Hygiene and health in early Melbourne

By the 1880s, Melbourne had a major problem on its hands. Prior to the establishment of sewerage systems, people simply got rid of their sewra.jpg
wastes by throwing them out the door. The waste or sewage from bathrooms,kitchens and laundries were emptied into open drains that flowed into streetchannels and out into the Bay via the rivers and creeks. (Can you see the streetdrainage channels in the picture of Elizabeth St dated 1880?).All of these wastes mixed together made for a smelly place and Melbourne wasnicknamed “Marvellous Smelboom”

In 1889 alone, nearly a thousand people died of typhoid. Sewage still ran in open drains and nightsoil mencollected pans from back alleys and houses around Melbourne. Following a Royal Commission into Melbourne’s sanitary arrangements in 1888, the Melbourne metropolitan Board of Works was formed in the early 1890s.By 1897, the first sewerage connections werebeing made.The first building to be connected was the All England Eleven Hotel in Port Melbourne.

Pit Toilets

The pit toilet was the first attempt to cope with these problems. Making a pit toilet was simple and involved putting a seat over a hole dug in the ground. The most important part of building a pit toilet was to make sure that you had a lid to keep the smells in and the flies out. When the hole was full, all you had to do was dig another one – the deeper the better.


Pit toilets were not practical to cope with waste disposal in towns that began to grown in the area.When the Melbourne grid was first planned, the little lanes that we now see in the city were not planned. To give access to the nightman these were later added. Pan closet toilets (Thunderboxes) were introduced and consisted of a pan (bucket) that was placed with a new pan about once a week by a nightman, so called because he collected pans at night. Pan closer toilets were normally built outside, at the bottom of the garden. The nightman would collect the pan from a small door in the back of the toilet, empty it, and replace it unwashed. Pictured on the left is a modern nightsoil collection wagon.The pans were washed in troughs, visible in the shed in the background. Thecollected “nightsoil” was often dried and used as fertiliser in the outer suburbs.



In 1889, Mr James Mansbergh (pictured on the right), an English engineer drew up plans for Melbourne's sewerage system and construction began in 1892.
This system was based on a network of main underground sewers that would carry sewage, via a massive pumping station at Spotswood, to a sewerage farm at Werribee. Unlike Sydney, which decided to pump its sewage out to sea with minimum treatment, the MMBW had decided to treat Melbourne's sewage at the Werribee sewerage farm before it was released into Port Phillip Bay.


To see a short video click on this link:

To organise a tour of the sewers of Brighton click here
The Sewer Tour lasts approximately one hour and starts under the Palace Pier, in Brighton, and emerges back at ground level through a manhole in the middle of the Old Steine Gardens.

During the tour you will see part of the sewer system, which disposes of approximately 100 million litres (22 million gallons) of wastewater each day from the Brighton area.

For a history of the Yarra River click on this link:

Diseases of early Melbourne

Diseases and Epidemics

Before the arrival of Europeans, with their suite of infectious diseases that had evolved in Eurasia, Australia was a 'virgin soil' society. The Kulin people suffered little communicable disease, first because they had not lived intimately with domesticated herd animals, and second because their low numbers provided insufficient hosts for infectious diseases to find a permanent ecological niche. Palaeopathological investigation has shown that the indigenous peoples who lived in the Murray region suffered more disease episodes, but these were likely to be diarrhoeal diseases resulting from their near-sedentary way of life in that food-rich environment. Similarly the semi-sedentary peoples of Western Victoria must have suffered more diarrhoeal disease than nomadic peoples in the more arid regions. The only infectious disease to thrive in Australian conditions had been Yaws and non-venereal syphilis, but Melbourne's climate was hostile to this earth-dwelling treponeme. Thus the Kulin did not possess cross-over immunity to venereal syphilis.

Every infectious disease that would afflict Melbourne's European settlers was imported, with the new arrivals creating the necessary ecologies for these old-world diseases to flourish in their new environment, but that was not how it looked to the first arrivals. Australia had been caught in a pincer movement between smallpox, which had been moving south-east through the Indonesia archipelago until it was brought to northern Australia by Macassan trepang fishermen, and the other old-world diseases that were being steadily introduced by European settlement. Smallpox immediately preceded the European settlement of Victoria, depopulating the densest Aboriginal communities along the Murray and through the Western District. Even earlier, whalers and sealers had introduced sexually transmitted diseases, most seriously for indigenous women and their fertility, gonorrhoea and chlamydia. Early settlers noted that many Aborigines were pock-marked but blamed a 'native pox'; others deplored their 'loathesome diseases', mistaking yaws for syphilis in the endemic treponeme regions and ignoring their own complicity in Aboriginal peoples' venereal infections. However, the adult Europeans who arrived in Australia were themselves hardy survivors of their disease-rich home ecologies. Nearly all would have been immune from smallpox, either by vaccination or early exposure.

The most consistent killer in early Melbourne, however, was diarrhoeal disease as the new settlers quickly set about befouling their immediate environment with human and domesticated animal waste. The ubiquitous Australian fly ensured that germs spread far and wide. Despite the healthful environment, infant mortality from gastro-enteritis and dysentery was to remain scandalously high throughout the 19th century. Melbourne's infant mortality rate would exceed that of London until the 1890s. 'Colonial fever' was soon a scourge but it would not be reliably diagnosed as typhoid until the 1870s. With overflowing cesspits, polluted rivers and creeks, open sewers in the city streets and casual use of pans, Smelbourne had a pervasive odour of human excrement. The growing typhoid death toll and the acceptance of germ theory by the 1890s finally impelled the sewering of Melbourne after 1897.

The long sea-voyage initially protected Australia from the common 'diseases of childhood' and it was not until the late 1830s that epidemic diseases broke out in Sydney with the high fatality rates to be expected from a native-born 'virgin' population. Measles was first brought to Victoria (and Australia) by the ship Persian in 1850, but it did not assume epidemic proportions until 1853-54. From then until 1900, measles came in sharp epidemics with high death rates between 50 and 200 per 100 000, the worst outbreak being in 1874-75. Measles' notorious debilitating effects on the immune system prepared the ground for Victoria's worst epidemic of scarlet fever in 1875-76 and for a rise in tuberculosis deaths over the next decade. Rapid urbanisation in Melbourne now provided sufficient hosts for these communicable diseases to become endemic. After 1900, death rates from measles stabilised. Scarlet fever's decline has been attributed in part to a biological variation in virulence. Although cholera was much feared, assiduous quarantine ensured that it never reached Australia.
Faster shipping ensured that Australia was no longer safe from influenza pandemics. Victoria's first outbreak was in 1860-61, but it did not achieve epidemic proportions until 1885. The 1890-91 'Russian influenza' struck hard, with doctors reporting widespread 'dispiritedness' in the Melbourne suburbs. Influenza was again epidemic in 1899, but the highest death rates were recorded in the 'Spanish Flu' pandemic of 1918-19, reaching 240 per 100 000 for Victoria in 1919, the highest death rate for any communicable disease in its history. Melbourne shared in the worldwide panic and temporary hospitals had to be opened in the Royal Exhibition Building and local schools.
Janet Mccalman http://www.emelbourne.net.au/biogs/EM00473b.htm