Below the belt: part 2

Last week on the blog we introduced you to the 1881 South Belt sewer beneath Moorhouse Avenue: how it was built, how it got blocked, and how recently as part of SCIRT’s horizontal infrastructure rebuild program, their Downer delivery team and sub-contractors Donaldson Civil fixed the blockage. On this week’s blog installment, we look at what we found both above and below the sewer. Enjoy!

Whenever we dig down into the road to repair or replace damaged horizontal infrastructure we always find what I sometimes call ‘road trifle’ – but with layers of asphalt and aggregate instead of layers of custard and fruit. Actually probably more of a ‘road crème brulee’ – as out modern road surfaces, like fancy French desserts have a hard top we have to break through first. At the best of times it’s almost impossible for us to tell whether any such layers exposed in the side of such trenches are of the 19th century period – as we know that most city roads have been rebuilt many times in the past. This one had a layer of soft friable concrete below the asphalt, which was a bit different. Image: Hamish Williams

Whenever anyone digs down into a road to repair or replace damaged horizontal infrastructure we always find what I like to call ‘road trifle’ – but with layers of asphalt and aggregate instead of layers of custard and fruit. Actually probably more of a ‘road crème brulee’ – as our modern road surfaces (like fancy French desserts) have a hard top to break through first. At the best of times it’s almost impossible to tell whether any such layers exposed in the side of trenches are of the 19th century period, as we know that most city roads have been rebuilt many times in the past. This one had a layer of soft friable concrete below the asphalt, which was a bit different. Image: Hamish Williams.

They didn’t have any mechanical excavators back in 1881, which means that the Drainage Board contractors had to dig the sewer trench by hand, using pick, spade, and shovel. As well as digging, they also had to do cutting – we found mixed in with the clay as backfilled atop the sewer lots of monster sized tree stumps and tree roots with saw cut ends. You can see some of these bits of stumps at the left of this photo. It’s not uncommon for us to find evidence of prehistoric swamp vegetation well preserved in the anaerobic clay at great depth below the city. Image: Hamish Williams.

They didn’t have any mechanical excavators back in 1881, which means that the Drainage Board contractors had to dig the sewer trench by hand, using pick, spade, and shovel. As well as digging, they also had to do cutting – we found lots of monster-sized tree stumps and tree roots with saw-cut ends mixed in with clay that had been used to backfill the sewer after construction. You can see some of these bits of stumps at the left of this photo. It’s not uncommon for us to find evidence of prehistoric swamp vegetation well preserved in the anaerobic clay at great depth below the city. Image: Hamish Williams.

We didn’t find much by way of artefacts in the backfill atop the sewer, with the exception of broken taper bricks. These bricks had evidently fractured because of the large clinkerous inclusions contained within. Useless for construction, they had been left by the bricklayer aside the crown arch.  Image: Hamish Williams

We didn’t find much in the way of artefacts in the backfill atop the sewer, with the exception of broken taper bricks. These bricks had evidently fractured because of the large clinkerous inclusions contained within. Useless for construction, they were apparently left by the bricklayer beside the crown arch. Image: Hamish Williams.

Found in close association with these broken taper bricks was a small red pebble with an attractive white stripe. This is by definition not an artefact (it was not made or modified by humans) but is a manuport (it is a natural object transported from its original location and is otherwise unmodified). This pretty pebble I reckon must have been picked up somewhere by one of the sewer gang boys back in the day before it was lost on the job, maybe falling out a pocket.  I can’t think that such an awesome find would have been deliberately discarded, unless perhaps the peer pressure of a ‘manly man’ on the sewer gang who collects pretty pebbles in his spare time was a contributing factor? Archaeology can never answer such questions for us – but it’s nice to ponder them all the same. Image: Hamish Williams

Found in close association with these broken taper bricks was a small red pebble with an attractive white stripe. This is by definition not an artefact (it was not made or modified by humans) but is a manuport (it is a natural object transported from its original location and is otherwise unmodified). I reckon this pretty pebble must have been picked up somewhere by one of the sewer gang boys back in the day before it was lost on the job, maybe falling out of a pocket. I can’t think that such an awesome find would have been deliberately discarded, unless perhaps the peer pressure of a ‘manly man’ on the sewer gang who collects pretty pebbles in his spare time was a contributing factor? Archaeology can never answer such questions for us – but it’s nice to ponder them all the same. Image: Hamish Williams.

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I thought that perhaps at depth we would find in situ 19th century trench shoring timbers, which would have had to have had to have been put in place to stop the sides of the trench collapsing (today we mostly use steel trench shields, but if we have to go super deep, sometimes interlocking sheet piles). This was not to be however, but we did find in the outer faces of the concrete sewer invert the casts from where these would have once been. 200 mm x 100mm timber set some 200 mm apart were evidently used to support the walls of the trench. These had been pulled out and presumably used to line the next stretch while the concrete was still wet. Images: Hamish Williams.

I thought that perhaps at depth we would find in situ 19th century trench shoring timbers, which would have been put in place to stop the sides of the trench collapsing (today we mostly use steel trench shields, but the work has to go super deep, sometimes interlocking sheet piles). This was not to be, but we did find the casts from where these would have once been in the outer faces of the concrete sewer invert. Pieces of 200 mm x 100 mm timber set some 200 mm apart were evidently used to support the walls of the trench. These had been pulled out and presumably used to line the next stretch while the concrete was still wet. Images: Hamish Williams.

Working in an area with a high water table was a challenge while we were working on fixing the sewer, even though we had dewatering system of pumps set up to make our subterranean works area as dry as possible. How did they manage this back in the day when they built the sewer? Evidently with some difficulty – at the start of construction, the Drainage Board reported that the [sewer] works on the South Belt are in very troublesome ground, with much water and running sand, and the progress is consequently slow (Press 22.2.1881:3). They had pumps, yes, but these coal powered steam driven pumping devices were probably not as effective as the diesel powered pumps we have available today. They were clever however – first installing a line of earthenware pipes within a smaller gravel filled trench, which we hope would have removed a great deal of the water away from where they were pouring concrete and laying bricks – presumably to a pumping collection point further down the trench line. You can just make out this 19th century dewatering system in place below the concrete invert in this photo. Image: Pieter White.

Working in an area with a high water table was a challenge while working on fixing the sewer, even though there was a dewatering system of pumps set up to make the subterranean works area as dry as possible. How did they manage this back in the day when they built the sewer? Evidently with some difficulty – at the start of construction, the Drainage Board reported that “the [sewer] works on the South Belt are in very troublesome ground, with much water and running sand, and the progress is consequently slow” (Press 22/2/1881:3). They had pumps, yes, but these coal-powered steam-driven pumping devices were probably not as effective as the diesel powered pumps we have available today. They were clever, however – first installing a line of earthenware pipes within a smaller gravel filled trench, which we hope would have removed a great deal of the water away from where they were pouring concrete and laying bricks – presumably to a pumping collection point further down the trench line. You can just make out this 19th century dewatering system in place below the concrete invert in this photo. Image: Pieter White.

Not surprisingly, when we removed one of these pipes it was choked with liquefaction silt. Image: Hamish Williams.

Not surprisingly, when one of these pipes was removed SCIRT found that it was choked with liquefaction silt. Image: Hamish Williams.

A very happy Ty Laskey from Donaldson Civil with one of these earthenware dewatering pipes we managed to recover intact. Unlike earthenware pipes for sewerage applications which are always glazed, these particular pipes were unglazed, and had been laid dry; that is to say without any cement mortar between the individual pipes to allow for the free infiltration of water. Image: Hamish Williams.

A very happy Ty Laskey from Donaldson Civil with one of these earthenware dewatering pipes that was recovered intact. Unlike earthenware pipes for sewerage applications, which are always glazed, these particular pipes were unglazed, and had been laid dry; that is to say without any cement mortar between the individual pipes to allow for the free infiltration of water. Image: Hamish Williams.

Many thanks to SCIRT,  Downer and Donaldson Civil for a job well done, and especially to Moorhouse Avenue businesses and motorists for their patience while SCIRT has been working on fixing this and other damaged horizontal infrastructure in the area.

Hamish Williams

Below the belt: part 1

This week on the blog we take you on a journey down the South Belt sewer, one of Christchurch’s many 19th century wastewater sewers. Located deep below the east-bound lane of Moorhouse Avenue and more than a kilometre in length, construction of this sewer began in 1881 and was completed in early 1882. Recently, as part of SCIRT’s horizontal infrastructure rebuild program, their Downer delivery team and sub-contractors Donaldson Civil replaced a 30 metre long upstream section of this sewer where a blockage had occurred. In this part 1 of a 2 part sewer archaeology special – we look at how this sewer was built, how it got blocked, and how it got fixed. Enjoy!

Before we got digging, we put a sewer inspection robot down into the sewer, the footage it recorded helped us to determine the location of the blockage, and thus where to dig. Image: Hamish Williams.

Before the digging started, the crew put a sewer inspection robot down into the sewer. The footage it recorded helped to determine the location of the blockage, and thus where to dig. Image: Hamish Williams.

We dug down more than 2.5 metres to reach the brick crown arch, downstream of the blockage location. It was neat to see a thin smear of cement mortar had been applied to the top of the arch – where the bricklayer more than 130 years ago had cleaned off his trowel. Image: Hamish Williams.

The team dug down more than 2.5 metres to reach the brick crown arch, downstream of the blockage location. It was neat to see a thin smear of cement mortar had been applied to the top of the arch – where the bricklayer more than 130 years ago had cleaned off his trowel. Image: Hamish Williams.

Using a concrete saw, we cut through the crown arch...Image: Hamish Williams.

Using a concrete saw, they cut through the crown arch…

...and were most surprised to find a 30+ metre long sewer snake trapped inside! This snake (actually a high pressure sewer cleaning jet) had got stuck some time ago while trying to swim upstream. There was no flow in the sewer at all, only 60 mm of stinky sewage water. Images: Hamish Williams.

…and were most surprised to find a 30+ metre long sewer snake trapped inside! This snake (actually a high pressure sewer cleaning jet) had got stuck some time ago while trying to swim upstream. There was no flow in the sewer at all, only 60 mm of stinky sewage water. Images: Hamish Williams.

Of an oviform or ‘egg’ shape, the base of the sewer (that’s what the invert is called in pipelaying speak) was made of unreinforced concrete. The upper crown arch was formed of specially shaped taper bricks, 13 of which were required to span the arch. In the photo on the left you can see the resin impregnated fabric liner that was installed inside the sewer circa 2009, and at right one of engineer William Clark’s original 1878 oviform sewer design drawings. The sewerage system that he designed for the Christchurch Drainage Board became fully operational in early September 1882, and many parts of this system are still in use today. Images: (at left) Hamish Williams and at right, after Clark (1878) Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs.

Of an oviform or ‘egg’ shape, the base of the sewer (that’s what the invert is called in pipelaying speak) was made of unreinforced concrete. The upper crown arch was formed of specially shaped taper bricks, 13 of which were required to span the arch. In the photo on the left you can see the resin impregnated fabric liner that was installed inside the sewer circa 2009, and at right one of engineer William Clark’s original 1878 oviform sewer design drawings. The sewerage system that he designed for the Christchurch Drainage Board became fully operational in early September 1882, and many parts of this system are still in use today. Images: (left) Hamish Williams, (right) after Clark (1878) Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs.

A section of this liner was cut out and used as a mould to custom make two PVC plastic transition pieces, as we were replacing the damaged section of sewer with pipe of a circular shape. Image: Hamish Williams.

A section of this liner was cut out and used as a mould to custom make two PVC plastic transition pieces, as the damaged section of sewer was replaced with pipe of a circular shape. Image: Hamish Williams.

A special wire cutting saw was brought in to make a clean cut through the sewer, so we could firmly fix the downstream transition piece to it, before this join was encased in reinforced concrete. Future archaeologists should have no issues determining when this concrete was poured! Images: Kane Reihana (at left) and Hamish Williams (at right).

A special wire cutting saw was brought in to make a clean cut through the sewer, so the downstream transition piece could be firmly fixed to it, before this join was encased in reinforced concrete. Future archaeologists should have no issues determining when this concrete was poured! Images: (left) Kane Reihana and (right) Hamish Williams.

When we got to the blockage, our suspicions about the cause of the blockage were confirmed. Although the sewer itself had not suffered any form of structural collapse, liquefaction silt had entered the sewer through cracks in the brickwork and had constricted the liner, blocking the flow of sewage. Images: Kane Reihana (at left) and Hamish Williams (at right).

When the blockage was reached, suspicions about the cause of the blockage were confirmed. Although the sewer itself had not suffered any form of structural collapse, liquefaction silt had entered the sewer through cracks in the brickwork and had constricted the liner, blocking the flow of sewage. Images: (left) Kane Reihana  and (right) Hamish Williams.

Ben McConochie fits the upstream transition piece in place with epoxy mortar before the concrete is poured. Image: Hamish Williams.

Ben McConochie fits the upstream transition piece in place with epoxy mortar before the concrete is poured. Image: Hamish Williams.

All done! Image: Hamish Williams.

All done! Image: Hamish Williams.

Many thanks to SCIRT, Downer and Donaldson Civil for a job well done, and especially to Moorhouse Avenue businesses and motorists for their patience while SCIRT has been working on fixing this and other damaged horizontal infrastructure in the area.

Hamish Williams.

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?

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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).

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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

References

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

Press. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Star. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

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

In which the emanation of effluvia is offensive to one’s senses

Continuing on from last week’s blog, today’s post takes a look (or a sniff, if you will) at the aromas of everyday life inside a Victorian house. Smell is such an intrinsic part of human life, yet so fleeting that it can only be experienced directly in the present moment. The smells of the past, as Hamish mentioned last week, are only available to us indirectly, through written descriptions and the power of our imagination (itself based upon our own past olfactory experiences).

As far as the 19th century is concerned, many of the everyday scents and aromas experienced by people in Christchurch would still be familiar to us, even now. Others, however, have faded from daily life during the intervening decades as household products and technologies have gradually been replaced by modern, odourless, alternatives.

A lovely brass candlestick (used by Colonel mustard in the library, perhaps...). We think that the pieces of fabric stuck to the metal are just the remnants of the wrapping it was thrown out in, rather than a functional or decorative part of the candlestick itself. There's even a candle stub still visible inside the holder, near the base. Image: J. Garland

A brass candlestick found in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland

The smell of lighting, for example, is something that wouldn’t even register as a household smell now. Yet, in the 19th century, everything that produced light (with the exception of the sun, of course) – candles, kerosene lamps, gas lamps, wood or coal fires – would also have produced a smell.  Some of these have featured on the blog before, in the form of candle sticks and fireplaces found on Christchurch sites, but we’ve not really considered them in the context of their smell before.

Many of the fireplaces we’ve come across would not have ‘drawn’ well, meaning there would often have been coal or wood smoke in the room while they were lit. Kerosene lamps were notorious for their smell, to the point that advertisers made an effort to emphasise the less ‘distasteful’ smell of their own products (Wairarapa Daily Times 7/2/1913: 7). Candles were made from a variety of materials, from cheap tallow to spermaceti (a wax found in sperm whales) and paraffin wax, some of which gave off distinctive smells and some of which did not. Even ‘odourless’ candles, though, such as ‘sperm candles’, would still have contributed to the scents of the household through the smell of the wick as it was extinguished, or matches as it was lit.

Advertisements for household lighting and heat

Advertisements for household lighting and heat. Left to right: advertisement for gas lighting, which avoids the “soot, smell and sadness” of other lighting methods (Northern Advocate 6/8/1920: 4); advertisement for Apollo Sperm Candles (Evening Post 8/8/1903: 15); advertisement for clean Shell kerosene heaters (Wairarapa Daily Times 7/2/1913:7)

Article on the creation of an allegedly odourless 'super-cabbage'. Image:

Article on the creation of an allegedly odourless ‘super-cabbage’. Image: New Zealand Herald 21/5/1935: 4.

On the other hand, the smell of cooking – and food, in general – is one that we’re used to today, although perhaps not to the same extremes as in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  As well as the smell of coal ranges or cooking fires, people during the period seem to have been particularly concerned with the aromas of cooked vegetables and meat permeating through the house (Ashburton Guardian 31/3/1900: 4). Newspapers from the time are full of advice on how to prevent the smell of cooking from spreading, with noticeable emphasis on the smell of cooking cabbage, onion and other boiled green vegetables (North Otago Times 20/12/1906: 1New Zealand Herald 5/07/1930:7). Of course, some of the cooking smells of the time must have been more palatable than others: the aroma of fresh bread or baking, for example, is unlikely to have provoked such negativity.

Advice on how to prevent cooking smells from permeating through the house. Images:

Advice on how to prevent cooking smells from permeating through the house. Images: Evening Post 21/4/1939: 6Ashburton Guardian 31/3/1900: 4New Zealand Herald 7/9/1929: 7

However, food smells wouldn’t have been limited to cooking. Without the refrigeration that we have today, even the storage of food in a house would have generated a variety of smells – some good (spices, perhaps) and some bad. We talked about a few of the foodstuffs that we’ve found on sites in Christchurch a little while ago. Some of these – the anchovy paste, for example – probably smelled quite pungent to start with, let alone after they’d been sitting in unrefrigerated storage for any length of time. In fact, many of the food-related artefacts we find, from vinegar bottles to Bovril to jars of ground cheese, would have had fairly distinctive aromas that we tend to forget about when we’re looking at them.

An Anchovy Paste jar found in Christchurch and accompanying recipe from 1904. Image: J. Garland, Otago Witness 17/08/1904: 67.

An anchovy paste jar found in Christchurch, and recipe from 1904. Image: J. Garland, Otago Witness 17/08/1904: 67.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the household smells of then and now is, as it was with the smells of the outside world, related to the management of human waste, sanitation and personal hygiene. Last week, Hamish mentioned one site with a crudely made drain, which might have contributed to the smell of the sewer travelling up the pipe and into a house. We don’t know how common an occurrence this might have been in 19th century Christchurch, but we do know that the smell of human waste would have been a strong presence in houses anyway, thanks to the use of chamber pots – a multitude of which have been found on sites in the city.

Part of a chamberpot decorated with the May Morn pattern. Image: J. Garland.

Part of a chamberpot decorated with the May Morn pattern. Image: J. Garland.

For many 19th century households, the toilet (or privy) would have been located outside, separate from the main house or attached to the rear of the dwelling (Butcher & Smith 2010). While this set-up would have been fine for use during the day, chamber pots were common household items for use during the night, when it was too cold or too dark to stumble outside to the privy. Even when emptied frequently, the smell must have been fairly pervasive and less than pleasant.

An 1870s article describing the use of coffee as a disinfectant and de-odouriser. Image:

An 1870s article describing the use of coffee as a disinfectant. Image: Southland Times 3/6/1870: 3

However, there were a number of methods and products available in the 19th century to combat the more unpleasant household smells, products that would have themselves contributed to the overall aromatic signature of the Victorian Christchurch home. Examples of 19th and early 20th century cleaning products from Christchurch sites have featured here on the blog before. All of these would have provided a fairly strong assault on the nostrils, particularly the disinfectants like Kerol, Lysol and Jeyes Fluid (New Zealand Herald 22/1/1912: 8). Other methods of preventing ‘noxious odours’ in the home included the cooking tips mentioned above, the careful placement of flowers or floral scented sachets (lavender or rose, usually; New Zealand Herald 26/10/1912: 6), or the use of coffee as a “powerful means…of rendering animal and vegetable effluvia innocuous” (Southland Times 3/6/1870: 3).

 

 

Kerol bottle found in Christchurch, along with 1920s poem singing the praises of the disinfectant. Images:  Colonist 24/02/1920; J. Garland.

Kerol bottle found in Christchurch, along with 1920s poem singing the praises of the disinfectant. Images: Colonist 24/02/1920; J. Garland.

Sadly, due to the constraints of space, in this post I’ve really only touched on the plethora of smells that would have defined a household in the 19th century. I’ve not mentioned the smell of the building itself (wallpapers, particular types of timber, the damp; Bruce Herald 23/10/1872: 9) or the smell of household animals or pets or many of the other scented household products (for better or for worse) that would have been in use (Evening Post 20/2/1930: 7). Not to mention the personal smells created by people themselves, from the smell of their clothing (washed and unwashed), the smell of leather shoes, individual perfumes or lack thereof, the smell of a person’s hair (which may have been washed with beetle juices!) or the soap that they used.

There are so many individual scents that make up the olfactory experience of our daily lives that it can be difficult to imagine that experience as a whole in the past, to combine all of the smells we’ve mentioned, this week and last, into an idea of what it was like to breathe in deeply in 19th century Christchurch. It can also be difficult to separate out the various smells that contribute to our own experience, especially the ones we’re so used to that we barely notice them anymore. You have to wonder if perhaps it was a bit like that for people in the 19th century as well: perhaps, so many of these smells were so common that they hardly registered in day to day life. For us, though, even imagining such smells has the power to make that daily life – those past scenes and experiences – more real, in a way that few other senses do.

Jessie Garland

References

Ashburton Guardian. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Bruce Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Butcher, M. & Smith, I., 2010. Talking trash: classifying rubbish-bearing deposits from colonial New Zealand sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 1(1): 43-61.

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

Evening Post. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

North Otago Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Otago Witness. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Southland Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

“A few filthy features”

As archaeologists we almost exclusively describe and interpret the physical evidence of past human activity in visual terms, through maps, photos, and descriptions of what the archaeological features or artefacts look like. Although this makes perfect sense, lately I’ve come to ask myself:

“Okay, so if this is what life in 19th century Christchurch looked like, what on earth does this tell me about what life in 19th century Christchurch smelled like?”

Unfortunately, we can only learn about the smells of the past indirectly through archaeology. Smells are not physical things that can be dug up and most don’t stick around for very long anyways. The smells of times past have long since been replaced by the smells of the present.

Historical records such as 19th century newspaper accounts, however, point to a number of different urban smells that were nothing short of offensive in the extreme for both local authorities and the general public.  And, despite the best efforts of those authorities, many such smells simply refused to go away.

In this week’s blog, for your eye-watering olfactory pleasure, I present you with a ‘few filthy features’, bringing the 19th century alive in all its ‘stink and glory’. Enjoy!

Drains and sewers

Before the Christchurch Drainage Board was established in 1876, the Christchurch City Council and other local authorities dug a number of drains and ditches, and built culverts, sewers, and roadside channels to remove stagnant and polluted surface waters. Draining mostly into the Avon and Heathcote rivers, these conduits were never intended to carry sewage and other offensive matter, although they inevitably did.

Image:

A newspaper clipping from the …., outlining local legislation on the disposal or rubbish and waste in city drains. Image: Press 01/04/1871: 3

The gently flowing Avon soon became an open sewer by proxy. As one observer noted, it “oozed a mass of putrid and decaying animal and vegetable matter” (Star 21/11/1872: 3).

Box culvert Image: H. Williams

Part of an 1870s timber culvert found underneath Ferry Road. Image: H. Williams.

We have found some evidence of these early drainage conduits, such as a boxed timber culvert that carried the Ferry Road drainage ditch beneath Ferry Road (above), and early pipe drains, which were crudely constructed by modern standards. One such pipe drain, found on Oxford Terrace, was laid on a flat gradient, meaning that the filth and water it once carried can’t ever have been able to drain away freely (a factor that no doubt contributed to its eventual silting up). Worse still was a crudely made and un-trapped connecting house drain, which may well have resulted in the sewer stink travelling up this drain and entering the house. Yuck!

Image: H. Williams

An earthenware pipe drain sewer with an un-trapped house connection, and sediment build-up found inside. Image: H. Williams.

By 1882 the Drainage Board had helped to remove some of the sewage stink from Christchurch through the construction of a sewerage system that carried waste eastwards out of town towards the estuary, and stormwater via a separate network of sewers into the rivers. Many of these sewers, of brick and concrete construction, have been relined and are still in use today. We also know that for some disgruntled 19th century ratepayers, the sewers, and the Drainage Board itself, carried with it the reek of corruption. Although he never publically admitted it, the Drainage Board’s Engineer Mr Charles Napier Bell was accused of profiteering from a 5% commission on all the earthenware sewer pipes the Board was importing from Britain (Wilson 1989: 18).

One of the old sewer outfalls into the Avon River, still in use today. Image: E. Clifford.

One of the old sewer outfalls into the Avon River, still in use today. Image: E. Clifford.

Cesspits

Despite the expansion of the sewer network, many households did not connect to the sewers and instead continued the medieval practice of using backyard latrines/privies with subsurface cesspits for disposing of their bodily wastes. Typically unlined, these cesspits were directly implicated in the transmission of fatal water borne diseases such as typhoid and dysentery, with seepage contaminating the groundwater of nearby wells. Emptied by hand (before they were later abandoned and filled in with rubbish, much to the excitement of us archaeologists), ‘night soil’ was carted away and dumped on the fringes of town. From 1886 in Christchurch,  a specially converted tram was employed between the hours of midnight and 5am to take tanks of ‘night soil’ waste out to the Council’s newly established ‘rubbish reserve’ in Linwood  (Alexander 1985:11).

We have excavated a surprisingly small number of cesspits in Christchurch, the deepest of which was 1.8 m deep. The bottom of this deep cesspit was stained a light tan colour and was of a puggy, sticky consistency, which we have interpreted as the residues of decomposed poo. Layers of ash, and a white powdery substance (probably lime) found within one of these pits may represent deodorising agents.

Julia sitting in the cesspit feature she just excavated. Image: H. Williams.

Julia digging out a cesspit feature in the Christchurch CBD. Image: H. Williams.

Rubbish and rats

As we have mentioned before on the blog, rubbish disposal was a continual problem in early Christchurch. Although in some areas the council did operate a household rubbish collection system in the 19th century, and employed ‘scavengers’ to clean the streets of rubbish and horse poo on a semi-regular basis, many households continued to dig pits in their backyards for disposing of their rubbish, or simply dumped it out of sight under the house or on a vacant section, thereby avoiding the collection fee.

With particularly large rubbish pits, I have always wondered to what extent they may have smelled bad, as they were filled up over time with the household’s food and kitchen scraps and other offensive organic wastes, left to putrefy in the summer sun. To date, we have not found any clear evidence of layers of dirt or sand dumped in pits in Christchurch that would have helped to minimise any bad smells. Pits may have been covered in some way, however, perhaps with lengths of timber or sheet metal, which would have helped to suppress any nasty smell, and we hope, have kept the rats out.

With all the filth and rubbish in, around, and underneath Christchurch buildings, it is not difficult to imagine how easily a population of rats could get out of control. Many a subfloor space in built-up Christchurch may have sheltered a rat family or two, safe out of the cold and with a ready supply of food scraps about to sustain them.

By 1900 the rodent menace reached a crisis point, as civic authorities prepared for the coming of the plague, which had appeared in New South Wales and threatened to spread to New Zealand on infected stowaway rats (Star 27/2/1900: 2). Although the plague never arrived in Christchurch, the threat contributed to a greater awareness about the dangers of filth, and the eradication of urban rat populations.

Advertisement for O'Kearney's rat poison. Image:

Advertisement for O’Kearney’s rat poison. Image: Star 06/11/1888: 2

A wide variety of strychnine, phosphorus, and arsenic-based rodent poisons were available from chemists to deal with rat infestations. Because they were implicated in a number of suicides and murders across the country, after 1895 purchase of these products required a signed declaration from a Justice of the Peace as to their intended purpose, as well as the payment of a government fee (Press 23/10/1895: 4).

At a site on Victoria Street we found two pit features like nothing we have ever seen before, features we have interpreted as archaeological evidence of 19th century rodent eradication activity. This took the form of two hand dug pits, each of which contained only rat bones – the remains of 34 rats in one pit and 21 in the other.

Rubbish pit filled with the remains of numerous rats, and some of the skull and jaw fragments found within. Image: H. Williams.

Rubbish pit filled with the remains of numerous rats, and some of the skull and jaw fragments found within. Image: H. Williams.

Whether both these pits were dug, filled, and covered over in the same day we will never know, nor what stinky state of decomposition these rat corpses may have been in when buried, nor whether these rats succumbed to poison, traps, or the resident tabby cat. What both these rat bone features do tell us, however, is that at the end of the day, it was the people of Christchurch who not only through their individual actions or inaction contributed to the filth and the stink, but were ultimately also the individual agents of change who helped play their part in cleaning it up. Such is the sweet retrospective smell of history.

Hamish Williams

References

Alexander, M., 1985. Rails in the roads – the steam and horse tram era in Christchurch. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Transport Board / Tramway Historical Society.

Press.  [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Star. [online] Available at: http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Wilson, J., 1989. Christchurch: swamp to city. A Short History of the Christchurch Drainage Board. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Drainage Board.