Paul Gibson’s Hull and East Yorkshire History

Public toilets in Hull

Firstly - the rant

Finding somewhere to pee on the way home from the pub in Hull is now more difficult than finding a new striker for your premiership team (even with several millions in your pocket) – where have they all gone – and why? Even the posh automated ones have been given the boot as well it seems – and they’ve only been around a few years, as the Hull Daily Mail reported in April 2009: -

‘People in Hull will have to look a little bit further to spend a penny after the city's 12 automated toilets were flushed for the last time. The super-loos, which cost 20p a visit, were given a thumbs-down by the majority of the public in Hull, whose criticisms included their timed door mechanism and standard of cleanliness. The 24–hour toilets started being removed from the city's streets this week by the contractor who installed them, and will soon be entirely phased out. The super-loos were installed 15 years ago in a blaze of publicity – and yet were a complete washout with the public’.

But what was wrong with the old ones – surely it would be more cost effective to have a small team of ‘council public convenience maintenance operatives’ wandering around the city once a week than to keep re-inventing the wheel with every new fad that comes along? The three grand toilet buildings that also seem to serve as tourist attractions (Nelson Street, Market Place and Queen Victoria Square) are just dandy when they’re open but what do you do when you’re outside the city centre? It’s illegal to pee in the streets now, and so they go and take away the places where we can pee legally – how can that work – is it just me? Well, no – actually it isn’t just me, as protests are to be found regularly in the local papers and on the Internet, where like-minded individuals - equally incensed and disappointed by the disappearing facilities – have left a long chain of comments about the subject on the ‘this is your Mail’ website.

They seem to have disappeared very secretively in the main; for example the one at the corner of Spring Bank West, near the Prince’s Avenue traffic lights, was there when I drove past one Saturday night in 2009 and early the next morning as I drove into town it had gone! Why remove them in such a sly manner - possibly because you knew we’d complain if you had actually asked us? Naughty City Council.

I know some members of our community were allegedly prone to using the old urinals for other more, err, intimate reasons – but hey, is that so wrong? And before someone from the council butts in – I know they may have been a location for other more criminal activity, but you shouldn’t punish the majority for the actions of the few. But its not just a problem in Hull, as The Daily Express reported in May 2009: - ‘that In the past decade the number of public toilets [in the UK] has more than halved from about 10,000 in 1999 to just over 4,000. Last year alone [2008] the number fell by 16 per cent.

And many of the toilets that do remain are in an appalling condition. London has been particularly badly hit: the capital now has fewer than 400 public toilets – that’s one per 18,000 residents, compared to Beijing, which has one toilet for every 1,948. It’s a far cry from 50 years ago when there were more than 15,000 public lavatories throughout the country’. Not that that is any consolation to us with crossed legs here in Hull, but it’s nice to know we aren’t alone in our struggle. Local MP Diana Johnson presented a petition to parliament in 2009 declaring the petitioners ‘concern at the plans of Hull City Council to reduce staffing at public toilets in the city; and notes that these changes would have a detrimental effect on the safety and cleanliness of the facilities. The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to put pressure on Hull City Council to maintain staffing levels at public toilets in the city’.

Sadly the response from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government was in typical pass the buck fashion, stating that he: - ‘is aware that a decision was made by Kingston Upon Hull City Council, as part of its 2007-08 budget decision, to reduce staffing levels at the City’s three attended toilets from two attendants at each to one at each, with a fourth attendant providing cover. The Secretary of State understands the Petitioners’ concerns about the possible impact on the future safety and cleanliness of the facilities. However, this is a local matter for which the Council has responsibility and the Secretary of State is unable to intervene in the decision. Successive Governments have taken the view that local authorities should be free to carry out their responsibilities with the minimum of interference from central government since they are ultimately answerable to their electors for the discharge of their duties. The Department for Communities and Local Government published a Strategic Guide on Improving Public Access to Better Quality Toilets in March 2008, which highlighted steps that local authority partnerships can take to improve the provision of publicly accessible toilets in their area. Copies were sent to each local authority in the country. The Department published more detailed guidance in November 2008, including step-by-step advice on setting up community toilet schemes, where the public have free access to toilets in participating local shops and businesses’.

So we are supposed to pop into Tescos or M&S and use their loos – well a) I’m not sure they are too keen on the idea – even if they are participating in the scheme – and I believe only Tescos in the City Centre are, and b) what do we do when they are closed? So just what is so wrong with our old toilets – the vast majority of them were lovely discreet, well-built things – and a reminder of Hull’s proud past – our past, yes ours – not yours Mr Council redevelopment politically correct person! And just when did you ask me the taxpayer if I didn’t want them anymore?

What's Changed?

Local historian Chris Ketchell and I deduced some years ago, when trying to photograph the few loos and sites of old loos that remained then, that at one time there was the half-mile [?] rule. As that was about how far you could walk before needing a pee after leaving the pub, and public conveniences (usually just urinals) were often placed along the main radial routes out of the town. The distance you can travel before needing to pay a call is directly proportional to the number of pints you have drunk – someone in a university somewhere will no doubt have a formula for the exact equation. The old cast iron ‘pissoir’ type are almost out of living memory although Bill from Anlaby and Ernie from Australia (who's now in his 80s and recalls they were 'foliage' green) have both emailed to say they recall a few surviving in their youth - some into the 1960s - thanks chaps - but there is only one lone surviving example now; situated in New Walk in Beverley [probably by Macfarlane of Glasgow – see later) that has been dragged out of the undergrowth during a recent development. It was hidden away from view for years and I feared that it too would be condemned [is it a Listed Building?] but thankfully East Yorkshire Council had a little more forethought than Hull City Council, although the huge light fittings belonging a nearby health-spa add very little to its charms (see below).

But the cosy little brick ones – now almost completely removed from Hull’s streets, were still totally fit for their purpose in my opinion, or has there been an edict from the EU saying we can’t have them any more? [If any one knows of one of the old brick-built ones in Hull that has survived please tell me – and send a photo before they demolish it … ]. Even as a reasonably knowledgeable local historian I am at a loss to think of more than one surviving urinal in Hull outside of the city centre – and that’s only survived because its attached to a pub - and has a ‘listed building’ attached to it (more of that later). So where were our old urinals and when did they first appear on the streets of Hull?


The toilet per-se has been around since before the Romans, and the general history and development of the toilet mechanism are well-documented in several worthy books and websites (see bibliography and sources), but public conveniences are a relatively modern affair and little seems to have been written about them. Public toilet facilities had been available in public baths, introduced by the Romans and re-introduced as the interestingly named ‘stews’ by the Crusaders in the 12th Century [the religious knights who fought overseas, not the Jazz & Soul band], which remained in use until the 16th Century when Henry VIII closed them down.

The success of any toilet inventions depended mostly on the availability of a ready supply of water, and a means of disposing of the resultant waste. As towns were eventually supplied with a constant water supply, a new invention – the water closet began to appear in the houses of the rich – mostly during the 1700s. A totally efficient system was not introduced until sanitation in towns and cities was improved – usually when an efficient water supply was provided, and a means of drainage or removal. In Hull we had open sewers that ran through the town to an outfall at the old South End during the Middle Ages (mentioned in records as early as 1353), but these were probably intended for surface and rain-water to run away rather than sewage disposal.

The Victoria County History notes that: - “In 1579 it was ordered that only clean water should be allowed into the streets, and in the following year householders with 'gulleys' to carry water from their houses were instructed to make 'grates' in the street. In the 16th Century gutters are mentioned alongside Market Place and Whitefriargate, but they probably already existed in other streets as they certainly did in the early 17th century. The sewers frequently attracted the corporation's attention in the second quarter of the 17th century, and it was apparently at about this time that they began to be carried underground. Thus two 'vaults' were made - near the Manor and in Whitefriargate in 1638, and another vault led to the haven along Grimsby Lane in 1642 … and in 1669 two more sewers were ordered to be vaulted.”

It was these vaulted sewers that led future ‘historians’ to make up tales of smuggler’s tunnels leading from under The Black Boy pub to the riverside boats etc.

More new sewers were built around the town and suburbs during the 19th Century and it was partly this new infrastructure that enabled the provision of efficient public toilets that didn’t necessarily rely on manpower alone to deal with the waste. The construction of the docks around the Old Town in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries also provided a source of water which was used to flush the town's sewers; a sewer was built in 1816 that ran from Queen's Dock via Market Place to the Ferry Boat Dock, which could be flushed with water from the dock. Sewage however, was not discharged into the docks, and ran to an outfall latterly discharging out near the end of Humber Street.

The Victoria County History noted: - “The collection of night-soil from private dwellings was in 1850 the livelihood of more than 400 people; privies and ashbins were emptied every second day, if not daily, and the soil taken to 'muck garths' for disposal to farmers. In 1865 18 contractors collected about 100 tons a day. In 1882 privies were emptied weekly and the soil was taken to two dumps, in Hedon Road and Sculcoates Lane, but these had been closed by 1884. Much household refuse had until this time been used to fill in old brickfields, but this ended with the erection of a destructor in Chapman Street in 1882.”

But what about public toilets? Well, various reports in the Hull Packet newspaper give a very rough chronology of events leading to the creation of Hull’s first public urinals and ‘conveniences’ during the second half of the 19th Century. But the first mention of public toilets in Hull appears to be in October 1853 when ‘the making of a number of public urinals was referred to the Committee of Works to carry into effect,’ and by January 1854 ‘two iron urinals similar to those in Glasgow’ had been ordered. This new desire to cater for the problem had no doubt been spurred on by a stinging report from a local doctor (MacMillan) regarding the general state of health in Hull. Following his report the Council quickly appointed its own Sanitary Committee with Dr Ayres as its chairman.

For some reason a number of companies in Scotland seem to have cornered the market on public urinals very early on in their development. Walter Macfarlane & Co at the Saracen ironworks in Glasgow, and George Smith & Co at the Sun Foundry, also in Glasgow, seem to have been the suppliers of most of the urinals in England during the early years (see website in bibliography for excellent photographs of surviving examples) plus another company who also had a smaller share of the market - James Allen Senior & Son of the Elm Bank Foundry – also in Glasgow.

By July 1854 Alderman Blundell read a statement from the Committee of Works that ‘the public urinals recently contracted for will shortly be erected.’ The accounts for that year later revealed the costs involved in supplying and constructing the two new urinals: - ‘for special cleansing account, viz.: - Wages £111-17-9, Cart Hire £62, Materials £61-18-4, Tradesmen £9-17-0, and the two urinals £25-9-11.’ From my research and looking at the photographs available it seems likely that the first two cast-iron public urinals in Hull were located at King Street opposite the west end of Holy Trinity Church and probably Nelson Street (below right).

Toilet facilities were on everyone’s agenda it seems as in January 1855 it was reported that ‘the owners of 61 public-houses and beer-houses were ordered to provide efficient urinals’. This may account for the number of brick-built urinals that are (or were) built very close, and in some cases attached to, pubs. A surviving example is the one near the George pub on Spring Bank West, and the ornate one (now closed) alongside the Windmill Hotel in Witham (its round the back in Clarence Street).

A report to the Council in June 1863, suggests that many urinals had been erected by that date as it was noted: - ‘The chairman remarked that he had been furnished with a list of the public urinals, and it had occurred to him that the board of health and the dock company might be induced to lay down the necessary piping for a continuous stream of water to be poured into them. In his opinion it would be a great boon to the public. The matter was referred to the Sanitary Committee.’ And in July 1863: - ‘The subject of the water supply to the urinals of this town was discussed with the Dock Company – some of the urinals being situate on their ground’.

In May 1867 a ‘report of the South Myton Guardian Society as to the suitable sites for urinals, was received. The sites recommended were the corner of Anlaby Road and Great Thornton Street; opposite the Vauxhall Tavern, Hessle Road; and Edwards Place.’ Of these, the only urinal I can find that was anywhere near these sites was one that latterly stood at the junction of Park Street and the Anlaby Road, which is opposite Great Thornton Street. June 1867 there was a ‘meeting of the Works Committee with regard to the question of suitable sites for urinals in South Myton. The matter was referred to the Streets and Lighting sub-committee.

In March 1870 - Plans for a new recreation ground in Dansom Lane included details of a ‘urinal and odour range’ on the site; the odour range may be a description of the cast-iron surround that the new urinals in the town were fitted with. Interestingly, the report also noted that refuse material from the ‘old gaol now being pulled down’ was to be used as a base for the ground and urinals.

In October 1875 it seemed that the lack of urinals in South Myton still had not been resolved: - ‘South Myton – Mr Sutcliffe asked a question relative to urinals. He said they had thousands of inhabitants in the ward and only one public urinal, which, he understood, was about to be pulled down. Mr Wheatley replied that he had considered the question and had already urged upon the Works Committee the necessity of erecting these places. He also had made propositions as to the better collection of night soil.’ Later that winter events seemed to be getting a little hot under the collar when in a December meeting one speaker noted: - ‘in dealing with public affairs one is compelled occasionally to handle unsavoury subjects; but there need be no apology when the necessity arises. One of the grievous complaints I have heard for some time past is the want of public urinals in this town. Notwithstanding which two of these conveniences have recently been removed without any accommodation being provided elsewhere I refer to those which formerly existed at the Monument Bridge and the south-east corner of Holy Trinity Church. There are now no such conveniences between the Victoria pier and the Theatre; and it is only natural there should be grave complaints respecting it from all classes of society. It is, as I have said, a delicate subject, and one which members of the Corporation have some diffidence in bringing forward but if they will remember the nuisance and obscenity which the want of such accommodation tends to foster, they will at once see that the matter is promptly and effectually Dealt with. For the sake of public decency, and to protect the passers by along our streets from the nuisances, which must so frequently meet their gaze, I trust that no further allusion to the subject may be necessary.’

In April 1877 ‘Copies of resolutions were received from the St Mary’s Vestry as to the necessity for urinals in the old town, and it was decided that one should be erected on the south side of The Town Hall.’ And so the problem rambled on and on – it seems that we in Hull have never been happy with the amount of public toilets provided. By March 1882 there had been ‘One or two of the letters complained about the nuisance attending from the absence of public urinals in the neighbourhood of Market Place and Queen Street’, which was no doubt the impetus for the provision of the underground facilities later provided in Market Place near King Billy’s statue. By the 1890s very little had changed and in 1893 a member of the Council asked: -'that the attention of the Works Committee be drawn to the great need of increased urinal accommodation for men and lavatory accommodation for women in the borough, and the proper inspection and cleansing of the existing urinals'. Such requests appeared frequently in council meetings usually when the public were forced to use private facilities without permission, e.g. in 1895 when complaints came from the school at Stepney where passers by often popped in to use the school facilities. This resulted in the construction of a four-stalled urinal on the north side of Stepney Lane soon after. 

I think one of the things that may have exacerbated the situation was the demolition of many courts and alleys in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Most courts of ‘slum’ housing would have had communal toilet facilities in the form of privies or ash-pits, and these would have been known to locals and passers-by - and no doubt made use of by those who were familiar with the area. As these were pulled down I suppose there would have been fewer places for people to go? The council seemed to respond to requests for urinals in problem areas, rather than having any organised schedule for the provision of toilet facilities, and this may account for the sporadic building schedule and haphazard choice of location. 

With regard to the general location of the urinals, well there may be a few reasons for the choice of sites other than appeasing public complaints. The new sewers mentioned earlier may have been an influencing factor – some of the larger toilet facilities do seem to be along the lines of main sewers. Other later urinals were often placed near recreation grounds (offering discreet shelter from bushes and shrubs etc, such as in Pearson Park? – see later). Wherever there were cab-stands for the many Hackney carriages and waggonettes that served the town there was often a urinal too. Often cabmen’s shelters, Police-boxes and/or Fire-boxes were clustered together, as in Market Place, and urinals were never too far away. Unfortunately for the ladies, most early facilities only provided for men and the ladies need to perform the same function was only catered for in the 1890s.

The smaller toilets, usually just gentlemen’s urinals, were also to be found (underneath or alongside) overhead railway bridges, such as those on Hedon Road, Fountain Road and Chanterlands Avenue, and Market areas or public spaces although these were hidden underground in the more visible locations such as Queen Victoria Square and Market Place. This seems to have been a 20th Century concern, as the Victorians seemed less bothered by cast-iron urinals that were dotted here and there. And why should they have been – as you will see fro the picture gallery – they were attractive decorative items of well-made street furniture. They were also very colourful as they were consistently painted green throughout the country – and may have been supplied ready painted [East Riding Council please note – the one in New Walk needs painting green please].

So it appears that the first public urinals in very public places – were they would be most visible – were stylish, often quite ornate, cast-iron structures painted green and eight feet high; the average cost for a circular six-stall urinal, with glazed stalls cost around £84 (Counciil minutes). From the mid-1890s more substantial brick urinals, costing approximately £110 for a six-stall version (Council minutes), were built mostly in industrial areas, or areas of working class housing. The ornate iron structures were a feature on many streets until the early 20th Century when many were removed altogether or in some cases replaced by more of the red-brick structures that we can all remember I’m sure. Further toilets, again usually only urinals, were built in the suburbs later in the 20th Century and it is these that survived until very recently. Very, very few survive now (two?) – and so we can only plead with the local council to save those few examples that we have left. We haven’t kept any of the cast iron ones, which I think is a great shame - unless they have one hidden in the Museums stores, which I doubt.

The ‘public toilet gallery’ page illustrates a broad selection of Hull’s old toilets and urinals – but only a selection – there were probably many more around the City. A Council report in 1963 recorded seven 'attended conveniences' in the City, with a furher 12 'unattended', and 28 urinals. The council were still actively constructing new urinals at that time.

Please view the gallery page and see if you can remember any others, and e-mail me if you can.

© Paul L Gibson. January 2010

Probably the largest toilet facility in the city was that built on the south side of St John’s Street (now the site of the Ferens Art Gallery - see right), which did provide for the ladies. The demolition of this facility and the replacement underground toilets beneath Queen Victoria’s statue caused a lot of debate in the council. The old lavatories on the south side of St. John Street were probably constructed late 1892 or early 1893 [replacing earlier ones?], as a letter to the Hull Times in May 1893 described them as a ‘white elephant’ (although they were actually a nice green). They were to be short-lived however, and plans were afoot for their removal as early as 1918 as the following extracts from the Kingston upon Hull City Council Works Committee Minutes reveal: -

24.05.1918 - Lavatory St. John Street: - ‘The Sub-Committee having further discussed the question of the removal of this lavatory in connection with the erection of the new Art Gallery … that the matter be referred, to make enquiries with reference to a suitable site for the erection of the public lavatory’.

20.12.1918 - Lavatory St. John Street: - ‘The Chairman submitted correspondence he had had with Mr Ferens MP with reference to the removal of this lavatory’. Mr Ferens had purchased the redundant St. John’s Church to the rear of the lavatory in 1917 and their situation hampered any access to his proposed charitable donation to the city.

26.03.1919 St. John Street Lavatory: - ‘That the works committee be requested to expedite their arrangements with reference to the removal of the St. John Street lavatory and ... … approach the Property Committee with a view to accommodation being provided under the City Hall’.

19.05.1922 Lavatory Accommodation, Queen Victoria Square: - ‘Letter from the Right Honourable T. R. Ferens to the chairman with reference to the erection of the proposed Art Gallery and as to the removal of the St. John Street lavatory’. 

30.01.1924 St. John Street Lavatory: - ‘Resolved that the City Engineer proceed to demolish the St. John Street Lavatory as soon as it is vacated.’

So, as the toilets were to be moved to provide clear access during the construction of the gallery, a new site had to be found for this most essential of public conveniences. The centre of Hull was completely built upon at that time and the nearest available space was the recently developed ‘City Square’. Traffic would have been hindered by any facility above ground, as this site was also used as a terminus for the tram service, and the public would no doubt regard toilets as unsightly in their new square. Consequently, an underground venue was considered - hence the proposed location beneath the City Hall. This idea of underground toilets in the square was not a new one however. Council minutes in 1892 reveal that they were planned even before the statue of Victoria was erected as councillors had asked the Borough Engineer to ‘report whether it is practicable to build under-ground urinals similar to those in London and other places’, and later: -

30.05.1902 Underground Convenience, Queen Victoria Square: - ‘Motion Carried … that the City Engineer prepare preliminary plans for an underground convenience in Queen Victoria Square.

It was not until the 1920s and the imminent construction of a new Art Gallery, forcing the demolition of the old lavatories in St. John Street, that any move was made to complete the scheme. On 5 February 1923 an artist’s impression of the ‘new facility’ in City Square appeared in the Hull Times. The council minutes again revealed more details: -

05.12.1923 Public Lavatory, City Square: - ‘The chairman stated that as the platform of the new lavatory was now completed and the hoarding had been taken down, it was desirable that the committee should consider what steps were to be taken to complete the scheme’ and - ‘… that a public clock be erected upon the platform of the lavatory’ or ‘that the statue of Queen Victoria be erected upon the platform of the lavatory as proposed in the original scheme.’

19.12.1923 Public Lavatory, City Square: - ‘Moved by councillor Mell, seconded by councillor Wheldon, that having regard to the fact that a majority of the total members of the council supported the last minutes of this committee …, … was directed to give instructions to the contractor to proceed with the completion of his contract and erect the statue of Queen Victoria upon the platform according to the approved plan – Motion Carried’.

E. Quibell & Son Ltd., (having provided the lowest quote of £165 for the re-erection of the statue) carried out the work and Victoria was ‘on the throne’ by January 1924, the toilets having been completed in December 1923.  N.B. Quibell & Son were also used for the most recent refurbishment of the toilets in 1989.

On the 10 January 1902 the Works Committee minutes recorded: - ‘The Mayor stated that the Queen’s Memorial Committee had practically obtained the requisite amount for the statue of the late Queen to be placed in the square, and had accepted the design of a sculptor and commissioned him to carry it out, provided that his contract provided for the whole of the work above ground level – Motion Carried’.

The sculptor of the now famous Hull landmark was Henry Charles Fehr (1867 – 1940) and his fine statue was unveiled in a grand ceremony in May 1903. A later development suggested that Victoria was to be found a new home …

22.02.1923 Queen Victoria Statue, City Square: - ‘… resolution passed that the statue of Queen Victoria taken down in the City Square be not erected over the new public lavatory’. Was Queen Victoria destined to become another of Hull’s wandering statues? Fortunately not, as later minutes revealed she had been re-erected in the square – over the toilets - by January 1924.

Bibliography & Sources

Meadley Index to the Hull Times (Edited by Rob Barnard) Hull College Local History Unit.

Newspaper Scrapbooks, Carnegie Heritage Centre.

Kingston upon Hull City Council Works Committee Minutes, Hull Local Studies Library.

Simmons – Aerofilms Ltd web-site.

Kingston upon Hull (The Second Selection) Paul Gibson. Tempus Books, Stroud. 2002.

Miscellaneous Buildings Registers, Hull City Archives.

Edwardia (Paul Gibson) work in progress.

Temples of Desire & Chambers of Delight, Lucinda Lambton. Pavilion Books, 1995.

Where to go in York, Hugh Murray. Voyager Publications, York. 2000.

Hull Daily Mail online

Victoria County History of the County of York and the East Riding Volume 1; The City of Kingston upon Hull. Edited by K.J. Allison, Oxford University Press for Institute of Historical Research. 1969.

Ordnance Survey plans various.

Hull Packet newspaper c/o British Library Online

The Buildings of England; Yorkshire York & The East Riding. Nikolaus Pevsner & David Neave. Penguin Books, 1995.

Motion Passed, Paul Gibson (article first published in The Local Issue 2, 2009)

Additional information re Beverley urinal from John Bolton of Scottish

Archived by
the British Library