‘Indecent usages’: the nuisance of peeing in public



Birmingham’s administrative bodies had to deal with regular complaints. These complaints most often related to incidents of ‘nuisance’, a term which can be understood generally as referring to material issues.  The Street Commissioners handled smoke nuisance, building nuisance and nuisance arising from problems with sewerage. Most usually these nuisances were approached by first sending an investigative party and then holding many discussions on the best means of tackling the nuisance. Sometimes the same nuisance was raised in committee meetings over several years. The Street Commissioners employed an inspector of nuisance, John Dester who was succeeded by his son, also John. Dester was the eyes and ears of the Commissioners, but complaints were also presented by the public.

The following nuisance was reported to the Street Commissioners in 1847, in the form of a memorial and, fortunately, was deemed important enough to be entered into the minute book. It is interesting as it raises not only a material nuisance, but also a moral one: that of men (I am presuming men) urinating in the street. The complaint may have been a regular one, as a report from John Pigott Smith, the Town Surveyor, also highlighted the problem. Smith suggested that he was investigating the installation of public urinals to alleviate this nuisance.

This memorial is a good example of the negotiations that took place between the public and the administrative authorities that sought to maintain order. It also offers an interesting snapshot, albeit a somewhat smelly one,  of life in a rapidly growing 19th century town.

This source can be found in MS 2818/7 [Archives, Heritage and Photography – Library of Birmingham]

Memorial from inhabitants of Bull Street, January 4th, 1847

In a place known by the name of ‘The Coach Yard’ in the centre of Bull Street one of the most public thoroughfares in the Boro’ there exists a Nuisance most prejudicial to the health of the inhabitants in the immediate vicinity and in its practice an outrage to the public decency, and would appropriately be designated street urinary but without the customary screen to pallae its offensiveness.

The incredible amount of putrid water floating on the pavement and collected in the hollows finds its way into the adjacent cellarage, more particularly that of Nos. 21 and 22, indeed so noxious is the effluvia arising therefrom especially on Sundays that the lower rooms of the houses alluded to become unfit for habitation and occasionally of necessity are voided for the day. –

To such an extent is the practice adopted that the occupants of houses are compelled to make repeated attempts to leave their respective dwellings ere the indecent usages will allow of their doing so.

Moreover the residents in premises on the opposite side of the street can never remain at their drawing room windows without being subject to indecencies in themselves disgraceful and which ought not to be tolerated in the least frequented, much less in the most public thoroughfare of the Boro’.

The correspondence was passed to the Paving Committee for further consideration. At the next general meeting of February 1st the committee reported that ‘a flagged footway on each side of the passage has been laid and the carriage way put in order and that a lamp has been ordered to light the passage’.

There are no further entries on this issue in the Street Commissioners minute books.


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