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have faded from daily life during the intervening decades as household products and technologies have gradually been replaced by modern, odourless, alternatives.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


Ashburton Guardian. [online] Available at

Bruce Herald. [online] Available at

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

Evening Post. [online] Available at

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at

North Otago Times. [online] Available at

Otago Witness. [online] Available at

Southland Times. [online] Available at

“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.


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.


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


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:

Star. [online] Available at:

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