In the mid-19th century a plumber’s work was mainly keeping water out of buildings. Plumbers in the mid- to late 1800s worked in roofing – especially constructing flashings and downpipes. Flashings, downpipes and gutters were cut from sheet metal and soldered together. By 1872 there were eight plumbers and 11 tinsmiths in Auckland, seven plumbers and eight tinsmiths in Dunedin, four plumbers and two tinsmiths in Wellington and seven tinsmiths in Christchurch – plus 21 others who were both plumbers and painters.
Plumbers’ smoke concerts
In the early 1900s Dunedin plumbers socialised through ‘smoke concerts’. These ‘generally provided for the entertainment of the male gender only and were often held by all manner of business, sporting and like groups which saw them as an acceptable and fun way of “letting off steam” in a relaxed and casual manner. At a “smoke concert” one would eat, drink, smoke and usually be merry. There would often be speakers and story tellers and maybe a toast or two.’ 1
Water to houses
Most houses in New Zealand cities had no town water supplies until the 1870s (or later), nor sanitary plumbing until the early 1900s (or later), so at first there was little demand for plumbers. Until the late 19th century most toilets were outhouses. There was no running water in the house – water was carried from wells and rainwater tanks. The first tanks were wooden barrels. From the 1880s large corrugated-iron tanks, usually on a stand at the back of the house, became popular. The next step was to pipe the water inside.
In 1879 Wellington plumber George T. Hall was advertising his services for laying water pipes. Galvanised pipes from the water tank to the kitchen sink were a major innovation. Once water was piped into the house the next step for the plumber was to install water heating. At first a copper tank was fitted alongside the firebox of the kitchen range. It was filled from above by bucket, and a big brass lever tap dispensed hot water. Once high-pressure town water supplies arrived, plumbers installed separate, larger copper cylinders connected to the water supply. Pipes circulated water to and from the coal range. The cylinder was usually in an airing cupboard beside the range, with pipes running to the bathroom and kitchen sink. These developments increased demand for plumbers and changed the nature of their work.
While most people still bathed in the kitchen in a filled tub, from the 1880s and 1890s houses began to have bathrooms. The first toilets installed by plumbers were known as water closets. They used the town water supply to flush away waste, but at first it was only into a backyard cesspit (hole dug for waste), as sewerage systems often lagged behind water supplies by a decade or more. By the 1890s the lavatory, whether a water closet or an earth closet (a bucket which was covered with earth after each use), began to be built onto the end of the laundry or outbuilding, or the end of the back verandah on newer houses.
The installation of sewerage systems created work for drainlayers, and extended the art of plumbing to include sanitation. Professional associations formed at the provincial level from the late 1890s. The emergence of sewerage systems and town water supplies ensured that there was a steady stream of work for plumbers to maintain these systems. There was increasing demand for their services during building booms. Plumbers also worked as gasfitters.
The Plumbers Registration Act 1912
In the late 1800s and early 1900s local councils required that plumbers hold a licence. Some required an examination, while others just collected a fee and handed out the licence. Once sewerage systems were established and the public health risks of raw sewage were better understood, plumbers, public health advocates and engineers lobbied government for better legislation. The Plumbers Registration Act 1912 required all plumbers to be registered and to hold certain qualifications, be licensed as a plumber by a local authority, or demonstrate competence as a sanitary plumber. The New Zealand Plumbers Journal, first published in 1948, kept plumbers up to date with developments in the industry.
In the 2000s registration as a plumber and gasfitter could be achieved through an overseas qualification; by serving five years continuously and then passing practical and theory tests; or via technical study and an 8,000-hour apprenticeship. In 2005 there were an estimated 6,900 plumbers employed in New Zealand (excluding apprentices). According to the 2001 census around 40% were self-employed. Around 75% of plumbing work was residential, with around two-thirds of residential work involving new construction, alterations and additions.