Nicole Cama’s been sharing stories from the Dictionary with 2SER listeners for five years. Sadly it’s her last segment for a while today, so she thought she’d revisit one of her favourite topics – the early history of Sydney’s public lavatories.
During the late nineteenth century, concerns were raised about public respectability, health and hygiene, not to mention certain undesirable behaviour that was being witnessed in Sydney’s streets. It was not uncommon to see men urinating in public due to an absence of public toilets throughout the city.
A number of urinals or ‘pissoirs‘ were eventually installed in busy spots in the city during the 1880s. They were above ground and quite flimsy! One of these pissoirs, originally located on Observatory Hill, can be seen today in The Rocks underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
When bubonic plague hit Sydney in 1900, when public sanitation gained increasing attention, it became clear that many houses in the city’s inner urban areas had inadequate or faulty sewerage connections, while others had none at all and relied on earth closets and cesspits.
The first underground public loo (for men only) opened on 24 May 1901 in today’s Martin Place. Others were built in Macquarie Place, in Wynyard Park, the intersection of George and Barton Steets, in Hyde Park near Elizabeth Street, on Darlinghurst Road and at the intersection of Liverpool and Oxford streets.
In 1902, members of the Women’s Progressive Association waited on the Lord Mayor, requesting more ladies’ public toilets be installed in the city. There was one on Parker Street, and another at the Queen Victoria Markets,
A contract for the first ladies’ above-ground conveniences was finally entered into in September 1910, for construction in Hyde Park. It had fewer toilets than the men’s lavatories and by the end of 1914 a council publication revealed only £1,064 had been spent on women’s public lavatories while more than £15,000 had been spent on public lavatories for men. One man wrote to the Lord Mayor in 1917, commenting on the ‘wretched state of affairs’ and ‘eternal shame’ that ‘the men are amply provided for…but a woman…is placed in a most awkward position’.
The public conveniences were opened from 5am until midnight, with two attendants working daily shifts at each. Many of these early public toilets were decorative and ornate, with white glass tiles, concrete floors covered with ‘arkilite’ or ‘ironite’ paving and polished wooden doors.
One of the underground toilets built at Taylor Square on the corner of Oxford, Bourke and Forbes streets in 1907 still survives today (but is decommissioned, so don’t hope to use it!).
Those early public toilets that survive demonstrate Sydney’s urban street life at the turn of the twentieth century. Public convenciences today have come a long way with self-cleaning lavatories above ground in places such as Wynyard and Hyde Park.
You can find out more on the Dictionary! Read historian Christa Ludlow’s article on the history of Sydney’s Public Lavatories here, and check the content listed under the subject heading Sanitation too.
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator. She’s been appearing on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity for five years and is taking some time now to concentrate on another very special project. Thank you for everything Nicole!