No poo in the sewers, please…

In previous blog posts we’ve touched upon the smells of 19th century Christchurch and how, in the absence of an organised sewerage and rubbish disposal system, early Christchurch was, at the best of times, a dirty old town. Inadequate drainage was a persistent problem, accosting the senses of citizens on a daily basis. Following the formation of the Christchurch Drainage Board in 1875, and the development of an engineering solution, a sewerage system was eventually constructed in the city. Once this became fully operational in September 1882, it could be considered by the standards of the day to be one of the finest in the world.

During the course of SCIRT infrastructure projects out and about in the central city, we’ve been able to get up close and personal with 19th century Christchurch’s drainage system. We’ve learnt a great deal: about how the system was built, how it functioned, and how this system expanded and changed over time. It’s also got us thinking about path dependency as we have been able to observe it in the archaeological record. The way that our city’s drainage infrastructure was designed and built more than 130 years ago is having a direct impact on the how we are able to go about repairing it in the present day.

Waiting at a bus stop last week, I got into a conversation with a fellow commuter about what I do for a living and what I’ve been finding looking at the city’s old sewers. “Found any old poo?” “No old poo, mate”, I replied. “What about Ninja Turtles?” “Only crocodiles, sorry.” “Any idea about who flushed the first Christchurch poo?” I told him that I haven’t yet found any historical documents about that kind of thing. As I boarded the bus, I got to thinking about the subterranean city: about the hidden horizontal infrastructure that, in an abstract kind of way, can be seen as an extension of our bodies (our digestive systems at least!), and about 19th century discard behaviours of the most private and personal kind. Which begs the question, how did Christchurch get its first flush toilets, and what did this mean in the transformation of early Christchurch?


Drainspotting: St Asaph St sewer selfie. Image: H. Williams.

The poo, the water closet, and the big “Drainage Question”

We have learnt from historical records that the citizens of 19th century Christchurch were scared about putting poo down the sewers.

The Drainage Board’s first consulting engineer was John Carruthers, who presented the first design for sewerage system to the city council in January 1877 (Wilson 1989:17). He advocated construction of a combined sewer system, which would see wastewater and stormwater conveyed eastwards out of town to an estuary outfall (Star 29/1/1877:2). Carruthers strongly recommended allowing water closets to be connected to the sewers, but noted that:

I do not go so far as to recommend their compulsory use at present, as I have little doubt they will, if allowed, very soon be generally used for the sake of their healthfulness, decency, and cleanlinessthe primary object of sewers is not to carry water closet dejecta, but to remove household water after it has been used and fouled. It is obviously a matter of the first importance to get rid of this filthy water, and underground sewers form the basic vehicle for carrying it away…”
 – Star 29/1/1877:2

The Board accepted Carruthers’ scheme, though without any public consultation and without an official stance as to whether water closets would or should be adopted, whether sewers were the right place for ‘closet dejecta’ or whether their installation should be made compulsory once the system had been completed. Frenzied public meetings were held wherein ratepayers, engineers, and medical men debated “The Drainage Question” in filthy detail (Press 16/2/1877:2, 3/3/1877:1).

Of chief concern was sewage contamination at the estuary outfall, sewer blockages that would generate poisonous gases, and inadequacies in the local water supply for flushing. Backyard artesian wells across the district that were looked to for flushing purposes were already beginning to dry up (Press 3/3/1877:1). Unhappy with Carruthers’ plan, at the ratepayer’s suggestion William Clark was made the Drainage Board’s new consulting engineer, and by April 1878 had revised the original plans, presenting the board with a comprehensive report, Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs.

The key point of Clark’s scheme, which was approved in May 1878, was that wastewater flows were to be admitted into the sewers, but were to be kept separate from stormwater at all costs. A pumping station was to be built on land the Board owned on Mathesons Road, which would pump the city’s sewerage eastwards out of town, where a sewage farm was to be established on the sandhills. Here the sewage would be irrigated over the paddocks, fertilising the soil (Clark 1878:6-12). Construction of the sewage tank underneath the pumping station progressed slowly, on account of the unstable, quicksand-like subsoil, and the many baby eels “about the thickness of a man’s finger” that continually clogged the fans of the groundwater pumping apparatus (Star 16/7/1879:3).


Central Christchurch, showing the original drainage district area, and the extent of the sewerage system as completed by September 1882. Image: after Wilson (1989).

Available historical records do not specify where or when the first water closet was installed and the first filth flushed, but it must have been by late 1882, once the last of the earthenware pipe sewers to receive the private house connections had been laid (Star 10/1/1882:3). The completion of the system, however, did not result in properties becoming connected straight away. Landowners had to pay for a private connection to be made to the sewer, as well as satisfy the board that these private drains were properly laid, the water closet was of an approved type, was properly located and ventilated, and had a sufficient water supply for flushing purposes (Press 21/10/1882:2). Because of installation costs, many households may have initially only made a house connection to the sewer for the removal of kitchen ‘slop water’, and would have continued to use their chamber pots, backyard long drops, dry earth closets, and the regular nocturnal services of the ‘night soil’ man. Clark thought that his estimated 2 pounds 10 shillings cost for constructing a ‘water privie’ of his own design would be affordable for households over the long term, considering that the night soil man was already costing them 7 pennies a week (Clark 1878:14).

In 1884 Christchurch had 293 water closets, by 1901 this number had jumped to 1915 (Wilson 1989:29).

300 mm diameter earthenware pipe sewer junction on Oxford Terrace, which was installed in early 1882. The 100 mm diameter inlet is stopped up, evidence of a private house drain or water closet connection that was never made

300 mm diameter earthenware pipe sewer junction on Oxford Terrace, which was installed in early 1882. The 100 mm diameter inlet is stopped up, evidence of a private house drain or water closet connection that was never made. Image: H. Williams.

We have found out by looking at some 19th century private connections into the 1882 St Asaph Street sewer that there was great variation in how these 100mm diameter earthenware pipe drains were installed. Some were fully haunched in concrete as a protective measure, others were simply laid down into the natural sandy clay subsoil and then backfilled with the same. Individual pipes were mostly bonded with rigid cement mortar joints,but we did find evidence for a more ‘flexible’ bonding agent on one drain: this was a sticky, sulphurous, coal tar. From impressed manufacturers marks on these pipes we have learned that these were all manufactured locally. The larger diameter sewer mains on the other hand were all imported, these were made in Scotland at James Binnie’s Gartcosh Fireclay Works.

Tar joint

Drain joint bonded with tar. Image: H. Williams.

Pumping and flushing
By late 1882 the Drainage Board had exhausted most of their funds on pipe laying; what was left in the budget was to be spent on pumping and flushing.

The pumping station on the corner of Mathesons Road and Tuam Street ceased pumping the city’s sewage in 1957, by which time the drainage system had greatly expanded in size and a new pumping station on Pages Road had taken over. The original pump-house building still stands, (albeit without its fine brick chimney) as one of the few visible above ground components of the city’s 19th century sewerage system, and is a Cat 2 registered historic place. Currently a recycled building materials yard, it’s also a good place to go if you are looking to buy a second hand toilet or wash basin…

 The Christchurch Drainage Board's first wastewater pumping station as it stands today.

The Christchurch Drainage Board’s first wastewater pumping station as it stands today. Image: Paul Willyams, Wikimedia Commons.

As well as pumping, the Drainage Board was also involved heavily in the business of flushing. Brick ‘flushing tanks’ were built at various points along the sewer lines, and the regular flushing of the sewers ensured that no ‘closet dejecta’ or foreign solids was given any chance to settle: sewerage was to be kept moving through the sewers at all costs. These tanks were supplied with water from the board’s own wells, which were sunk all over the place. When Christchurch finally got a high pressure water supply turned on in 1909, these tanks were connected up to this new supply, thus preventing any ‘back flow’ from the sewers potentially contaminating the groundwater aquifers (Wilson 1989:26).

 A 1882 flushing tank, as exposed on the corner of Madras and St Asaph Streets, during wastewater renewal works, June 2014. It had an arched roof, the 'H' bricks used were made by local brickmaker William Holmes.

A 1882 flushing tank, as exposed on the corner of Madras and St Asaph Streets, during wastewater renewal works, June 2014. It had an arched roof, the ‘H’ bricks used were made by local brickmaker William Holmes. Image: H. Williams.

Past and future sewers

Although a number of Christchurch’s 19th century sewer lines were damaged in the earthquakes, and have since been dug up and replaced, some have been decommissioned and remain in situ deep underground, to perhaps to one day be investigated by archaeologists in the distant future. Other sewers, which may have cracked a little but have not been vertically displaced, have been relined. This non-invasive rehabilitation technique should ensure that these ancestral central city sewers can remain operational for perhaps another 130 years or more.

Relined barrel on Moorhouse Ave. Image: H. Williams.

Relined barrel on Moorhouse Ave. Image: H. Williams.

There can be no doubt that the sewerage system transformed 19th century Christchurch in so many ways, though for different reasons the system would have benefited some more than others. It reduced the mortality rate by removing problematic disease causing ‘dejecta’, and in doing so made the urban environment a safer, cleaner and we suspect, a much better smelling place. Parallel with changes to the physical environment, the sewerage system also brought about changes in peoples behaviour. The people of Christchurch could now flush, provided they were lucky enough to have a water closet, which makes us think again about archaeology and status. In today’s modern world we all take flush toilets for granted, but when they first appeared in 19th century Christchurch I’m sure that they must have been a real novelty! For first time users, would the water closet experience have been scary, or exciting? Pondering this question, I couldn’t help but think it perhaps best summed up by Tom Lehrer:

“Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.” 

And whatever you do, don’t forget to wash your hands.

Hamish Williams


Clark, W. 1878. Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs. Christchurch: The Times.

Press. [online] Available at:

Star. [online] Available at:

Wilson, J., 1989. Christchurch: swamp to city. A short history of the Christchurch Drainage Board. Christchurch: Christchurch Drainage Board.

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