Toilets for all: a brief history

November 19 is officially the United Nations World Toilet Day, a day about ‘inspiring action to tackle the global sanitation crisis’. 4.6 billion people worldwide live without access to a safe toilet which has been proven to ‘impact upon public health, living and working conditions, nutrition, education and economic productivity across the world.’

In Auckland today, it can sometimes be a bit of a nuisance to find a public loo, but for the most part we rest easy knowing that if nature made her call, we would be able to find suitable facilities. However, this hasn’t always been the case.

Auckland has been New Zealand’s largest city since 1891. Before this it had seen a steady increase in population since the 1840s and soon became a bustling hub of trade, debate and development. Reports detailing the unsanitary conditions rife in the city streets demonstrated a clear need for the implementation of drainage and sewage systems both by property owners and government to, quite literally, clean up the streets. This quote from the New Zealander about the City Board of Commissioners offers a glimpse into the discussions at the time:
          “The City Board, we perceive, are about to adopt the suggestions made some time since in our columns that public urinals and latrines should be erected in different parts of the city. The want of any such conveniences have long been felt in Auckland, the more so during the last few years that the streets have assumed much the appearance of those of an old-world city” (New Zealander, 21 August 1863)

Image: James D. Richardson. Showing Queen St Wharf, 1869, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 4-519.

On 18 August 1863, it was passed by the City Board of Commissioners “that the work be forthwith proceeded with” to build the first men’s public toilet in Auckland. Initially the urinal and water closet was located at the beginning of the early Queen Street Wharf on Custom House Street (now Customs Street) and was constructed to serve the busy wharf and surrounding areas. It was a rudimentary structure that cost about £21. Of course, one public toilet serving a busy port of a city with over 6000 inhabitants would not have met the high demand, but it was certainly the beginning of journey toward improving public sanitation and it set the tone for Auckland’s public toilet history.

Accounts by the public of the sanitary conditions in Auckland streets paint a grim picture. A complaint from ‘Ratepayer’ in the Auckland Star on 12 May 1897  complains of the inadequacy of the public conveniences in Auckland. He says: “The inconvenience and hardship occasioned by the want of such common conveniences are so serious that the Council should give the matter their very early consideration, selecting such positions as visitors and strangers should have no difficulty in discovering; besides which such places should be regularly and systematically cleaned”.  By the year 1912, there were 11 public conveniences in Auckland city.  As different parts of Auckland developed, so did the need for public toilets.

The establishment of public toilets and the changing ways in which they have been needed and used tell interesting, somewhat indecorous stories about aspects of our social history. For something as seemingly mundane as a toilet, we really can infer a lot about what was going on in our city, who was here and what their needs were. One group that had been not been catered for prior to 1910 were women. 

This changed in when a men’s and women’s toilet was built in 1910 on the corner of Symonds Street and Grafton Bridge. The junction of Karangahape Road and Symonds Street had always been an arterial route, servicing commuters coming in and out of the city. The first evidence of a public convenience in the area is found in the New Zealand Herald, 3 June 1891 and refers to a men’s urinal that was located “nearly opposite the Caledonian Hotel Symonds Street, just on the boundary of the general cemetery”.

The original Grafton Bridge was closed in 1904 due to safety concerns over the structural integrity of the bridge and was replaced by a small, temporary bridge at the bottom of the gully. Construction started in 1908 on a new, reinforced concrete bridge that was to offer both pedestrian and vehicle access to and from the city. The decision was made to construct a men's and women’s public convenience that also featured a tram stop to service the busy intersection at the cost of approximately £600 (Auckland Star, 27 August 1909).  Original floor plans dated September 1909 show the following facilities in the men’s convenience: six urinals, four water closets, two basins and a cupboard. The women's section contained four water closets, 2 basins and a cupboard. The new bridge opened on April 28th, 1910 with much fanfare (Auckland Star, 25 April 1910).

Image: City Engineer’s plan. Symonds Street public conveniences and shelter near Grafton Bridge, 4 August 1909. ACC 015/2841-1, Auckland Council Archives.

The building of the public conveniences at Grafton Bridge was significant for a couple of reasons. Not only were they the first conveniences that doubled as a tram stop, but they were the first public toilets that catered to women as well. Prior to this, if women wished to use the toilet in public, they were required to visit the public library (now the Auckland Art Gallery), the train station or the Smith and Caughey department store on Queen Street. The Grafton Bridge conveniences offered the first chance for women to move freely through the city without the restriction of having such limited options for going to the toilet. Although there was still only a grand total of four toilets within the city that were accessible to women, the Grafton Bridge location offered a city-fringe option and began the process of for the construction of more women's toilets.

Image: Showing cars, trucks, trams, motorcycles on Symonds Street at Grafton Bridge corner. 1926/27. Note the toilets top-centre. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 7-A11030

An early example of a facility that was well ahead of its time was the Women’s Rest Room in Pigeon Park in the Symonds Street Cemetery at the corner of Karangahape Road and Symonds Street. According to the New Zealand Herald, on 29 August, 1923 the National Council of Women held a meeting in which they agreed to send a deputation to the City Council to advocate for a women’s rest room in Auckland city. The deputation was led by none other than Ellen Melville. Progress was slow, with issues around choosing a suitable site that pleased both Council and interested parties (Auckland Star, 19 April 1924). Although it took some years, in July 1926 “The setting a part of an area in the south-western corner of the reserve adjoining the Jewish cemetery on Karangahape Road as a site for a women’s rest room was approved by the City Council last” (New Zealand Herald, 9 July 1926). A tender for 1577 pounds was accepted on November 26th and construction began in the New Year of 1926 (New Zealand Herald 26 November 1926).

Image: City Engineer’s plan. Karangahape Road (conveniences) – new women’s rest room, 19 June 1952. ACC 015/10244-12A, Auckland Council Archives.

Opening in April 1927, it featured 6 toilets, a lounge room, a change room, a mother’s room, an attendant’s room and a pram storage room.  This was the most extensive facility that catered for women and children and it is obvious as to why patrons favoured this over the basic services offered at the Grafton Bridge convenience. In June of the same year, it is reported that the rest room was visited on average 157 times since its opening (Auckland Star, 24 June 1927). In 1950 there were plans made for a new building which would include a baby change room, a feeding room with access to boiling water, seven toilets including a children’s sized toilet, a pram store, an attendants room, a lounge room, a coat room and even an outdoor terrace. There was also ramp access onto the terrace for ease of accessibility, presumably for women with pushchairs and young children. The original building was then demolished in 1953 as it was in a bad state of disrepair. This was also done to make way for further additions to the 1950 building.

Image: City Engineer’s plan. Karangahape Road (conveniences) – new women’s rest room, 19 June 1952. ACC 015/10244-12A, Auckland Council Archives.

The reasoning behind providing restrooms for women as opposed to simply proving toilets was in response to how society viewed women and their needs. A report of services offered in 1953 at the Women’s Rest Room offers a snapshot of what happened within these facilities and the value placed on each activity. Patrons could heat a baby’s bottle for three pennies or leave a parcel with the attendant for the same. If a woman needed to purchase a sanitary towel or use a hand towel then the cost was 5 and 6 pennies respectively. The emphasis was then put on women as creatures who needed to tend to children, to rest and to socialise as opposed to merely being creatures who needed to use a toilet. In essence, it all came down to how women were perceived and gendered by public space. Rest rooms offered a curtain for women to hide behind to conduct private business in public.

Image: Showing the Ladies Restroom in the park on the corner of Karangahape Road and Symonds Street. 1954. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 580-153

Suburban malls such as St Lukes, Glenfield and Pakuranga popped up in the 1960s and 1970s which meant that shoppers no longer relied solely on Auckland CBD for their shopping. This had a knock-on effect for the number of visitors making use of public facilities such as restrooms and public toilets. The decision was made in 2000 to demolish the Women’s Rest Room at Karangahape Road.

It is astounding to consider that once upon a time, women had to justify and fight for basic amenities such as toilets. This is an example of the hard work done by women with an emphasis on social justice, opportunity and freedom that has benefited us in more ways than they could have imagined. World Toilet Day is a reminder that while access to sanitation and toilets is a historic issue for us in New Zealand, that is not the case for literally billions of people around the world.


Samantha Waru is the part of the Auckland Council Graduate Programme. Her role is with the Heritage, Research and Central team of Auckland Libraries and is based at Auckland Central Library. She is spending two years rotating around the various teams experiencing all that heritage and research has to offer within Auckland Libraries.

Her first rotation was with the Auckland Council Archives team where she undertook a research project on the colourful history of Auckland's public toilets. This blog offers just a snippet of some of the information she uncovered. Check out the Auckland Council Archives digital exhibition Flushed Out, for more on public toilets from the archives.


Annabel Cooper, Robin Law, Jane Malthus, and Pamela Wood, ‘Rooms of Their Own: Public toilets and gendered citizens in a New Zealand city, 1860-1940’, Gender, Place and Culture, 7:4, pp 417-433

Auckland Council ArchivesFiles: CBC 001, 18/08/63, ACC 219/16-138, ACC 217/41-260