Up in smoke: Christchurch Destructor

At the turn of the 20th century, Christchurch’s rubbish disposal underwent a fiery transformation.

After 50 years of settlement, Christchurch was facing a rubbish crisis that was starting to get people worried. The council’s weekly kerbside rubbish collection service, which had been around for 14 years, was working well, but all the rubbish dumps were filling up fast (Lyttelton Times 23/7/1886: 4). The biggest city dump was located out of town in the sand hills near New Brighton. Thanks to all the fish heads, food scraps, and other tasty morsels that were being dumped here on a regular basis, this dump was also home to a large rat population. In early 1900 there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Sydney, Australia. There was a genuine fear that if just one infected stowaway rat made it ashore to Christchurch, it could easily infect all the other rats and then everyone would be doomed (Press 26/2/1900: 4). If the dump rats got infected with the plague, and then they migrated into town pied piper style, then it would be game over man, game over.

On a Victoria Street site some time ago I found two pits filled entirely with rat bones, evidence of a local rat eradication program. There were the remains of 34 rats in one pit and 21 in the other. Both images: Hamish Williams.

Attempts had been made at various times to reduce the bulk of all of the rubbish at the dump, and bring down the resident rat population by setting the dump ablaze. It sort of worked, but not very well, and eventually these fires had to be put out (as best as they could) because the smoke was a nuisance. Dump rats would even be implicated in starting dump fires, the little buggers. Rats burrowed through all the mountains of rubbish, and in doing so created little air vents that helped reignite the smouldering remains of earlier dump fires (Press 17/4/1900:6). Nice one dump rats.

Fire was seen as the solution to Christchurch’s rubbish problem, but it wasn’t just a case of starting larger fires at the dump and letting them burn for longer. What Christchurch needed was a machine that was able to burn all the city rubbish in a much more controlled fashion, at higher temperatures, and for longer periods of time. What the city needed, and what the city later got, was THE DESTRUCTOR. Problem solved.

‘Destructors’ were the name given by English municipal engineers of the 19th century to big furnaces that were designed specifically for incinerating all different types of urban rubbish on an industrial scale (Moore 1898). Instead of getting rid of rubbish by carting it away and dumping it, rubbish would be burnt to a crisp in a Destructor, and in doing so would be transformed into a product that was then much less of a problem to deal with, and one that could even prove useful. I think Wellington was the first city in the country to get a Destructor, in 1889 (Press 11/5/1889: 6). Christchurch got its Destructor in 1902. Auckland got one in 1905. Auckland’s Muncipal Destructor building still stands.

Schematic of a late 19th century Destructor furnace. Burn it up, little man, and keep shovelling! Image: Moore 1898.

The Christchurch City Council ordered its destructor from the English engineering firm Meldrum Brothers in August 1900 (Press 28/8/1900: 3). It was a ‘six celled Beaman and Deas’ Destructor that was capable of incinerating both rubbish and night soil. Under normal operating conditions, each of the six cells of the furnace was capable of burning up to 24 tonnes of unsorted rubbish a day (Star 28/8/1900: 1). Because of all the smoke and stench it would produce, the Council had difficulty finding a suitable place to put it. Eventually, they decided to put it right in the middle of town, close to the corner of Manchester and Armagh Streets, a stone’s throw away from what is now the Margaret Mahy Playground.  With much pomp and ceremony, the Destructor was officially opened on the 30th of May 1902 (Press 31/5/1902: 5).

A 1920 aerial photo of central Christchurch. Can you spot the Destructor? It’s the one with the smokiest chimney of course. Image: reproduced courtesy of Christchurch City Libraries: CCL Photo CD 3, IMG0026.

After some 36 years of service, the Destructor burnt its last load of rubbish on 14 April 1938 (Press 14/4/1938: 8). The council then went back to dumping rubbish, though by now this was carried out in a much more organised and sanitary manner. With greater emphasis paid to covering the rubbish immediately after it was dumped, there were now thankfully fewer problems with the dump rats. When the destructor building and its massive brick chimney was demolished the following year, the city lost an iconic landmark of a building, though few would mourn the loss of the Destructor (Press 10/2/1939: 12). Its chimney was the tallest in town, but apart from the odd times when it was out of action and undergoing repairs, it blazed up a cloud of dirty filthy smoke pretty much 24/7.

The chimney was demolished entirely by hand, quite an achievement. Image: Press 8/4/1939: 21.

The Destructor was a cleverly designed furnace. Although it needed a good amount of coal to get the fires up to temperature, once it got going, little additional input of coal was typically required to keep the fires burning – rubbish would be the main source of fuel. Before being tipped into the furnace, the rubbish was usually raked over and given some form of a preliminary sort-through. All sorts of things ended up at the Destructor, but thankfully not all of it ended up in the flames. Some things, like scrap metal and rags, could be separated out for recycling. A pair of frightened kittens that a stoker found tied up in a paper bag one time were saved from certain death, but other animals were not so lucky. Stray dogs and unwanted feral cats sometimes ended up on top of the sacrificial pyre, these poor creatures drowned beforehand in a well reserved exclusively for this grisly purpose (Press 23/8/1905: 8). Large quantities of fish waste from city fish markets proved somewhat tricky to burn. Wet and slimy, incinerating this kind of waste consumed more coal and as such cost the council lots of money. Later they decided that all this fish waste would be better disposed of by carting it out of town where it could be recycled into agricultural fertiliser. This saved the Council up to 35 tonnes of coal per year (Press 16/7/1932: 16). Nice.

Must have been a hot and sweaty job feeding the Destructor, that’s probably why this fella is wearing a towel round his shoulders, so he could easily mop the sweat from his brow. Image: Press 10/7/1932: 17 .

The Destructor didn’t just incinerate rubbish and dead animals, it was a multi-purpose machine that was also the city’s first power plant. From 1903 the destructor’s steam boilers powered generators that produced electricity for the local grid: the power of rubbish lit the city streets at night (Press 1/8/1903: 7). From 1908, exhaust gases from the destructor were piped underground to heat the neighbouring Tepid Baths (Christchurch’s first indoor public swimming pool). In this way rubbish enabled people to backstroke and breaststroke in heated comfort all year round. The waste by-product produced by the Destructor, called clinker, was not left to go to waste either, but proved to be a valuable and useful material in building city roads.

Destructor clinker! Image: Hamish Williams.

I first came to know of clinker after being called out to a SCIRT job on Eastern Terrace, when a layer of the stuff was found by a crew replacing a broken stormwater pipe. It was a real eureka moment for me when I worked out exactly what it was. By 1928, more than 4800 tonnes of the stuff were produced annually, and almost all of it was put to good use by the council in building and repairing city streets (Galbraith 1928). As later SCIRT works confirmed, this clinker fill was laid down all over the place, mostly as a road formation base course, particularly in locations where the underlying natural substrate was ‘peaty and soft’ (Galbraith 1928).

Road formation related stratigraphy, as was exposed in the side of a SCIRT pipe trench in Beckenham. The layer of Destructor clinker is the dirty brown looking layer at the bottom, capped by two layers of modern hard fill. Image: Hamish Williams.

Depending on what it had been before it was fed into and thus transformed by the Destructor, clinker proved to be often quite variable in appearance. Sometimes the clinker was very glassy, black and shiny, (reminding me of meteorites, not dissimilar to the one found by this lucky young fella) and sometimes it was a dirty brown rusty colour (from all the half burnt iron nails and bits of tin cans). More often than not both types of clinker had little inclusions of semi-melted bits of bottle glass and twice vitrified ceramic sherds in it, a strange sight indeed. We didn’t find too much clinker underneath central city streets, but we did find it in the central city around the banks of the Avon/Ōtākaro River. It was found in abundance below those suburban roadways that flank the Heathcote/ Ōpāwaho River. The silty riverside suburbs of Beckenham, St Martins, and Opawa proved to be serious clinker hotspots!

A chunk of Destructor clinker. This one came from a thick clinker layer exposed during excavations for the construction of the Canterbury Earthquake Memorial wall. Clinker had been used to build up the south bank of the Ōtākaro/Avon River as part of early 20th century river landscape improvement works. Close by on the opposite bank we also found (at shallow depth) crushed clinker footpaths. Image: Hamish Williams.

We mostly found Destructor clinker on the road reserve – public land – and where we found it, we usually didn’t find any 19th century rubbish. However, in those few places where we did find 20th century clinker and 19th century rubbish in close proximity, the 19th century artefacts were always found at a lower stratigraphic level. Because we know that Destructor clinker was only produced between 1902 and 1938, this stuff has proved very super helpful for dating archaeological deposits, especially when we find it on private property (curiously it has turned up a couple of times in backyard rubbish pits). Why throw away a bit of rubbish clinker? I guess maybe someone picked a bit of it up from somewhere thinking it was a rare and valuable meteorite, then realised it was just a bit of old burnt rubbish and chucked it away. Just a guess. Any thoughts?

Maybe because the story of the Destructor is a bit steampunk, or maybe because it reminds me about how persistent the people of the past were in finding solutions to the environmental problems that they faced, I find the whole story of the Destructor very fascinating. I like thinking about how resourceful the local council was more than 100 years ago, recycling what they could, and transforming what they couldn’t recycle into something that could be reused in a practical way, while powering the city in the process. Reduce, reuse, recycle – this modern mantra that we all should live by is certainly nothing new.

Hamish Williams

References

Galbraith, A.R. 1928. Report on the Reconstruction and Maintenance of the City Highways and Bridges. Wellington N.Z: Witcombe & Tombs.

Moore, E.C. 1898. Sanitary Engineering: a Practical Treatise. London: B.T. Batsford.

Press. [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Star. [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

2 thoughts on “Up in smoke: Christchurch Destructor

  1. The rubbish dump on Kearney’s Road had mostly late 19th Century rubbish in it but the area nearest Rudds Road had a hard layer of clinker on top. Some of the ashes and clinker from the destructor were also buried at Burwood Park near where the tennis courts are now. Later it was dug out from the park and removed to Bottle Lake Plantation to line the roads.

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