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 The smells of times past have long since been replaced by the smells of the present.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

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