Privies, Water Closets and Pan Closets: Sanitation in 19th century Christchurch

Toilet, loo, lavatory, water closet, restroom, bathroom –  no matter what you call it, they all refer to the same thing: the porcelain throne on which we spend an average of three hours and nine minutes a week. The flushing toilet is a quintessential part of modern life. The press of a button and our waste is whisked away, never to be seen again (unless you have to face the horror of working on wastewater pipe renewal projects). Yet it wasn’t always that way.

I won’t be so vulgar as to include a close-up photo of this drain, but let’s just say that there were some things in there that you didn’t want to get up close and personal with. Image: C. Watson.

Archaeologists studying ancient and more recent civilisations have shown that the principals of sanitation are basically the same no matter when or where you lived, those being: when people are living too densely for the ‘just find a bush’ method to work, collect the waste in something and find a way to dispose it. In Ancient Greece, Rome and Babylonia latrines with pipes that connected to cesspits or drains were installed in cities. Ancient Egypt also had latrines, but these drained directly into sandy soil, with waste sometimes then collected and used as fertiliser. People from the Harrapan civilisation in India also collected waste and used it as fertiliser, while in Mesopotamia, privies had a portable pot that was removed and emptied once full (Genc 2009).

Of course, while the broad principals of sanitation may be transcultural, some cultures did it better than others. As with anything engineering related, the Romans did it best. Nearly every Roman city dweller had access to a toilet (unlike some of the other ancient civilisations where it was only the wealthy and elite), and Roman latrines were connected to an elaborate drainage and sewer system, with the Cloaca Maxima draining into the River Tiber.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the engineered drainage systems they had constructed fell into disrepair. Those living in cities in the Middle Ages likely collected waste in a bucket or chamber pot that was emptied into the street or river –  if they weren’t just finding a private spot outside to go. Latrines did exist (with public latrines that emptied directly into the River Thames located on the London Bridge), but they weren’t as common nor as engineered as those from the earlier Roman period. This approach to sanitation led to stinky, disease ridden cities, that worsened as population density increased. The Great Stink of 1858 refers to a particularly hot summer when the Thames River water level dropped, exposing centuries of waste and a stench so offensive that it apparently caused people miles away to throw up when the wind changed.

You might be, by this point, wondering what has inspired today’s blog post on the humble toilet. Well, it’s because we recently found one. Our toilet was made by Twyfords in 1889 and likely dates back to when flushing toilets were first introduced to Christchurch. But more on that soon. For now, let’s look at what came before the porcelain potty.

I won’t be so vulgar as to include a close-up photo of this drain, but let’s just say that there were some things in there that you didn’t want to get up close and personal with. Image: C. Watson.

Privies, cesspits, closet pans, earth closets and water closets were all different options available to our 19th century counterparts when nature called. Early settlers to Christchurch built privies (or long drops) that discharged into cesspits. These privies proved problematic as they were smelly and prone to leaking, which contaminated soil and sources of water. As early as the 1860s, councils were requiring people to seek council permission before constructing a cesspit to ensure that the cesspit would not leach into drinking water (Press 30/08/1862: 4; Press 31/03/1863: 2). Councils weren’t big fans of cesspits, for obvious reasons. Instead they encouraged people to use closet pans (Press 31/03/1863: 2). These were essentially a bucket (or similar receptacle) that collected the waste, rather than being stored in a cesspit. This waste was collected by nightsoil men and scavengers, who would empty the pans onto a cart and remove it from the city.

An 1877 advertisement by the City Council calling for closet pan designs. Press 14/05/1877: 1.

The chamber pot was used within the house for those not wanting to venture outside at night. We find chamber pots regularly on our archaeological sites, indicating that they were commonplace in most households. These would have been emptied into the privy or closet. Image: C. Watson.

In 1870 Bylaw No. 10 under the Municipal Corporations Act 1867 gave council governance over all privies, cesspits and house drains (Press 06/05/1870: 4), and later pieces of legislation required that all houses needed their own privy (Press 22/02/1873: 2). Council employed an Inspector of Nuisances (an amazing job title) who was responsible for inspecting privies and cesspits. The inspector’s reports to the Board of Health in the late 1870s often complained that cesspits were unsanitary and recommended that they be replaced with closet pans or earth closets (Press 08/08/1871: 3; Press 30/11/1878: 2; Press 01/02/1879: 5).

An 1871 Inspect of Nuisance’s report complaining about the condition of cesspools belonging to properties located between Tuam and Lichfield Streets. Image: Press 08/08/1871: 3.

The cleanliness of the privy was dependent on nightsoil men and scavengers doing their jobs. In 1879, W. J. White was summoned for causing a nuisance on his premises in Tuam Street by allowing a closet pan to overflow and for burying night soil in his backyard; something that was illegal under the Local Board of Health Act. At the proceedings, White said that the nuisance was not his fault but instead that of the nightsoil man who had failed to collect the nightsoil, despite White having paid him to do so. White was forced to bury the nightsoil on his premises as the nightsoil man had not collected it in seven months (Press 15/02/1879: 5). While the services of the nightsoil men were contracted by the council, individual households still had to pay for the service. Today’s landlords will be horrified to hear that in 1880, the Christchurch City Council had the gall to try and seek payment from property owners for this service after some tenants defaulted on their payments (it turns out that landlord’s complaining about providing liveable properties is not unique to the 21st century).

The work charged for was done for the benefit of the tenant, and it was absurd to charge it to the landlord. If the landlord could be charged for one closet pan, there was no reason to prevent him being made to bear the cost of any number of pans his tenant chose to scatter over the house.

-Press 09/09/1880: 3

Relatively often we find pit features that only have a few small, fragmented artefacts in them. I often wonder what happened to the rest of the objects and if people were throwing their rubbish into what was collected by the nightsoil or dustmen, and what we find are the small pieces that didn’t make the rubbish/waste collection. Image: C. Watson.

As early as the 1860s, calls were being made to introduce water closets to Christchurch (Press 30/08/1864: 2). The problem with privies, closet pans and earth closets was that they relied on nightsoil men to remove the waste. The advantage of water closets was that the refuse was flushed into a sewer and carried out to sea (good for public sanitation, bad for river quality and marine life). The problem with water closets is that cities needed to have a good drainage and sewage system in place to give the waste somewhere to go.

The water closet dates back to the late 18th century (although credit for the first flushing toilet goes to Sir John Harrington, godson of Elizabeth I, who in 1592 installed a water closet of his own design in his house), when Alexander Cummings took out a patent for a flushing water closet (Eveleigh 2008). Like most inventions of the Georgian and Victorian era, once the first water closet was patented different inventors and engineers patented their own versions, with improvements made over time. Cumming’s toilet had an outlet that was controlled with a mechanically operated sliding valve. The bowl was filled with water and once one had finished their business, they opened the slider (causing the water and waste to discharge), and then closed it, which triggered an inlet valve to open and refill the valve. The fundamental flaw in this design was that the waste valve was never cleaned by fresh water, meaning that over time it built up a coating of encrusted dirt (Eveleigh 2008: 30). Excrement sticking to the toilet bowl was a problem in many early toilet designs. Improvements such as Edmund Sharpe’s 1855 flushing rim patent, and later wash down closet designs helped this problem (Eveleigh 2008: 37-45). New patents in toilet design were introduced in the 1850s, but it was really between the 1870s and early 1900s that the modern pedestal toilet rose to popularity (Eveleigh 2008).

By the 1880s and 1890s, sanitary manufacturers were regularly patenting new designs. Unlike our toilets, which are boring white, late 19th century toilets could be purchased with elaborate transfer printed decoration that I definitely think should come back into fashion. Image: Twyfords 1894: 15.

Our toilet dates to this period. It is a pedestalled water closet, made by Twyfords. The Twyford family has a long history in the Staffordshire region, and since the 17th century there have been Twyfords producing commercial pottery. In 1849, Thomas Twyford began to make sanitary ware at his factory in Hanley, but it was not until the 1870s under the direction of Thomas Twyford’s son, Thomas William Twyford, that Twyfords became established as one of Britain’s leading sanitary ware manufacturers (Eveleigh, 2008: 46). In 1887, Twyford opened his Cliff Vale factory, which exclusively produced sanitary wares (Birks, 2021). Twyfords is still in operation today. The toilet is made from what Twyfords referred to as their “C V Porcelain Enamelled Fire Clay” (Twyfords, 1894), with ‘C V’ standing for Cliffe Vale. This was a stoneware body covered with a thick white enamel glaze, also known as vitreous china (Birks, 2021). The ware type ‘sanitary porcelain’ is used to catalogue this specific ware type, reflecting the 19th century terminology that often referred to the ware as “sanitary porcelain” or just as “porcelain” (Twyfords, 1894). It should be noted though that the body is not a true porcelain but is a glazed stoneware imitating porcelain.

Our toilet. The base of the toilet would have been fastened to the ground, with holes for screws included in the base. A wooden toilet seat would have sat on the rim. The top outlet would have connected the toilet to the cistern via a pipe running up the wall. The trap closet is exposed, rather than being enclosed inside the pedestal base as became common in the 1890s. The trap sits higher than the bowl, indicating that the toilet flushes using the wash-down method rather than the wash-out. In the wash out method the trap sits lower than the bowl, meaning that water does not sit in the bowl between uses and leading to the build-up of dried excrement. In the wash down method, introduced in the late 1870s but becoming common in the 1880s, the trap sits higher than the bowl meaning that the water level fills both the bowl and the trap, creating a more hygienic experience (Eveleigh, 2008: 53). Image: C. Watson.

Maker’s marks seen on our toilet. The printed mark on the inside of the bowl, “THE VALE” likely refers to the specific design on the toilet. This design is not shown in Twyford’s 1894 catalogue, suggesting that the firm had discontinued the model by this time (Twyfords, 1894).. The numbers ‘8’ and ‘9’ are located either side of the impressed Twyfords Staffordshire knot mark. This indicates that the toilet was made in 1889, with the various Twyfords marks proving they were the maker.

In 1882 the Christchurch District Board introduced an amendment to The Christchurch District Drainage Act of 1875, which would enable the construction of water closet drains to be connected to sewers and the construction of a pump station to run the system (Star 14/06/1882: 3). Every house within 200ft of a sewer was required to have its privy or closet connected with a drain (Press 29/04/1880: 2). Interestingly, this decision was met with some pushback from residents. People thought that the connections between houses and sewers would lead to filth and disease being brought into the household (Press 7/05/1880: 3; Press 27/05/1882: 3; Press 04/08/1882: 2). Throughout the 1880s, the Drainage Board regularly reported on the progress of constructing drains. In 1884 Christchurch had 293 water closets. By 1901, there were 1915 spread across the city (Wilson 1989: 29). If you’re interested in these developments, we’ve already written several blogs about Christchurch’s drains and sewers. You can read them here, here, and here.

Perhaps what I find most interesting about our toilet, is that is appears to have been thrown out not too long after it was made. The toilet was found in a rubbish pit that contained black beer bottles, ring seal bottles and transfer printed ceramics, all things that are typical of 19th century Christchurch assemblages. There were no artefacts in the pit of later manufacture dates, and, at the absolute latest, I would date the pit to the early 1900s, but really it fits better with an 1890s disposal date. We don’t normally find toilets on our archaeological sites simply because most weren’t introduced until around the 1880s, and they have a long lifespan meaning most weren’t disposed of until well after the 1900 cut-off date that we operate under. The site the toilet was found on was occupied by a working-class family who probably weren’t the sort of people that were replacing their water closet so soon after purchasing it. Which begs the question, why was it thrown out so soon? My current theory is that the toilet was damaged, perhaps during shipping, or installation, or shortly after having been installed, and that meant it had to be replaced. The faulty toilet was then disposed of in a backyard rubbish pit. And we dug it up over 100 years later.

Clara Watson


Birks, S., 2021. The local history of Stoke-On-Trent, England. [online] Available at: <>

Eveleigh, D., 2008. Privies and Water Closets. Oxford: Shire Publications.

Press [online]. Available at <>

Star [online]. Available at <>

Twyfords, 1894. Twyford’s 1894 Catalogue of Sanitary Specialities in porcelain earthenware & porcelain enamelled fireclay sanitary appliances & fittings. Cliffe Vale Potteries Hanley Staffordshire. Hanley: Twyfords.

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

Bright lights, small city

Beware the darkness, children, for there be monsters

We love to characterise the dark as something to be feared, the territory of nightmares, of ghouls and ghosts and things that go bump. In our collective psyche it belongs to the creatures on the edges of our imagination, to the sinister characters hidden within our society, to nefarious deeds carried out in the shadows. For, as one dramatic journalist puts it in 1882, “darkness is the mother of all evil.”

Not actually relevant to lighting at all, but the closest thing I could find to horrors hiding in the dark. Image: J. Garland.

Not actually relevant to lighting at all, but the closest thing I could find to horrors hiding in the dark. Image: J. Garland.

That characterisation of darkness as a home to all the bad things we can conceive of, be they real or imagined, probably has its roots in some far distant corner of our psychology, but is, I think, exaggerated now by the contrast between the dark and the near constant state of illumination in which we carry out our daily – and nightly – lives. It’s one of the things that we take for granted the most in the 21st century, our access to light wherever we are, whatever time of day it happens to be (especially those of us who live in cities). The absence of sunlight for half of our day is no longer the hindrance to our lives that it once was: it neither prevents nor restricts us from doing what we want to do after the sun has set. If anything, darkness is merely a minor inconvenience that only becomes something more when we’ve forgotten to buy light bulbs, or the power goes out, and we’re reminded that our almost permanently lives are not actually, in fact, the natural state of affairs.

The use of bright electric lights on our streets and in our homes is a relatively recent innovation, as many of you will know. Electric arc lamps were in use from the 1870s onwards, including in New Zealand where the first occasion of their use seems to have been a soccer match between Te Aro and Thorndon in Wellington (not even a rugby game, what a blow to our national identity!; Swarbrick 2012). Towards the end of the decade, Sir Joseph Swan first demonstrated his incandescent light bulb in England in 1878, followed by Thomas Edison’s long-lasting light bulb in 1879. Although other versions of the incandescent light were invented prior to this (there is a surprising amount of controversy and obfuscation out there regarding the invention of the light bulb), it wasn’t really until the late 1870s that the use of this kind of electric light became a commercially viable and practical option for illumination (Friedel and Israel 1986).

The carbon rod from an arc lamp found in Christchurch and a diagram of how arc lamps worked. If you're interested, there's more information here. Image: J. Garland

The carbon rod from an arc lamp found in Christchurch and a diagram of how arc lamps worked. If you’re interested, there’s more information here. Image: J. Garland and Scientific American 2/04/1882. 

Here in New Zealand, electric light was quickly adopted, but took a long time to gain a real foothold in many areas. The early 1880s saw a number of places demonstrate or install electric lighting, including Parliament in 1883, the Savoy Theatre in Christchurch in 1883, the Ross and Glendinning Woollen Factory in Dunedin in 1882, the Press offices in Christchurch in 1885, and Lyttelton Harbour, where a trial system of electric lighting was installed in May 1883 (Aspden 1986, Otago Daily Times 22/05/1883: 3). And of course, in 1888, Reefton became the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to have electric street lighting, powered by the Reefton power station and the nearby Inangahua River (New Zealand Herald 5/10/1888: 5).

The proposed scheme for lighting Lyttelton Harbour with electric lights in 1883. Image:

The proposed scheme for lighting Lyttelton Harbour with electric lights in 1883. Image: Star 2/02/1883: 3.

Interestingly, many of the early attempts at electric lighting in New Zealand seem to have been in Christchurch, but the streets of the city weren’t lit by the “caged lightning” until the early 20th century (although the possibility was discussed as early as 1888; Star 24/01/1888, Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 4/07/1882: 2). Before that, 19th century Christchurch was lit mostly by oil or kerosene lamps and gas lighting, although even those took a while to implement on a city wide scale. The first lamp posts of any sort weren’t erected on the city streets until 1862, for example, 12 years after the settlement was officially established. Presumably, during the intervening dozen years, people carried lights with them or just tripped over and walked into things a lot. As Te Ara puts it, “citizens regularly fell into streams and open sewers or banged into wandering stock and other obstacles”, a situation which must have been uncomfortable for both citizens and stock.

When those first lamp posts went up in Christchurch, they were filled with kerosene. Sixty-two kerosene lamps were installed in 1862, one for every year of the century (which, despite the symmetry, seems an odd way of determining the extent of your street lighting system; Anderson 1949: 90). These would be lit every night by hand: in 1864, a contractor offered to do so for the small price of 9 and a half pence per lamp per night, while in Lyttelton, in a particularly Dickensian state of affairs, the lamps were apparently cleaned and lit by “mere children” carrying a heavy ladder (Lyttelton Times 1/11/1864: 416/12/1868: 2). Unsurprisingly, no reference to cost was made in that case.

In December 1864, after much discussion in the local newspapers on the subject, the first gas lamp was lit (Anderson 1949: 88). Soon after, the remaining kerosene lamp posts were converted for gas lighting and by 1876 there were 152 gas lamps lighting the city street (Heritage New Zealand, Humphries 2012). The city would continue to be lit by gas – both inside and outside – until 1918, when the gas supply for the streets was finally turned off and electric lighting finally dominated (after decades of discussion about cost; Heritage New Zealand).

In possibly my favourite finding from all of this research, the illumination offered by these street lights – and all forms of 19th century lighting – was described in units of ‘candle-power’. In 1894, one account defends the efficacy of the street lamps in use in Wellington, describing them as fulfilling their intended “20 candle-power”, while the magnesium lighting system proposed for the Lyttelton tunnel in 1865 was described as giving a light “equal to that of 80 stearine candles” (Lyttelton Times 21/12/1865: 2).

A street sign advertising candles, including the brilliantly named "Five medal British sperm" ones. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

A street sign advertising candles, including the brilliantly named “Five medal British sperm” ones. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

The illumination of the tunnel is an excellent reminder that there were other forms of lighting available to the 19th century individual or community. The magnesium light that they used took the form of wire, burned by hand initially since they didn’t have the appropriate lamps, which gave off a “most brilliant light” and was suggested as a likely candidate “to supersede gas for lighting towns.” Other lights used or discussed during this period included arc lamps (mentioned above), acetylene lamps (introduced towards the end of the century) and variations on the typical oil or gas lamp. One Christchurch engineer, Mr J. Hadley, manufactured his own light fuelled by gas made from a combination of tallow and resinous gum, described by contemporaries as being “of excellent quality, burning steadily, without the slightest offensive odour” (Lyttelton Times 18/09/1861: 4).

The proposed scheme for lighting the Lyttelton tunnel in 1865. Image:

The proposed scheme for lighting the Lyttelton tunnel in 1865. Image: Lyttelton Times 21/12/1865: 2.

Unfortunately, there’s very little archaeological evidence of these early forms of lighting to be found. One very notable exception is the Canterbury Club gas light, as it’s known, which still stands on Cambridge Terrace outside the, you guessed it, Canterbury Club. It was erected around 1900 and, despite a small electric interlude in the 1990s (not a bad name for a band, electric interlude), continued to be lit with gas in the 21st century, which is pretty brilliant (pun intended; Heritage New Zealand). This lamp, and  the occasional arc lamp carbon rod, continues to be the only remaining physical evidence we have for public street lighting in Christchurch. Everything else we find is associated with the use of artificial light inside structures, be they public buildings or private residences, something that we’ll talk about in next week’s post.

The Canterbury Club Gas Light, still standing on Cambridge Terrace. As a side note, in the 19th century, publicans and hotel keepers were required by law to keep a light - like this one - burning outside their establishment throughout the night. There are several accounts of people being prosecuted for failing to do this, many of whom defended themselves with "I can't help it if the light goes out while I'm sleeping." Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Canterbury Club Gas Light, still standing on Cambridge Terrace. As a side note, in the 19th century, publicans and hotel keepers were required by law to keep a light – like this one – burning outside their establishment throughout the night. There are several accounts of people being prosecuted for failing to do this, many of whom defended themselves with “I can’t help it if the light goes out while I’m sleeping.” Image: Wikimedia Commons.

There’s any number of things to be said about the progress of street lighting in Christchurch, from the way it reflects the transition of the settlement from ‘swamp to city’ to the social beliefs and behaviour driving the need of the community to illuminate their public spaces (darkness is the mother of all evil, indeed). What stands out the most to me, though, is the rapidity with which the city trialled, if not implemented, the new technology (the early 1880s!) and the innovation with which individuals like Mr J. Hadley adapted that technology, even if just to find a way of making gas from tallow. As with so many other aspects of life in Christchurch (and New Zealand), to view the city as a passive recipient of new technology does a disservice to the individuals whose ideas and entrepreneurial spirit made the city what it is today.

Jessie Garland


Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser.  [online] Available at

Anderson, J. C. 1949. Old Christchurch in Picture and Story. Simpson & Williams Limited, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Aspden, R., 1896. “Centenary of electricity in NZ – Bullendale 1886-1986. In New Zealand Engineering: The Journal of the Institution of Professional Engineers in New Zealand, Vol. 41: 5, p. 6-7.

Friedel, R. and Israel, P. 1986. Edison’s electric light: biography of an invention.  New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. pages 115–117

Humphris. A, 2012. ‘Streets and lighting – Street lighting’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at

Otago Daily Times [online] Available at

Star. [online] Available at

Swarbrick, N. 2012. ‘Rural services – Electricity’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at