News | 29 July 2022
Share on social

A (wee) history of public toilets in Wellington

Did you know the history of public toilets in Wellington includes espionage, typhoid and women’s rights? No? Well, have we got a wee tale for you.

Taj Mahal toilets near Courtenay Place circa 1966 courtesy City Archives 00158-2582
Taj Mahal toilets near Courtenay Place circa 1966 courtesy City Archives 00158-2582

Today we have over 70 public toilets facilities in Pōneke, all of which you can see on this handy mapBut access to public toilets in Wellington, and the rest of Aotearoa, has not always been so easy.

Poor public sanitation

The need for public toilets and better sewerage systems for the city became clear in the late 1800s. The sewers at the time seeped into backyards and went out to sea. Children could often be found playing near the refuse at the beach and in their backyards. Many Wellingtonians got sick from infectious diseases related to poor sanitation like typhoid – records show 77 people died from these diseases in 1890.

Another drive behind the need for public toilets was an abundance of arrests for allegations of public indecency. In 1898 W G Tustin, JP wrote to Council to request more ‘conveniences’, specifically urinals to be erected to reduce the ‘several recent occasions men – many of respectable appearance – have been arrested, tried and imprisoned for acts of indecency on the street.

Building women’s toilets was less of a priority as women appear to have been more discreet and not so much in need of conveniences

A woman’s right to pee

In 1911 Wellington had less than half as many public toilets for women as for men, but compared with other New Zealand cities, the capital was streets ahead.

Records show Wellington had a number of women’s public toilets by 1906, by contrast, Dunedin had none until 1908 and women in Auckland had to wait until 1910.

Before women’s public toilets were built, women had to rely on the kindness of shopkeepers, or use ‘semi- public’ facilities at the back of private homes.

The loos we lost along the way

Despite a significant increase in restrooms, several well-known toilets have closed, but leave a lasting history behind them.

Courtenay Place underground toilets 1930-37 Natlib ref 1/2-041049-G
Courtenay Place underground toilets 1930-37 courtesy of Natlib ref 1/2-041049-G

The Taj Mahal

Today at the end of Courtenay Place, nestled between Cambridge and Kent Terrace sits the Welsh Dragon Bar – but did you know this building was once a public toilet

The quirky building was affectionately dubbed ‘The Taj Mahal’ (or ‘The Taj’ for short) by Wellingtonians. In 1964 it was closed due to its high running costs and lack of accessibility. The plan was to demolish it, but due to a public outcry the building was saved, housing a theatre, tea house, restaurants and eventually the Welsh Dragon. 

The Lucky loo

You may know Lucky as a great spot to grab a bite to eat, but this central spot once housed a notoriously grim semi-underground men’s toilet.

Built in 1910, the heritage Edwardian building’s reputation as a ‘rendezvous for undesirables’ and on-going complaints from the public and disparaging coverage from the media led to it being closed in 1994.  

The Sutch Memorial toilet

This nickname was given to a public toilet that once sat in the green space between Aro Street and Holloway Road – the scene of an alleged espionage sting operation

On a rainy night in 1974, the local police waited in the facility to intercept a late-night meeting between the economist William Ball Sutch and Dimitri Razgovorov, a Russian diplomat. This operation led to Sutch being charged with espionage. The trial began on 17 February 1975 and lasted five days, where a jury eventually found him not guilty.