In the 19th century infectious diseases transmitted by contact with excrement were rampant, including typhoid fever, typhus, cholera, polio, dysentery and diarrhoea. So were diseases transmitted by breathing – scarlet fever, pneumonia, tuberculosis and others. A scientific understanding of the organisms which cause these diseases, and their transmission, only developed in the late 1800s. Before this they were classified as 'zymotic’ – derived from the Greek word for fermentation. This classification correctly linked these diseases with people crowding together close to rotting waste, impure water and air.
In the 1860s some Dunedin houses lacked even an outhouse. In places excrement and urine were collected in pails and hurled into the street under cover of night. Horses also regularly defecated in the streets. Pedestrians today screw up their noses at dog excrement, but crossing Dunedin streets in the 1800s involved avoiding piles of dung.
In the mid-1860s conditions in Dunedin, New Zealand’s largest city, were so bad that a Sanitary Commission was appointed to investigate and recommend solutions. Doctors told the Commission that the death rate of 35 per 1,000 per annum (many from infectious diseases) put Dunedin on a par with the unhealthiest English towns. The scarlet fever death rate of 79.1 per 10,000 was almost nine times the London average at this time.
Christchurch also appointed a Sanitary Commission in the 1860s, by which time the 'crystal clear' Avon River observed by the first Pākehā settlers was filthy. Water-borne diseases were rife. In the 1870s Christchurch's annual death rate was 30.4 per 1,000 – almost double the national figure. Diseases caused by poor sanitation were common and taken for granted. Although typhoid killed 49 people in Christchurch in 1875, the next year the local Board of Health chair questioned whether cases needed to be notified. Canterbury suffered more deaths from diphtheria than any other province in the 1870s, but the Board of Health paid little attention to the outbreak.
Wellington was also dangerously dirty. Just weeks before Parliament opened in the new capital for the first time in 1865, sewage was washing into its grounds from surrounding streets. The city also suffered from typhoid. An 1870 study showed that none of the water collected from wells or tanks in crowded parts of the city was safe to drink, and all town streams were too polluted to use. Wellington’s filthy, smelly air, water and soil were debated in Parliament, and MPs and their resident families were concerned.
Auckland was no safer – it was described as having no rivals when it came to the matter of smells. An infamous open drain, the Ligar Canal, ran down Queen Street in the 1840s and 1850s. Although an underground pipe system was slowly constructed over the next 10 years, it still discharged all its contents, untreated, a short way off the Queen Street wharf. By 1900 there were five outlets discharging raw sewage into the harbour.
In Auckland, as in the other cities, efforts were made in the 1870s to prevent the spread of disease. Cesspits (holes dug under backyard outhouses and filled with human waste) were prohibited and closed. Contracts were let for the collection and disposal of night soil (human excrement), and water was piped from pure sources. Unfortunately in the 1890s Auckland started dumping night soil just above its clean water source at Western Springs, which was also being polluted by abattoir waste. Auckland was also slower than the other cities in organising a proper sewerage system. By 1900 its zymotic disease rate, at 30.8 per 10,000, was three times the national average, and its infant mortality rate 50% above the average.