The mysterious case of Birmingham’s missing Victorian cast iron urinal

My recent post about a metadata standard for syndicating information about public toilets, reminded me of an incident that occurred over 20 years ago, and questions about it, which have vexed me for years since…

In late 1986 and early 1987, to make way for the construction of the International Convention Centre in Birmingham, a number of older buildings had to be demolished, and entire streets disappeared.

West to East: St Martin's Place, Edward Street and Alfred Place, running parallel, between Broad Street and Cambridge Street

1949 map showing St Martin's Place, Edward Street and Alfred Place

On one of those, Edward Street, was a cast-iron street urinal. This was a listed structure: despite its mundane function, it was an impressive and decorative piece of Victorian engineering. The (then) Department of the Environment only gave permission for its removal on the condition that it was re-erected elsewhere. At the time, I was a volunteer at Birmingham Railway Museum, and so in January 1987 I wrote, formally, on behalf of the museum, with the approval of its management, to the City Council, offering a home for the urinal at the museum.

This request was refused by a council officer.

It was with some surprise, therefore, that we read in the Birmingham Evening Mail on 14 February 1987, an appeal from “Birmingham council chiefs” for a new home for the urinal:

Yellowing press clipping from 14 Feb 1987, showing the urinal

Birmingham Evening Mail, 14 February 1987

There were suggestions from members of the public that the urinal could go to the Black County Museum, or Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings — neither of which, unlike the Railway Museum, were in Birmingham, or had indicated any interest in the structure:

Yellowing press clipping from 21 Feb 1987, showing the 'Philip Colmore' column logo

Birmingham Evening Mail, 21 February 1987

I wrote to the Evening Mail, and to the Council, pointing this out:

Yellowing press clipping from 128 Feb 1987

Birmingham Evening Mail, 28 February 1987

Eventually, after reconsideration, the council’s Technical Services Committee (made up of elected members) agreed that the Railway Museum could after all have the urinal.

It was about this time that my ten years of volunteering at the museum came to an end, but I was told that the urinal had been dismantled and delivered to the museum, where it was placed in store.

Remarkably, the museum now tell me:

It is believed that the urinal was disposed to another museum … but I regret that at this length of time there is no record of where

So, where is our listed urinal — part of the City’s cultural heritage — now? Did the museum obtain — or need — the council’s or English Heritage’s permission to give up this object? Why were the public not consulted about the change of location, as they were the first time around? And did the council fail its legal duty to see that it was re-erected?

Update, 25 May 2011: One of my moles has suggested to me that the urinal may never have been delivered to Birmingham Railway Museum, and that it may even be languishing in a Birmingham City Council store. Are either of these things true? Let’s hope we find out. Meanwhile, the mystery deepens!

Update, 3 June 2011: The Birmingham Mail have written about this post, and there’s a Birmingham Post article about this post, too.

Update, 22 September 2011: Birmingham City council have just informed me that the urinal they have in store (referred to in my 25 May update) is not the one from King Edward’s Place, which their records say was sent to Birmingham Railway Museum. They are trying to locate the relevant paperwork for me. So the issues remain: where is our urinal, and was the legal requirement to reinstate it complied with?

About Andy Mabbett

Enjoying my freelance career, helping organisations to understand on-line communities, open content, and related issues; often as a Wikimedian (or Wikipedian) in Residence.
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4 Responses to The mysterious case of Birmingham’s missing Victorian cast iron urinal

  1. Glynis powell says:

    well before my museumy times, but seem to remember talking about it with someone, around the time, in the then science museum… have you asked anyone from Thinktank if its in their stores (not heard about it in the bmag store)?

  2. Pingback: Lost, listed, city centre Victorian urinal hits the news! «

  3. Andy Mabbett says:

    I’ve just added an update to the foot of my post, with the latest news.

  4. james Whitworth says:


    I have a client who is very keen for a heritage project in Norfolk. Do you think the council might sell the one in storage? it would be installed within a conservation area for public use still.

    Any help very welcome?

    thanks James

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