September 2023

The Nation Reviewed

Wee of fortune

By Robyn Annear
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The history of Melbourne’s public toilets, from cast-iron pissoirs to robo-dunnies and the National Public Toilet Map app

Among the things Edwin Borrie liked best was “reading detective stories when it rained”. That’s according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. When it rained? Was that a euphemism for “on the toilet”? You’ve got to wonder, because Borrie was synonymous with shit.

From 1929 to 1950 he was chief sewerage engineer for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works. In his honour, part of the landmark sewage treatment plant at Werribee was christened Lake Borrie and, from there, his name catabolised into slang: “borrie” is Victorian for turd.

Within the City of Melbourne, every public toilet is assigned a number, prominently displayed outside. A floating borrie greeted me in Toilet 145, on the edge of the Carlton Gardens, where a bog-standard fixture is housed in a heritage cast-iron edifice. Swing shut the heavy door and the interior feels almost ecclesiastical. High-up ventilation holes throw grids of filtered light reminiscent of the confessional scene in a mobster film. Only, in here you’re bulletproof.

A smattering of cast-iron dunnies survives around town, some dating back to the 1890s. Why they needed ventilation holes is a mystery, since originally they were roofless. Only after the city’s first skyscraper went up in 1958 did someone think to put a roof on the pissoir it overlooked.

It was a century before, when piped water arrived from the Yan Yean Reservoir, that civic authorities first gave a thought to public toilets. At the time, even advocates acknowledged the topic as a ticklish one: that urge “which though we may affect to be too delicate to name, we can neither control nor supersede, and which, in the absence of suitable arrangements, must either be checked at the risk of our health or indulged in at the peril of our morality”.

And indulged in it was. Long before they were Instagramm-able, Melbourne’s laneways served as open-air urinals. There’d be piss-splashed nooks and lanes in proximity to hotels, cab stands, the post office – anywhere people congregated. Of an evening, urine would stream from laneways branching off the Bourke Street theatre district, coursing over footpaths and down the gutters. Walls had the injunction “Commit No Nuisance” painted at eye-level. But in vain. The bouquet that earnt the city the nickname “Smellbourne” owed its top-note to the eye-watering stink of urine.

Even so, the installation of a public urinal opposite the post office in 1859 was regarded as iffy, at best. With free-range micturition, you could always look the other way. But a galvanised iron booth with a light on top, sited in the busiest part of town, drew “quite indecent” attention to the unspeakable act – the more so because, in the absence of sewers, the urinal drained straight into the Elizabeth Street gutter.

The city council would have been quick to write off its experiment in public convenience were it not for Edgar Ray. Just back from London, he’d seen advertising kiosks dotted round populous parts of that city. These “illuminated indicators” (as they were uncatchily called) were like ornamental greenhouses, lit from within so that the advertisements painted on their glass panes glowed after dark. Ray proposed introducing this novel medium to Melbourne, but “adding a feature to the design which the London erections do not possess”. He meant a urinal.

If the humble tin shed was too conspicuous for moralists, what must they have made of Ray’s illuminated indicators? Three were installed in 1860, one replacing the municipal urinal near the post office. They were octagonal in shape, with a pagoda-style tin roof topped by a clock and weather vane, and six glass panes on each side available for weekly rent by advertisers. Ray must have expected to clean up, since he not only paid to build the indicators but agreed to maintain them for 10 years.

How likely was it, though, that non-pissing strollers would approach, let alone linger, to peruse the glass walls of a urinal? Ray struggled to find advertisers and, before long, begged the city council to take the illuminated indicators off his hands. They were “used to an extent which could scarcely have been anticipated”, he said, and their upkeep was beyond him.

Ray’s main mistake had been to make the advertisements readable from the outside. Nearly 2000 men were counted “visiting” the indicator opposite the Theatre Royal in Bourke Street one Saturday night. If the advertisements had faced inwards, Ray’s indicators would surely have flourished. As it was, they were scrapped by the city council in 1864, with no plans to replace the “disgusting nuisance”. In the pantheon of civic ills, public urinals evidently outranked public urination.

On the website Public Toilets of Victoria, a pseudonymous Mr Borrie profiles dunnies encountered on his travels around the state. To win his approval, an amenity must have a gum tree visible from the entrance and a supply of three-ply inside. Above all, it must be free. To the FAQ “Is it un-Australian to pay for a poo?”, Mr Borrie issues a battle cry: “It is our sacred duty to never, ever pay to enter a toilet block on Australian soil.”

He’s just as unequivocal (“soulless wastes of money”) on the subject of automated dunnies, the so-called touchless toilets. Plonked down at street corners in the CBD over the past 20 years, the modular stainless steel Exeloos promise a toileting experience straight out of The Jetsons. The sliding door opens at the touch of a button; another button locks the door and activates the tinkling strains of “What the World Needs Now is Love”. If you’re still inside after 10 minutes, the door will open automatically.

Ten minutes? That’s a long time to hold your breath. These robo-dunnies profess to be self-cleaning, but the two I sampled (Toilets 1 and 178) were blisteringly piss-soaked. Clearly, these “vintage” Exeloos have been let go. Often there’s a button that’s meant to lower the seat, drawbridge-style. But press it: nothing happens. Ditto the button for toilet paper. (All these buttons… so much for the touchless toilet.)

Public toilets have always posed a problem. But in recognition of their necessity, there’s the National Public Toilet Map app. Mr Borrie of Public Toilets of Victoria calls it the second greatest use of taxpayer dollars in Australian history, after public toilets themselves. Launched in 2001, the NPTM now shows the locations of more than 22,000 amenities, nationwide. (The Great British Public Toilet Map lists only 14,000-odd.) Tell the NPTM where you are and it will calculate the fastest – not necessarily the shortest – route to a public dunny.

A visit to Melbourne’s Pioneer Women’s Memorial, whose water feature combines trickling spouts with blue-glazed tiles, had me reaching for the NPTM app. Five options lit up in the nearby Royal Botanic Gardens, all with alluring names (not numbers) such as Touchwood and Zelkova. I tried them all. Toilet paper? Check. Gum tree within view? Check. Plus, button-free birdsong and signs reminding me not to squat on the seat.

Two tram rides and a coffee later found me caught short in Brunswick. Relief came in the shape of a dunny stall so compact that, to operate the inward-swinging door, I had to squat on the seat. But hey, when nature calls, I answer.

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

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