There is little existing literature on the sanitary and urban planning policies of the British in their colonial cities throughout sub-Saharan Africa in general and particularly in Lagos. This city has been examined mainly as part of a study of its town planning in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet, the examination of earlier British sanitary and planning practices in colonial Lagos between 1851 and 1900 is significant because, though British control involved direct rule from the start, Lagos was far from being an incarnation of a system of disciplinary power in terms of urban form. At this time there was rather a consolidation of the colonial rule, leaving considerable freedom of expression to the local population in the making of the town. This contrast is examined in several ways, including a discussion of the relation between geo-climatic conditions and colonial and indigenous sanitary policies; how the socio-physical organization of the town affected modes of planning; and how changes in the official status of the settlement were reflected in its physical form at the turn of the century. The article also asks whether there were any differences in attitudes or practices between colonial, metropolitan and local sanitary agencies; how problems of urban planning were actually treated by the early colonial state; and examines the general background political atmosphere. The article shows that the colonial authorities oscillated between two poles concerning colonial urban space. They were dissatisfied with the overall ‘unsanitary' impression the town of Lagos made and they consequently agreed that measures should be taken to remedy the situation. At the same time, they were not ready really to commit themselves to this purpose, as sanitary reforms were not perceived as a legitimate target for public expenditure. This brought a failure to act in any very effective fashion, leaving many of the problems, leaving many issues for subsequent town planners, colonial and post-colonial.