A matter of convenience…or lack thereof: Ladies lavatories in twentieth-century Brisbane

Anna Temby reflects upon the gendered history of public toilets in Brisbane, Australia.

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Glass female urinal, Europe, circa 1701-1800. Portable urinals were owned by wealthy women at a time when few hygienic toilet facilities were available outside of the home. They were particularly useful on long coach journeys. Image courtesy of Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not often that toilets are brought to the forefront of public discourse, but in recent years the campaign by transgender activists for more inclusive public sanitary services has done just that. But as Terry S. Kogan’s recent article in The Conversation highlights, gender-segregated public amenities have not always been the norm. Kogan argues that, in the United States at least, the practice was introduced in the nineteenth century as part of a broader societal practice of spatial segregation; one aimed at ‘protecting’ women’s bodies when they deigned to leave the safe bounds of the home and step into the unpredictability of the public realm.

In many Australian cities in the nineteenth century gender-segregation was not an issue, not due to disparate notions of acceptable femininity, but because public toilets for women simply did not exist. This was often materially rather than explicitly so—in Brisbane, for example, public conveniences were almost always urinals. The mechanics of women relieving themselves in the corset-and-bustle age seems complicated enough without picturing them attempting to do so in a urinal. In the early decades of the nineteenth century the presence of women on city streets was limited, but as the decades rolled on the public presence of women in the urban environment grew dramatically—even though provisions for their convenience did not.

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Cast Iron Pissoir – Miller’s Point, Sydney, New South Wales. This men’s urinal was originally installed on Observatory Hill circa 1890, but was relocated to George Street, Miller’s Point in 1975. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The lack of facilities for women’s convenience was so prevalent that some local businesses would highlight the availability of lavatories for female customers in their advertisements, even though at the time drawing attention to bodily functions was still considered taboo. However, these facilities were still only available to those women with the means to frequent such establishments. While women who were not customers may have occasionally won the sympathies of a shop-girl to access a store’s facilities, it was not until 1908 that the Brisbane City Council began requiring that businesses actually provide toilets for their female employees.

In his 1903 annual report, Mayor Leslie Gordon Corrie described what he saw as the ‘wretchedly deficient’ state of public amenities for the ‘gentler sex’ in Brisbane. At this point, not a single public toilet for women existed. One year and apparently no progress later, Corrie again lamented the complete lack of women’s convenience. He compared Brisbane to a household in which ‘the boys of the family are looked after and the girls neglected’. The Women’s Progressive Club routinely wrote to the council to draw attention to the paucity of ladies’ lavatories and despite being assured that the matter was receiving the council’s ‘earnest consideration’, the first female conveniences weren’t completed in the city until mid-1912.

This was not necessarily for want of trying. Previous attempts by the council at constructing women’s conveniences had met with typical municipal roadblocks, most commonly financial-woes and the lack of appropriate sites. One of the first facilities constructed in 1911, on Brunswick Street in Fortitude Valley, was only made possible by the leasing of land from the Railways Department. However, there were other, more intangible issues when it came to finding spaces for ladies lavatories.

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Proposed plans for ladies’ lavatory, William St, Brisbane (never constructed). Image courtesy of Brisbane City Council.

Public toilets, as minute sites of ‘privacy’ within the public sphere, already suffered from cultural associations with social deviance and clandestine behaviour: they were known beats for homosexual liaisons, as well as venues for opium use and prostitution. There was concern that providing facilities that were too private would encourage these ‘subversive’ behaviours/ Yet there was a point at which they also became too public and butted up against what Andrew May and Peg Fraser describe as the negative psychological and social attitudes towards bodily functions.

Public conveniences by nature needed to be…well, convenient. But for many placing them in visible or prominent positions was too confronting. In 1910, a proposed facility on the public reserve of Queen and Eagle Street (the site of the Mooney Memorial) was so vehemently opposed by the public—both men and women—that council abandoned the plan. A similar opposition occurred later with a proposed facility in Albert Square, despite the plans dictating that it be an underground and largely invisible structure.

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Plans for discreet underground ladies’ lavatories. Image courtesy of Brisbane City Council.

Many of the women’s facilities planned in this period resembled small cottages and were designed to fit as seamlessly as possible into the streetscape, but the necessary signage and the small scale of the buildings meant there was no denying their intended purpose. It’s possible that when it came to conveniences for men, particularly urinals, this visibility was the lesser of two evils—the only antidote to the previously common act of public urination.

Despite the repeated opposition, a small victory was won when the first public ladies lavatories were opened in 1912, one on Brunswick Street opposite the train station, the other at Petrie’s Bight near Custom’s House. However, they were not without restrictions—in order to preserve the dignity of the establishments, two attendants were hired to man the lavatories during opening hours, from 7:30am to 9:30pm. A fee of one penny per use was charged (hence the euphemism ‘to spend a penny’).

Two public toilets in a city as large as turn-of-the-century Brisbane may seem like a shallow victory, however in terms of the freedom and accessibility it provided to women the value was immeasurable. They allowed for greater engagement of women with the urban environment: the freedom to inhabit and participate in the public sphere – for longer periods of time – without having to plan their movements around the inevitable call of nature. Provided, of course, that they had the pennies to spend.


Screen Shot 2017-02-21 at 6.32.21 PMAnna Temby is a Ph.D. candidate and tutor at the University of Queensland researching the construction and contestation of public space in nineteenth-century Brisbane and the impact of governmental process in controlling public behaviour. She also works as a public historian and heritage consultant, specialising in intangible heritage and the social and cultural significance of heritage spaces and museum collections.


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