Also known as a ‘night-soil remover’ (or in Tudor times, a ‘gongfarmer’), the nightman had one of the most revolting 19th century jobs imaginable – collecting human poo and wee for disposal. This stinky and dangerous job helped to keep cities safe from diseases like cholera, dysentery and typhoid, while moving our waste to the outskirts of town before sewerage pipes did the waste removal for us. Like all physical jobs in the 19th century, this was a job for a man. Preferably a man without working nostrils!
Most days at Sovereign Hill, at 11.15 am, you can catch a street performance in Speedwell Street about the life of a nightman. This nightman is asked to clean out a ‘cesspit’, which means he has to dig all of the dangerous excrement out of an overflowing backyard poop-dump. At the beginning of the Australian gold rushes, the public management of human waste was pretty loose and experimental (and dangerous).
However, by the 1870s, many Ballarat families had built outhouses at the end of their gardens, which contained large buckets – or pans – which were accessible to the nightman via neighbourhood laneways (Bate, Weston. Lucky City, 1978, pp. 248-250,). Typically, members of such families would use a chamber pot indoors, and empty it into the outhouse pan for daily or weekly collection by the nightman. Some households built ‘privies’ or ‘boghouses’ instead, which were essentially drop toilets (where you do your business into a big hole) or were connected to a neighbourhood cesspit. Such large cesspits would need to be emptied by the nightman every couple of years to stop the dangerous waste from spilling into streets, cellars, and sources of drinking water.
Nightmen typically did their work after dark, when the revolting odours that came with the job would least offend those living in the neighbourhood, although Sovereign Hill’s nightman is so busy he has to empty a cesspit during the day! In this performance, members of the neighbourhood claim this cesspit has caused an outbreak of disease. Waterborne infectious diseases spread very easily in the new cities created by the British Empire’s Industrial Revolution and Australian gold rushes, because many were built before we knew about germs (Germ Theory only began to challenge Miasma Theory [the idea that disease was spread by bad smells instead of tiny bacteria] in the late 1850s), and before flushing toilets, toilet paper, and sewerage pipes were invented. Drinking unboiled water in such towns and cities, which was pumped from the ground or collected from rivers/lakes, could easily spread deadly diseases like cholera, dysentery and typhoid, which basically saw victims poo themselves to dehydration and death. Today, these infectious diseases rarely occur in Australia, but they are still common in developing countries where sanitation (safely managing human waste) remains a challenge for poor and heavily-populated towns/cities.
The nightman would empty an outhouse pan, or empty a cesspit using a bucket, into his horse-drawn tank. Once full, these tanks would then be taken out of town to be emptied on a paddock called a ‘night-soil depository’, or mixed in with other organic waste (food scraps, horse manure etc.). If the waste dried out reasonably well, it could then be placed in bags and sold to farmers as fertiliser for crops. Ballarat North, near the suburb of Nerrina, which is now covered in houses, used to be one of the main locations for dumping and drying Ballarat’s night-soil! Because of the high number of diseases carried in human waste, and the number of dangerous chemicals, medicines and hormones found in the poop of people today, human waste is no longer commonly used by Australia farmers to grow our food.
Today, some houses in Australia that are built too far away from big cities to be connected to neighbourhood sewerage pipes, store their stinky business in septic tanks buried in the garden. Depending on the design, these typically need cleaning every few years, but today we use specially designed ‘vacuum trucks’ and full-body safety equipment. This job used to require the nightman to get very close to the waste of others, but today it’s mechanised to keep workers well away from the dangerous do-dos. Almost all Australian houses located in towns and cities, in comparison, are connected to sewerage pipes, which became very common all across Australia from 1890 onwards. Up until this time, Melbourne was nicknamed ‘Smellbourne’, for good reason …
Ballarat now has 650kms of wastewater pipes under the city, and these take our waste to be treated at the Ballarat South Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Ballarat North Wastewater Treatment Plant, and another small sewage depository in Cardigan Village. Once treated, this waste water ends up in our local rivers and lakes, and eventually the ocean near Barwon Heads. But rest assured, by that time the water has been made safe enough to swim in … And believe it or not, the swan poo in Lake Wendouree is more likely to make the water dangerous than the treated human waste in there!
Links and References
A visual history of Ballarat’s waste water management: http://www.chw.net.au/sites/default/files/flash/treatment/history.html
Wikipedia’s Simple English Description of Germ Theory: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germ_theory_of_disease
Wikipedia on Miasma Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miasma_theory
Horrible Histories on Gongfarmers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHFQ32PpSV4
A brief history of the flushing toilet: https://www.baus.org.uk/museum/164/the_flush_toilet
A great video on the history of disease: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1PLBmUVYYeg
Toilets changed the world, but lots of people still don’t have access to one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWQG1YZS9l4