A lack of hygienic care around waste and water was typical of urban society in both Europe and New Zealand in the mid-1800s. This was made worse by politics and corruption. Provincial governments fairly quickly devolved responsibility for municipal administration to town boards, but did not provide adequate funding for clean water supplies and other sanitary facilities.
City councils with independent powers to strike rates, borrow money and manage municipal affairs were set up in the 1860s and 1870s. They met resistance from property owners, who did not want to finance sanitary works through paying rates – or through council loans which might lead to increased rates. In some cases local-body politicians were property owners profiting from not paying for proper sanitation.
In a similar conflict of interest, land-owning politicians carved up land in the first urban subdivisions, with no requirement for proper sanitary arrangements. John Hyde Harris, the mayor of Dunedin in 1867, failed to clean up his unsanitary cottages on the edge of the badly polluted swamp on the north edge of town, despite several warnings and being fined. The inspector of nuisances felt that he could not act against other offenders while the mayor refused to obey the law.
From cesspits to night-men
Open drains carrying sewage, and filled with other rubbish, stank in warm weather. By the 1860s the cities realised they had a problem. Yet it was the 1870s before money was raised to improve conditions. The most important steps were cheap – banning cesspits and requiring night-soil collections.
A cesspit was a hole dug in a backyard, with an outhouse erected on top – when it filled, a new hole was dug. Pretty soon backyards were riddled with holes full of excrement.
Cesspits were prohibited in the 1870s. Night soil had to be removed (at the householder's expense) by council contractors who came to be known as night-men. They had to work between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., emptying pails of excrement into their carts, which had specially constructed wooden tanks. Many householders simply ignored the regulations, so illegal disposal of human waste continued to be a nuisance and a hazard in some places.
Councils set up 'manure depots' on the edges of town – often on dunelands – where collected night soil was dumped. Workers there were meant to bury the waste, but didn’t always do so adequately. The solution to these insanitary human waste dumps was to turn the night soil into sewage, mixing water with human and industrial waste in underground pipes that (initially) discharged it all untreated into the sea or rivers.
The first sewers
Piping human waste only became feasible with the introduction of high-pressure water supplies that could flush toilets into the newly-constructed sewers.
Sewerage systems were completed in Dunedin in 1908, Wellington in 1899 and Auckland in 1914. Christchurch’s system was finished first, in 1882, but a high-pressure city-wide water supply only arrived in 1909. Being sited on a swamp made drainage a priority, and the sewer system was part of much wider drainage works.
Goodbye to the night cart
In some settlements without sewers, the night-soil system hung on for decades. Bluff residents had a night-soil collection until the mid-1960s. Kāinga in North Canterbury is reputed to be the last place that had a night cart – in 1986. Even in Auckland, the country’s largest city, a few isolated houses still used buckets until 1969, when a century of night-soil collection ended with little fanfare.
In all cities sewer construction occurred in stages, beginning downtown, and gradually extending to the urban edges. Night soil was still collected from some areas in the 1960s, although by then it was disposed of into a proper sewerage system. Septic tanks were installed in areas that lacked sewage reticulation from the early 1900s.
Public toilets were slow to arrive. Hotels had toilets, as did some large department stores, but the first municipal restrooms in Dunedin were only built in 1927.