“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 The smells of times past have long since been replaced by the smells of the present.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.

A lot of old rubbish!

…this yard being kept in a disreputable state, there are no cinder pits in proper places to throw the refuse of cooking and things in general, as at home, so old bones, vegetable remains, scrapings of plates, cinders, tea leaves, every conceivable thing is flung anywhere over these yards…

From Taken In by “Hopeful”, 1887.

Imagine that you live in 1860s Christchurch. Although it’s officially a city, there’s not much here that’s like the cities of Europe. The roads aren’t paved – in fact, most of them have hardly been formed. Your house is wooden, rather than being stone or brick. There’s no running water, and nothing to speak of in the way of drains between your house and the street. There are rubbish collection services, but only within the four avenues and you have to pay for them yourself. Fortunately, though, there’s a lot more space than back home. So, instead of paying the night-soil man or the town scavenger(s), you can just bury your rubbish in your backyard, throw it under your house (or even out the back door, if you don’t care too much about the smells and ‘nuisances’) or toss it into the Avon River.

This post is a bit different from others we’ve written to date. It’s the first in an occasional series that looks at the process of archaeology, and the factors that we consider before we interpret a site, or a particular artefact. In this case, it’s rubbish, because that’s largely what we find. When we find rubbish, we have to think about what was deposited, where and how was it deposited and why. When it was deposited is pretty important too, but we’ll look at that in another post. This post only provides the briefest of overviews over rubbish disposal practices, but it’ll give you an idea of how we think about these things.

 The motion passed by the Christchurch City Council, outlining how the council would charge for rubbish collection (Press 25/11/1863: ).


The motion passed by the Christchurch City Council, outlining how the council would charge for rubbish collection (Press 25/11/1863: ).

From 1863, the disposal of waste within the area bounded by Bealey Avenue, Fitzgerald Avenue, Hagley Park and Moorhouse Avenue  was regulated by the Christchurch City Council (the council was formed in 1862). The council set aside a rubbish dump very early on in the piece (Press 5/4/1862: 3), but it was not until January 1864 that the council contracted the Hadfield brothers to collect “refuse, slops, etc”, and instructed the Inspector of Nuisances “to cause the dry rubbish and ashes in every house or yard to be placed in bins provided for that purpose, the same to be conveniently accessible to the contractor at stated periods for removal, and to see that this authority be exercised within the cess-pan district…” (Lyttelton Times 28/1/1864: 5). It had been decided late the previous year that the council would recover the cost of this service directly from ratepayers, although subsequent council reports suggest that this was sometimes difficult (Press 25/11/1863: 3).

 An official report on rubbish collection (Press 12/1/1865: 4).


An official report on rubbish collection (Press 12/1/1865: 4).

While an official report in early 1865 suggested that this system was working well (Press 12/1/1865: 4), there were also reports of rubbish not being collected or people failing to pay for the service and people sweeping rubbish into gutters (Press 22/3/1865: 2, Lyttelton Times 28/3/1865: 3). A year later it was noted that “The Committee thought it desirable to make inquiries as to the removal of ashes and other dry rubbish, but they do not find that any systematic plan has been adopted in the manner or time of removal, nor as to the description of removal.” (Press 21/3/1866: 2). Whether or not any changes followed this report is not known but it is clear that there was a system of removal of rubbish in place in 1867 (Press 24/12/1867: 2). After 1870, there’s not much information about rubbish collection in the council reports in the newspapers, although in 1871 it became illegal to throw rubbish into “any public sewer or drain”, suggesting that this was a problem (Press 1/4/1871: 4).

 Problems with rubbish collection (Press 22/3/1865: 2).


Problems with rubbish collection (Press 22/3/1865: 2).

 Rubbish collection, 1867 (Press 24/12/1867: 2).


Rubbish collection, 1867 (Press 24/12/1867: 2).

Charging for rubbish collection continued until at least the late 1870s (Press 11/4/1878: 2). By 1886 the fee for this service seems to have been taken from rates (it wasn’t possible to work out exactly when this change took place; Star 9/3/1886: 4).

Even though rubbish in Christchurch could be collected from your property by at least 1864 (and it appears to have been a legal requirement that rubbish was removed from your property), archaeology tells us that families and businesses continued to dispose of their rubbish themselves throughout the 19th century (as a number of the posts on this blog illustrate).

A purpose-dug rubbish pit. Photo: L. Tremlett.


A purpose-dug rubbish pit. Photo: L. Tremlett.

So how did people do this? Mostly, they buried their rubbish it in purpose-dug pits, which were sometimes lined with tins – this may have been to prevent noxious material leaching into the city’s water. Because there are no soil or sand layers in these pits, we know that people weren’t throwing dirt or sand into the pit (which would have helped stop those noxious odours). The pits may have been covered is some way, which would also have reduced the odours – and the rodents – and  stopped loose sand or soil blowing into the pit. No physical evidence of such a cover has been found to date. Elsewhere in New Zealand, people threw their rubbish into abandoned privies or wells, but we’ve not found any examples of this in Christchurch so far.

 An under-floor accumulation. Photo: K. Webb.


An under-floor accumulation. Photo: K. Webb.

Some people were evidently too lazy to dig a pit and simply threw  the rubbish under their house (archaeologists call this an ‘under-floor accumulation’ (Butcher and Smith 2010)), while others took advantage of neighbouring sections that weren’t occupied and buried their rubbish there – nasty! The rubbish we’ve found at the Theatre Royal may be the result of this sort of activity. And apparently sometimes people just threw their rubbish out their back door or in a pile in the backyard (a surface accumulation or surface layer). That’s what the quote at the start of this post is referring – it’s from a book written by a young woman who was rather disillusioned by 1880s Christchurch (Hopeful 1974).

1890-11-20_8 Press


The Papanui Bone Mill produced ‘bonedust’ (a fertiliser) from bones (Press 20/11/1890: 8).

Like us today, the residents of Victorian Christchurch threw out items that were beyond repair or had fallen out of fashion. But fashions changed a lot less quickly then than they do today and there was a whole lot less packaging than there is now. And people rarely threw out objects of monetary value, such as jewellery or watches. There was also reuse, particularly of bottles, and bones leftover from meals were often collected and turned into ‘bonedust’ (a form of fertiliser). People tended not to throw out complete or unbroken objects – it’s rare that we find something that’s not broken, and in many cases we only find one fragment from a given plate or bottle. When we do find complete or nearly complete artefacts, we start to think a bit harder about why someone might have thrown something like that out, and that’s when the out-of-fashion argument can come into play.

 A nearly complete plate that someone threw out. Photo: J. Garland.


A nearly complete plate that someone threw out, possibly because it was no longer in fashion. Photo: J. Garland.

These are just some of the things we have to take into account before we interpret an artefact or assemblage, and before we can get to the heart of what archaeology’s about: people.

Katharine Watson

References

Butcher, M. and Smith, I., 2010. Talking trash: classifying rubbish-bearing deposits from colonial New Zealand sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 1(1): 53-61.

Hopeful (pseudonym), 1974 [1887]. Taken In: Being a sketch of New Zealand life. Capper Press, Christchurch.

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at: <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz>.

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

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