28 May 2016

You Reeker, Eureka! Getting Rid of Brisbane's Poo

Wooden outhouse, Rathdowney  ( John Oxley Library)
Wooden outhouse, Rathdowney. ( John Oxley Library)

The Boggo Road prison had many neighbours over the years, but none caused as much of a stink as the Eureka Sanitary Company. From 1889 onwards the Company had a contract with the South Brisbane council for the removal and disposal of 'night soil' collected from the outhouses of the local area. Their sanitary works, located between the prison, the railway line, and the animal pound near what is now the junction of Annerley and Gladstone roads, was the final destination for all the poop in South Brisbane. In modern times when flushing a toilet is about as much thought as most of us have to give to waste disposal, it is easy to forget that once upon a time it was somebody's job to actually come and cart that stuff away from your house.

The waste from outhouses was removed in airtight pans, stacked on carts, taken to the sanitary works, and then incinerated. This process was a vast improvement on the conditions experienced in 1840s Melbourne, as described by the historian Michael Cannon:
"Deep bogs and stinking cesspools festered everywhere. There was no piped water supply, no sewerage, no heating or lighting except that provided by firewood, candles and whale oil lamps. The perfume of nearby abattoirs drifted on the wind. Typhoid and worse diseases ran rampant, especially in narrow streets where jerry built slum tenements jostled for light and air."
The earth closet and sanitary pan system was introduced shortly after this time, with the waste falling into pans under the seat and often covered with soil or ashes. These pans were emptied, supposedly washed, replaced, and the waste taken away on horse-drawn carts by 'night soil men'. The more-expensive 'double pan system' saw the dirty pans swapped for disinfectantly-clean pans each time. During the 1890s the Eureka sanitation workers poured a strong solution of carbolic acid into the pans before they were emptied, and also rinsed the new pans with the same acid.
There were many variations on the outhouse. The type above was used in Manchester circa 1884.
Sanitary cart, circa 1884
Sanitary cart, circa 1884.

Of course a problem with this system is 'what happens next?' In some places during the 1860s the waste was sold off as fertiliser, but the incineration method used by companies like Eureka was more common by the 1880s.

The entrance to the Eureka sanitary works was across the road from the South Brisbane Cemetery. The works consisted of stables and a large two-storey building of timber and iron with a 23-metre-high smokestack. The night soil was received on the upper floor and pumped down a pipe into the incineration cylinder, and burned using complex gas-powered machinery. Our more mechanically-minded readers might appreciate this description of how the cylinder worked:
"...it is revolved by a 6-horse power engine, is 27ft. in length and 5ft. in diameter, and built of boiler plates lined with specially made fire bricks. The revolution occurs once in each minute, the contents being continually turned over. The bricks have webs in them, which lift the material as the cylinder revolves, and throw it through the flames. As the cylinder has to revolve many times before the material reaches the exit end the fire has every opportunity to take noxious material from it. Any gas from the refuse which may pass from the cylinder is then led into a furnace, which consists of a coke fire 6ft. in length, and fed from underneath with fresh air. On the other side of the fire are two "Hit and Miss" firebrick walls, against which any gas which could possibly have passed the fire is to heat bricks it is contended that all noxious gases must be consumed. The system seems a thoroughly good one, and at the time of the visit of our representative the work was in progress, and the whole process was easily followed from the time the nightsoil was fed into the furnace until the residue came out into the manure store in the lower part of the building." (Brisbane Courier, 19 November 1882)
An outhouse, or 'dunny', can be seen in the bottom right corner of this 1889 Highgate Hill photo. (John Oxley Library)
An outhouse, or 'dunny', can be seen in the bottom right corner of this 1889 Highgate Hill photo. (John Oxley Library)

The resulting smoke could hang over the immediate area and led to many complaints from locals and even prisoners. Some prominent residents of Brisbane lived nearby in the grand houses on the high ridge of Gladstone Road, and they were none too impressed with their neighbour. In 1892 a deputation of local people, including future (1896-98) South Brisbane mayor Abraham Luya, petitioned the colonial secretary about the problem, claiming that the 'horrible stench' and pollution from the works was ‘a nuisance and injurious to the health of all the inhabitants of the district’.

The complaints resulted in the council prosecuting Eureka for ‘causing a nuisance’ and the company was forced to upgrade their works.

A 19th-century stoneware storage bottle found during the Dutton Park dig.  (UQ Archaeological Services Unit)
A 19th-century stoneware storage bottle found during the Dutton Park dig. (UQ Archaeological Services Unit)

The Eureka company also disposed of other household rubbish by burying it in the big recreation reserve across the road, in trenches dug by inmates of the prison. This practice, which was described as creating ‘eyesores in what would otherwise be spots of sylvan beauty’, was stopped in 1892 following complaints that ‘soakage’ from the trenches was percolating into the South Brisbane Cemetery. Many glass and ceramic objects including, crockery, clay pipes, storage jars and various glass bottles, were found here during an archaeological dig in preparation for the construction of the Schonell Bridge in 2005. The archaeologists found material from two time periods, the lower layer containing items from the later decades of the 1800s, and an upper layer containing 1940s artefacts.

In 1902 Eureka was bought out by the General Contracting Company, based in Milton, and a sanitary contractor named Henry Carr used the Boggo Road premises until they were demolished around 1907. The city sewerage system was developed over the following decades, although sanitary companies continued to offer their services until the late 1960s. This rather poignant Christmas card from one company to their customers in 1938 acknowledged that;
"Now my days are nearly over,
Room for sewers I must make,
So your secrets to the shadows -
Where good sewers go - I'll take."
(John Oxley Library)
Outhouses can be seen behind these rows of houses in Norman Park, 1950.  Places like this were still unsewered at the time (John Oxley Library)
Outhouses can be seen behind these rows of houses in Norman Park, 1950.
Places like this were still unsewered at the time (John Oxley Library)

For the residents (and prisoners) in Dutton Park, the demise of the sanitary works was more than welcome. There again, the inmates of Boggo Road's No.2 Division had to endure the indignity and discomfort of using tin buckets as toilets in their cells until the place closed in 1989.

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