Birmingham’s ‘temples of relief’

This blog piece is a companion piece of sorts to the blog post written by one of our regular researchers about the ‘public nuisance’, i.e. public urination, on her own blog “Notes from 19th Century Birmingham: An Occasional History of the Mundane” entitled “‘Indecent Usages’: the nuisance of peeing in public” and also, to a lesser extent, the piece by fellow archivist, Michael Hunkin, on the Civic Centre.

The provision of toilets for public use is a perennial issue, and something to which the council have offered different solutions at different times.  You will find much that has been written about the ‘temples of relief’, the highly decorative ornate Gothic iron work of pissoirs in Birmingham.  You can still find a number of these knocking around the city centre (train stations are a good place to look with ones at Jewellery Quarter, Allison Street (under Birmingham Moor Street) and Snow Hill station.  And these have their own interesting stories.

There are plenty of photos of these Victorian toilets to be found on the internet: the Birmingham Mail’s “See the lost loos of Birmingham” is a particularly good one.  I would have gone and taken some photos myself but I didn’t fancy having to explain to curious onlookers why I was taking photos of toilets…

But the public toilets of the period just after the Second World War receive much less coverage.  Which brings me, circuitously to the crux of this piece: when cataloguing a collection of architectural plans deposited at Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography by the Council’s Planning Department (accession number: 2008/027) I discovered two tubes of plans of different post WWII public conveniences around the city.  The whole accession contains fascinating plans (including a number of plans for Civic Restaurants and the plans relating to the Civic Centre that fellow archivist Mike wrote about in his blog piece) but I was most interested to find the plans of the public conveniences.  In brief the accession contained the following plans relating to public conveniences:

(2008/027) Tube 3:

  • Stratford Road Fox Hollies public conveniences, 1953, 2 plans
  • Bartley Green public conveniences, 1947 – 1963, 3 plans
  • Colmore Row public conveniences, 1948, 4 plans
  • Gostar Green public conveniences, 1955, 1 plan
  • Kitts Green Road public conveniences, 1950, 3 plans
  • Quinton Estates, Faraday Avenue public conveniences, 1 plan
  • Spies Lane public conveniences, 1948 – 1958, 3 plans

(2008/027) Tube 6:

  • Bournbrook conveniences, 1955, 2 plans
  • Bartley Green conveniences, 1959 – 1960, 4 plans
  • Kingstanding Road conveniences, 1951, 3 plans
  • Navigation Street conveniences, 1952, 2 plans
  • Sandpitts on the corner of Summerhill Terrace, 1 plan
  • Hunters Road, 1951, 3 plans

While looking through the plans, I was particularly taken by the public conveniences planned for Colmore Row in 1948:

2008-027 Tube 3 Colmore Row 1

Part of the plan showing front elevation, plan and sections of the Colmore Row public convenience (ref: 2008/027 tube 3)

Colour front elevation showing the convenience

Colour front elevation showing the Colmore Row convenience (ref: 2008/027 tube 3)

Another front elevation showing the proposed building materials (ref 2008/027 tube 3)

Another front elevation showing the proposed building materials (ref: 2008/027 tube 3)

Location of the conveniences on Colmore Row, which was on the site of blitz damage to the Great Western Arcade.

Location of the conveniences on Colmore Row, which was on the site of blitz damage to the Great Western Arcade (ref: 2008/027 tube 3)

Whilst looking at the plans, a few things struck me about this particular public convenience:

  • For the 1940s/1950s and the rise of modernism, it is quite ornate, in an art deco kind of way. The other public conveniences in this accession, though attractive in their own way, are much plainer
  • Similarly to the Victorian pissoirs, it caters only for men
  • It is labelled on the plans as ‘temporary’ – it certainly isn’t there now but it does seem a lot of work for a convenience that was only planned to be there for 3 years, as the minutes in the Public Works Committee suggested.

I decided I would look into this particular public convenience in more depth, because, if nothing else, researchers can see the breadth of material we have from the City Council.  By searching through the Public Works Committee minute books I found an entry relating to the construction of the convenience (BCC 1/AO/1/1/105, minute number 29799) where the committee,

“RESOLVED:- That the proposed construction of a men’s temporary convenience at an estimated cost of £1,500 [something in the order of £50k today] on the blitzed site at the entrance to the Great Western Arcade in Colmore Row…”

I have tried to locate a photo of the toilets in situ but alas I was unable to.  I did find a photo of the blitzed site though to give an indication of where the lavatories were to be built (cf. WK/B11).  I decided to dig deeper to see what I could find about the council’s provision of public lavatories in general at that time.

Returning to the second of my observations about the Colmore Row convenience, the need for public conveniences post WWII was discussed by the Public Health Committee in 1947 by councillor Mrs. Goddard (BCC 1/BM/1/1/36, minute number 5714) who “raised the question of the provision of public conveniences throughout the City, particularly for women”.  This concern was passed on to the Public Works Committee who were asked to “inform the Public Health Committee of their plans for the provision of public conveniences…”, who duly referred it to the city surveyor for consideration and report in March 1947 (BCC/1/AO/1/1/102, minute number 27268).  Alas, time restrictions and the word count of this blog meant that I will need to revisit the city surveyor’s response to the issue of public conveniences at another time.  But the issue of toilets for women was still not satisfactorily resolved by 1993, when the Birmingham For People Women’s Group authored a report on the state of women’s toilets in the city centre (and if you think my blog piece is tongue-in-cheek then you should read this report: puns and toilet humour abound).  You can view their report on “Bog Standards” in Caught short in Brum: toilets for women in Birmingham City Centre which is shelved in our stack at LP 45.333 BIR.

Now, the provision of toilets does relieve [pun not intended] the public nuisance somewhat but public conveniences can lead to other crimes:

  • BCC/1/AO/1/1/104 minute 29003, tell us that the public convenience in Wildon Close, Aston “was [since it] opened in 1939 … a continual source of trouble due to malicious damage necessitating continual repairs and replacement” and it was resolved that it be demolished.
  • We hold a collection of photos from the Police service of the interiors of toilets where crimes took place (use your imagination).

This blog post is intended as a whistle-stop tour of our resources and the historyof public conveniences and I’m aware that I’ve barely touched on the issue.  I do hope, however, that it inspires readers to do some research of their own into the subject or at the very least stop and think next time you visit a public convenience and appreciate the architectural vision behind it.  Should you wish to conduct your own research, or view the public convenience plans, you will find further details about Birmingham, Archives, Heritage and Photography on our website.

Peter Doré, Archivist

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