The Stinking City: Auckland’s cesspits and privies
Auckland was the smelliest city in New Zealand according to a visiting reporter in 1871. Raw sewage ran into Queen Street’s main drain, the Ligar Canal, “an open, evil-smelling sewer in the very heart of the city”.
A writer in the Daily Southern Cross said the “stench was worse than asafoetida or sulphureted hydrogen, or an American skunk, or all three combined… daily and nightly the abominations of this great city are discharged, to swelter upon the shore, within twenty yards of its chief street.” He believed the city fathers should be sacked immediately because they “will… not open [their] purse-strings… to resolve the issue of sewage disposal.”
Ref: James D Richardson, Looking north west along Queen Street, Auckland Central showing the Ligar Canal..., 1857, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-387.
The pleas to improve sanitation continued for many years without effective local body response. A NZ Herald editorial in 1900 said “The Council ought to be punished, but they take refuge in the high moral motto that the rates must not exceed 2s in the pound.” Part of the blame, they said, lay with land speculators who crowded houses onto smaller and smaller sections even though privies were required to be at least 15 feet from any house, road, or footpath. “…speculators…did not consider sanitation so much as the percentage on investment… [and] officials… close their eyes to infractions.”
Work began on a sewer along lower Queen Street in 1854, but it took almost 20 years for the Ligar Canal to be covered over.
Ref: James D Richardson, Looking north along Queen Street, Auckland Central showing the Metropolitan Hotel and the Ligar Canal in flood, 1860s, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-400.
By 1878 the city’s population reached 30,000, and the main forms of sewage disposal were cesspits or nightsoil collection. Cesspits were holes dug in backyards with an outhouse on top. When the hole filled, another was dug; over time a backyard would become honeycombed with such holes. Council inspected 1,900 houses in 1878 and found 500 cesspits and 1,200 boxes or pans that were collected from the privy by a nightman.
Nightmen emptied the pans into tanks on horse-drawn carts then drove to manure depots where the waste was meant to be buried. However, privies were often filthy, or overflowed and the contents soaked into the ground. Many residents preferred to manure their gardens with privy waste rather than pay for its removal. An inspection of sanitary conditions in Ponsonby, in 1882, recommended that privy-holes be discontinued because “house drainage flows into the streets, the gullies, or into the adjoining properties [where it] remains in filthy pools, and becomes an intolerable nuisance.”
Ref: Auckland City Council, Auckland slums, 1950s, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 580-973.
An 1878 engineer’s report had recommended a new sewage system that would have cost 35,000 pounds but the scheme was not implemented – only one councillor even read the report, and an economic depression in 1885 ensured further procrastination.
Meanwhile, complaints to city fathers continued. People deposited “filthy and decomposed matter… Chamber refuse, fishes’ heads, etc, were thrown out both in the yard and street” according to the sanitary inspector, and a lack of drainage meant “there was no question about the smell.” A Princes Street landlady was fined five pounds for keeping “a rotten privy-box, which allowed the contents to soak through… The nuisance was of a beastly description.”
Ref: Auckland City Council, Slums, Auckland Central, 1959, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 580-3753.
In 1888 typhoid broke out. The Auckland Star said “no reasonable person can doubt that the cause… was the unsatisfactory sanitary arrangements.” Over half the 34 reported cases in February came from the working-class Ponsonby Ward which was “notoriously the worst-drained… of the city… where the disease is confined almost entirely to the side streets and gullies”.
Ref: Auckland City Council, Garden and house in the inner city, 1950s, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 580-4059.
Adding to the public’s discontent, there were scandalous occasions where nightsoil contractors spilled loads, or failed to properly dispose of the waste matter. In 1906 contractor Frank Jagger was convicted of “depositing filth in the harbour at Harkin’s Point, below high-water mark”, after 7,000 pans were emptied into the harbour in one month. He’d been previously convicted after excrement had washed up on beaches.
The City Council inspector revealed in 1911 that “In leading hotels in Queen Street the kitchens are in the basements, and are frequently flooded through the sewerage … with the result that … kitchenmen work knee-deep in sewage… In one Queen Street baker’s shop drippings from the sewer above fell on the tables.”
Cesspits and privies were gradually replaced by flush toilets as the city’s sewage system evolved. In 1963 the Health inspector reported that 135 houses were still requiring a nightsoil service, 18 in Remuera and the rest in Avondale-Blockhouse Bay. The last nightsoil collection in Auckland occurred in 1969 according to the night cart timeline over on Timespanner.
- Municipal and Official Handbook of the City of Auckland, New Zealand / John Barr (Ed.)
- In Their Own Words: From the Sound Archives of Radio New Zealand / Compiled by Stephen Barnett and Jim Sullivan
- Decently and In Order: The Centennial History of the Auckland City Council / G.W.A. Bush
- Evolving Auckland: The City’s Engineering Heritage / John La Roche (Ed.)
- Dirt: Filth and Decay in a New World Arcadia / Pamela Wood
Author: Leanne, Central Auckland Research Centre