Night Soil

Rusting night soil pans in paddock in Fairchild Street, Heatherton, 1994.

Disposal of nightsoil has always been a serious problem, especially for a youthful and rapidly growing city. Ten thousand people arrived in Melbourne in 1841, virtually doubling the population.[1] Between 1849 and 1851 there were forty thousand arrivals almost doubling the population once again. How were individuals and the authorities to dispose of the mounting quantity of human excreta?

Michael Cannon described the sanitary situation in Melbourne in the 1840’s as a place where "Deep bogs and stinking cesspools festered everywhere. There was no piped water supply, no sewerage, no heating or lighting except that provided by firewood, candles and whale oil lamps. The perfume of nearby abattoirs drifted on the wind. Typhoid and worse diseases ran rampant, especially in narrow streets where jerry built slum tenements jostled for light and air."[2] Alexander Sutherland writing much earlier but about the same time period also pointed to the absence of sewers and the common practice of allowing the population’s drainage to be left to stagnate in the streets for weeks.[3] It was not until 1897 that an effective sewerage system was begun in Melbourne but even then it took many years to reach the ‘outer’ metropolitan areas including South Moorabbin, Cheltenham, Mordialloc, Clayton and Chelsea. The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was constituted by an Act of Parliament in 1890 and began operations in July 1891.[4]

Prior to the advent of the Board one practice was to deposit human waste in cesspits When full they were emptied by contractors who carted the contents to a manure depot. Alternatively the pits were abandoned and others dug. Some people buried their refuse in the backyard or allowed it to drain away and seep into the soil. In 1876 a writer in the North Melbourne Advertiser complained of "the ‘abomnable[sic] nuisance’ created by the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum, of permitting the closets of a building containing some seven hundred souls, to be drained into the swamp." This the writer saw as an outrage and a situation that was seriously detrimental to the health of the whole.[5] Moreover, there were contractors who surreptitiously dumped their loads of nightsoil into a local stream or on the side of a road.[6]

Much to the annoyance of many local residents the sandy soil in the Shire of Moorabbin was seen by some councils as a prime dumping ground for this accumulating waste. An editorial in the Southern Cross noted that the distant suburbs of Melbourne "…are the only outlet for the filth of the city, and science has not yet succeeded in finding an easy and cheap metamorphosis of removing the danger and turning it to some safe compost for useful purposes. While this remains to be done, Melbourne will do her level best to retain her depots - she accepts the fact for herself that it must be got rid of, and cares little who take it, so long as it is removed beyond sight, scent and danger."[7] Both the municipalities of St Kilda and Prahran had nightsoil depots in the Shire of Moorabbin and the contractor for Brighton was depositing nightsoil there in 1892.[8] Other contractors sought approval of council to establish night soil depots but these were refused.[9]

Initially attempts by the council were made to stop the practice of using the Shire of Moorabbin as a dumping ground for the waste but they were unsuccessful. Later the City Fathers proclaimed bye-laws with the intention of bringing some control over the situation. Times at which the contractors could cart their offensive loads into the municipality and how it was to be dealt with once it arrived were detailed. St Kilda, for example, was informed that its nightsoil could only be carted through the Shire between the hours of ten o’clock at night and one o clock in the morning. The human waste was then to be deposited in trenches and properly covered before six o’clock. The washings from pans also had to be deposited in trenches and covered before eight o’clock.[10] ‘Properly covered’ meant a layer of earth not less than nine inches in thickness was to be placed over the mess. The penalty for not observing this bye-law was up to ten pounds for every breach and not exceeding five pounds for each day during which the breach was continued.[11]

To see that the bye-laws of the Shire were enforced, the council employed local policemen as Inspectors of Nuisances. In 1895 all constables in the Shire; Holland, Mills, Curtain, Mulcare and Hore, were appointed at a salary of £10 per annum. Their tasks included prosecuting people who rode bicycles on footpaths or bathed in the nude on the beaches as well as those people carting night soil during prohibited hours.[12] Two years previously Constables Farnam and Holland were recommended for a bonus by a council committee for the extra work they did in issuing summons against men carting night soil during prohibited hours. The recommendation was for £12-10-0 for Holland and £7-10-0 for Mills.

The Shire of Moorabbin itself had to collect and dispose of the night soil of its residents. Each year it was a requirement of the Health Act 1890 that the Council set a rate for this service. In 1896 all owners or occupiers of tenements in the Shire of Moorabbin, erected on ½ acre of land or less were charged 10 shillings per pan per annum for a weekly service. Should the occupier of the property want a twice weekly serviced the charge doubled.[13] Apparently the assumption behind this regulation was that property owners with more than ½ an acre of land had the space to safely dispose of their own nightsoil.[14] For those with smaller properties the service was compulsory. In that same year J. M. Roe’s tender to provide the pan service for three years for six shillings and nine pence per pan per annum for a weekly service was accepted. He was paid an additional three shillings and six pence per quarter where he provided a twice weekly service.

Prior to 1895 the Moorabbin Council was disposing of this waste on land in Church Street Beaumaris but in that year the Department of Health prohibited the continuing use of that depot. So an alternative site was sought by the council. Tenders were called and many people throughout the Shire offered their properties for varying levels of reward.[15]

Sites offered as a nightsoil depot were:

W Cornwall 7 ½ acres George & Fern Street £13 year
I H Lynch 5 ac North Rd near Mackie Rd £10
H Carr Prahran Depot free and will trench in
W P Fairlam 25 ac Farm Rd Council to fence in
W J Brownfield 5 ac East Boundary Rd 1/- yr
R Pearson 9 ac Highett & Bluff Rd Free
Jno McIntyre 5 ac L D Rd
J W Thomas 6 ac Keys Rd £8
R Duff 5 ac Bluff Rd Free

Which property to use caused heated debate amongst the councillors of the day with the first proposal being challenged by amendments recommending alternative sites. Cr Thomas Bent supported Duff. Cr Benjamin wanted the tender of Cornwall accepted while Cr Smith preferred the offer of Thomas. Finally the tender of Cornwall won the day with his land in Black Rock being leased for £5 per annum.[16]

There were some people who wanted to use the waste as manure on their crops. The practice was a traditional one in many societies, including Melbourne up to a certain time, but was gradually frowned upon. The Chinese market gardeners were often singled out as prime offenders. A report in the Southern Cross noted that "The celestials were in the habit of storing the liquid matter up, and pouring it on vegetables to force their growth" and expressed the view that the practice "should not be tolerated in any civilized country."[17] But it was not only people from China who made use of human excreta in this manner or wished to make use of it. There were market gardeners of European descent who were prosecuted in the courts for using night soil and there were others who argued that they should be allowed to do so. The Moorabbin Board wrote to the Dandenong Shire in 1897 drawing attention to the fact that an "enormous quantity of night-soil" was being used by their gardeners and that they be asked to stop its use. Permits were being given by the Oakleigh Council in 1898 for the use of night soil and Thomas Bent used this information to argue that Moorabbin as a municipality should grant similar approvals "under proper regulations."[18]

Some years earlier ‘Market Gardener’, a correspondent in the Brighton Southern Cross wrote, "… You are aware that Brighton was originally purchased for gardening purposes, some of it had to remain uncultivated for years until night-soil was used, and the same is now producing good crops, which benefit the borough as well as the owners. If the use of it is stopped, there will be a great quantity of land idle, which means throwing hundreds of men out of employment. (as well as diminishing the votes) as there is only a limited supply of manure, artificial and otherwise. The public of Brighton grumble at the price of vegetables now, what will they do by and bye, should the proposition become law. …The great improvement in the circumstances of many of the market gardeners in and around Brighton is mainly attributable to the use of night-soil as a manure, enabling them to produced larger crops. Prohibit the careful use of night-soil and you strike at the root of Brighton’s prosperity.[19]

Councillor Walstab of Brighton expressed a counter view in the same newspaper. "Nightsoil as a manure, and used in such quantities and in such broadcast fashion as in the case with our market-gardeners, (enlightened by an increasing population of Celestials) is certainly not a desirable fertiliser for locality such as Brighton … it left a feeling of horror, weaning us of all desire for the succulent asparagus and delicate snow-white cauliflower, especially when scientifically forced by the hands of a Chinaman."[20]

A correspondent to the Southern Cross signing himself ‘Health’ wrote an emotional and at times confusing letter supporting the need for stringent bye-laws against the dumping and use of nightsoil as fertiliser. "Why Sir, not far from where I live I have seen a load of cabbages put on the ground for the cows to eat, and there they lay - the cows won’t eat them. Now cows are fond of cabbages. Why won’t they eat them after being cut for a few days? For my part I would not knowingly eat any vegetables grown with night soil…"[21]

By 1900 the Moorabbin Council, like other municipal councils, had adopted the double pan arrangement. The nightman carried away the full pan to later dispose its content at an agreed depot, the full pan being replaced with one that was empty and disinfected. (Some sixty years later there were residents who still relied on a visit of the nightman to dispose of their waste.) The used pans were taken to a depot of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Works on Warrigal Road. There the pans were emptied, washed and returned to the contractor responsible for their collection. This practice left much to be desired. According to the District Health Officer in 1943 pans were left unchanged or emptied into another and replaced without being washed. Even worse, he pointed out that to make room for this topping the liquid portion of the receiving pan was often poured away into the yard or street.[22] He believed the Council had taken no action against the contractor because "owing to the war, contractors are rare and good ones rarer still." Few men were prepared to take on the job of nightman!

The Rev Dorothy Dowling recalled living as a young girl on the dirt track called Bendigo Street in Cheltenham in the late 1920’s. "Dad had bought the property in 1924 for four hundred and fifty pounds with a deposit of fifty pounds and a payment of one pound per week. The purchase price included the next door block of land where Dad grew fruit trees and vegetables which he sold to his greengrocery customers. At the back corner of the yard behind the shed was the toilet, a building about 5 feet square with a seat along the back wall and an oval hole cut in the centre. Below this hole was the metal pan, about 15 inches in diameter, and a little more in height. It would hold about 6 or 7 gallons. There was a little door at the back through which the pan was removed. I can’t recall how often the Sanitary Collector or Dunny Man called to collect our offerings. I was often fearful that he might call when I was there. We used to leave him a present on the seat at Christmas. He used to wear a padded leather shoulder piece coming up towards his cap. We used to worry that there might be a ‘spill’ downs the drive, not thinking of what that might do to him. He used to drive a horse and cart, starting off with a load of cleaned empty pans smelling strongly of phenyl. Instead of toilet paper, squares of newspaper were cut up and using a bag needle string was threaded through so that the newspaper squares could be hung on a nail in the wall."[23]

Although the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was created by Act of Parliament in 1890 to take responsibility for Melbourne’s water supply and to provide a sewerage system, disposal of nightsoil in what is now the City of Kingston remained a problem for many years. The bayside area from the bank of the Mordialloc Creek south to Carrum separated from the Shire of Dandenong in 1920 to become a shire in its own right. Two immediate problems the new administration faced were the existence of houses unfit for human habitation and the lack of an appropriate sewerage system.[24]

The outbreak of a typhoid epidemic in Cheltenham twenty three years later lead to a public outcry. Initially the cause of the outbreak was seen by many to be the lack of an appropriate method of disposing nightsoil as typhoid was often an indicator of a filthy environment. To support their argument people pointing to the unsatisfactory sanitary conditions existing in the district. A Moorabbin News report, by way of illustration, described the conditions existing in the lane behind the shops in Charman Road, Cheltenham as disgraceful. There, trap doors to closets were missing, house drainage seeped through fences over the pitchers and the smell on some days was almost overpowering.[25][26]

Oakleigh Council established a nightsoil depot in Old Dandenong Road. There the nightsoil was tipped into trenches about three feet deep and three feet wide. Keeley reported that covering was unheard of and on a hot day it was unbearable to drive along Old Dandenong Road. "The stench drifted for miles - not to say what the fly population was like![27] In Clayton the first sign of sewerage works began in 1960 with the laying of a large main to serve the newly established Monash University.[28]

Similar activity was taking place in other parts of what is now Kingston. But with increasing demand for residential accommodation in the municipality and the development of industrial enterprises the provision of sewage remained an unending problem for many years.


  1. Broome, Richard, The Victorians: Arriving, 1984 page 57.
  2. Cannon, M., Old Melbourne Town: Before the Gold Rush, 1991 page 14.
  3. Sutherland, A., Victoria and its Metropolis 1888, page 191.
  4. Bowden, N., Victorian Year Book 1975 page 186.
  5. from The North Melbourne Advertiser 28 January 1876 as reported by Kehoe, M., The Melbourne Benevolent Asylum: Hotham’s Premier Building. 1998, page 59.
  6. Cheltenham Leader October 20, 1888.
  7. Southern Cross, March 27, 1886.
  8. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book 1893 & Southern Cross, December 1892. .
  9. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, December 5, 1892.
  10. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, December 4, 1893.
  11. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, March 19, 1894.
  12. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, June 17, 1895.
  13. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, May 18, 1896 page 280.
  14. Moorabbin News, October 22, 1904.
  15. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, November 4, 1895.
  16. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, December 16, 1895.
  17. Brighton Southern Cross, September 27, 1890.
  18. Shire of Moorabbin Minute Book, May 2, 1898.
  19. Southern Cross, May 29, 1886.
  20. Ibid, March 27, 1886.
  21. Ibid, August 29, 1885.
  22. Merrillees, C. R., Report on Typhoid Fever in City of Moorabbin 1943, page 10.
  23. Dowling, D., Recollections, [Unpublished Manuscript] .
  24. The Age, January 27, 1921.
  25. Moorabbin News, March 19, 1943.
  26. Subsequent investigations revealed the cause of the epidemic was an infected milk supply, as was the case with the 37 reported instances in Mordialloc in 1923 and 41 cases in Chelsea in 1931.
  27. Keeley, M., A Journey Into Yesterday: History of Clayton, 1980 page 85.
  28. Keeley, M., ibid page 116.
27 June 2018
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