia for a story on the renovation of certain old public toilets in Moscow (2014). The latter were directed to us through the eMelbourne entry on public toilets.

Modern-day tensions around security, accessibility and upkeep plague historic public toilets in many cities, and while adaptive reuse is often the solution (for example, as cafes in London), the loss of continuity in terms of ongoing use always diminishes the heritage value of a place. Deborah Gough reported in the Age on 25 June 2013 on the closure of the 1905 underground toilet in the median strip at the corner of Collins and Queens streets (‘Council flushes last underground toilets’). I wrote a letter to the Age two days later, and as always my email inbox ran hot:

I am completely baffled and heartsick at the stupid, ill conceived, short sighted decision to close the historic Melbourne underground toilets.

Is there anything at all we can do to stop this lunacy?

Shall I chain myself to the railings?

The history of the establishment of public toilets in Melbourne is a tale of technological innovation, social values, changing attitudes to propriety and urban utility, and the endeavours of women’s groups to have their voices heard. Heritage toilets remind us of those struggles. It’s a salutary reminder of what many of us take for granted that the UN established World Toilet Day (19 November #wecantwait) in 2013 to highlight the fact that a third of the world’s population does not have access to improved sanitary conditions.

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