Auckland’s Watercare is close to completing the $1.2bn, 13km Central Interceptor wastewater tunnel, but it’s not that long ago that unsung heroes removed the city’s effluent by horse-drawn ‘night-soil’ cart. Jonathan Killick reports.
This story was first published on Stuff.
The year was 1967. Satellites had been launched into space and the USA was close to putting a man on the moon. Auckland, meanwhile, was still carting human waste through its streets as a means of sanitation.
Before the days of sewers and flushing toilets there were outhouses and men with horse-drawn “night-soil” carts.
These forgotten but all-important shit-shovellers were only legally permitted to work between midnight and 6am, lest they offend the senses of urban noses.
A clipping from the Auckland Star newspaper from 1900 explains that contractors visited houses and removed a full bucket from an outhouse; buckets were later replaced by a system with interchangeable ceramic pans that were taken to a depot and steam-cleaned.
It may sound primitive, but it was an improvement on burying waste in the backyard – a practice that earned Auckland the title of “smelliest of towns” from one Otago traveller.
Where does a reporter turn for a first-hand account, if not their own grandparents?
Grandma Killick recalls Grandpa putting up a curtain for privacy in an outhouse that was lit by a candle in a whisky bottle in the early 1960s.
“You didn’t want to be in there at the moment that the night-soil man arrived,” she says.
The night cart would visit once a week, and you’d be careful not to fill up the pan before then. Men would use the trees to be efficient. At nighttime, women still used a chamber pot.
“It wasn’t convenient, but that’s how it was in those days, and we managed.”
In the present day, historian Lisa Truttman never wanted the mantle of expert in hu-manure, but while researching a book she stumbled across a council archive document written by the town clerk.
It showed that the service still remained for a few houses as late as 1967.
The Health Inspector had reported in 1963 that 135 houses were still on the system, mainly in Blockhouse Bay and Avondale, but also a block of 18 houses in Remuera.
Truttman, 60, herself lives in a homestead she inherited from her mother in Avondale. She recalls that as a child they had an outhouse which had been converted to a flushing toilet.
She not-so-fondly remembers having to brave storms at night when she had to make use of the facilities.
A sewerage system was cheaper in the long run than paying night men, but funding a loan required raising rates, which wasn’t always popular.
Some things never change. A letter to the Auckland Star in 1901 from R. Duffy of Hobson Street complains of the cost of living in Auckland and increasing rates.
“The only city [with rates] in excess of ourselves is Wellington, and they remove the night-soil and garbage at no cost to the ratepayer, whilst here those are paid to the contractor by the individual.”
In addition to a rate of £27 for wastewater, Duffy paid one shilling and eight pence for night-soil collection. In today’s money that’s $5,847.46 in yearly rates and $11 a collection.
All this excreta had to go somewhere, and for the characteristically NIMBY Aucklanders it was preferably somewhere else.
The waste was taken to “depots” which were essentially farm paddocks where the poo was ploughed into the earth and allowed to cure in the sun.
There was a curious case in the courts in 1917 in which the Pukekohe District was fined £8 for allowing its contractor to take waste to the territory of the Karaka Road Board.
An article entitled “Pukekohe’s dilemma” chronicles how the district tried to set up a depot locally on Cape Hill Road, but was met by a petition signed by 47 protesting residents.
“It claimed the nature of the soil there was unfitted for the use, and the residents should have been consulted. They pointed out that some 25 children would be subject to effluvia whilst walking to school.”
Much earlier in 1847, a depot known as Arch Hill sited at Tuarangi Road in Grey Lynn was described in a letter as “the greatest hindrance to advancement that the district ever knew”.
“All the nuisances of the city have been carted here and allowed to seethe and ferment in a huge hole, the stench of which is wafted by the prevailing winds, contaminating the whole atmosphere,” a resident said.
It was eventually shut down in 1874, but the resulting depot at Cadman Avenue and Heron Park in Waterview caused no less of a stink.
Residents took matters into their own hands by building heavy timber barricades in the road, shutting down traffic. They were torn down in the early hours by a posse led by the district health officer.
There were also depots at Rosebank Road, Fowlds Park in Mt Albert, near today’s Pt Chevalier library, and a “secret” location in Remuera.
The mayor of Parnell refused to mention the location in a 1904 meeting, blaming the media for stirring up residents against depots.
As late as 1947, the Remuera Record newspaper reported complaints from shopkeepers that “the richest district” didn’t have flushing toilets and that the library hall couldn’t be used for dances because the streets would become filled with filth at night.
In the final days of night-soil collection, it was taken to a flushing station on the aptly-named Motions Road in Western Springs, behind the zoo morgue.
Not everyone had a problem with night soil; one man’s poop could be another’s profit. In 1888, contractor Maurice Casey patented a process to produce human “guano” for use in farming.
He joined forces with early Auckland industrialist Frank Jagger to build a plant in New Lynn near the rail line that made a product named “poudrette”. It was sold for £5 a tonne; $1,274 in today’s money.
Jagger was a controversial character. He found himself in court in 1906 after it was revealed that instead of supposedly burying waste on an island in Upper Harbour, he had instead tipped 7000 pans into the sea.
It was reported that floaters had washed up on the beaches, causing unsanitary conditions for northern farmers – a truly shitty turn of events.