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


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>.

4 thoughts on “A lot of old rubbish!

  1. Very interesting article. Look forward to your articles.
    Member for the past 35 plus years of the Christchurch Antique Bottle and Collectables Club

  2. My great great great grandfather William Pearce had the job of Inspector of Nuisances from mid 1863 until about 20 or more years later. Poor guy! He had to deal with slops, dead and bloating horses left lying in the middle of the city etc. He was also the inspector of Hackney Carriages and was like the first parking warden, as well as a dog control officer. He got attacked by dogs and assaulted by humans. Poor guy! I don’t know how he managed it! http://greatgrandmaswickerbasket.blogspot.co.nz/2012/05/pearce-family.html

    Love your blog by the way. This is fascinating stuff!

    • That would not have been a fun job! Thanks for sharing the information, and so glad you’re enjoying the blog.

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