The poo, the water closet, and the big “Drainage Question”
We have learnt from historical records that the citizens of 19th century Christchurch were scared about putting poo down the sewers.
The Drainage Board’s first consulting engineer was John Carruthers, who presented the first design for sewerage system to the city council in January 1877 (Wilson 1989:17). He advocated construction of a combined sewer system, which would see wastewater and stormwater conveyed eastwards out of town to an estuary outfall (Star29/1/1877:2). Carruthers strongly recommended allowing water closets to be connected to the sewers, but noted that:
“I do not go so far as to recommend their compulsory use at present, as I have little doubt they will, if allowed, very soon be generally used for the sake of their healthfulness, decency, and cleanliness… the primary object of sewers is not to carry water closet dejecta, but to remove household water after it has been used and fouled. It is obviously a matter of the first importance to get rid of this filthy water, and underground sewers form the basic vehicle for carrying it away...”
- Star 29/1/1877:2
The Board accepted Carruthers’ scheme, though without any public consultation and without an official stance as to whether water closets would or should be adopted, whether sewers were the right place for ‘closet dejecta’ or whether their installation should be made compulsory once the system had been completed. Frenzied public meetings were held wherein ratepayers, engineers, and medical men debated “The Drainage Question” in filthy detail (Press16/2/1877:2, 3/3/1877:1).
Of chief concern was sewage contamination at the estuary outfall, sewer blockages that would generate poisonous gases, and inadequacies in the local water supply for flushing. Backyard artesian wells across the district that were looked to for flushing purposes were already beginning to dry up (Press 3/3/1877:1). Unhappy with Carruthers’ plan, at the ratepayer’s suggestion William Clark was made the Drainage Board’s new consulting engineer, and by April 1878 had revised the original plans, presenting the board with a comprehensive report, Drainage Scheme for Christchurch and the Suburbs.
The key point of Clark’s scheme, which was approved in May 1878, was that wastewater flows were to be admitted into the sewers, but were to be kept separate from stormwater at all costs. A pumping station was to be built on land the Board owned on Mathesons Road, which would pump the city’s sewerage eastwards out of town, where a sewage farm was to be established on the sandhills. Here the sewage would be irrigated over the paddocks, fertilising the soil (Clark 1878:6-12). Construction of the sewage tank underneath the pumping station progressed slowly, on account of the unstable, quicksand-like subsoil, and the many baby eels “about the thickness of a man’s finger” that continually clogged the fans of the groundwater pumping apparatus (Star 16/7/1879:3).