What the Inspector of Nuisances saw, Deborah Montgomerie

Dirt: Filth and Decay in a New World Arcadia 
Pamela Wood
Auckland University Press, $44.99,
ISBN 1869403487

Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but dirt is so much more interesting. Pamela Wood’s smart and insightful history of the varieties of colonial filth has it all: lavatories and night soilmen; abattoirs and rotting carcasses; a hospital declared unsafe by one of its own surgeons, stinking with putrefying bedsores and old piss. I now have a new fund of nasty facts to delight my children with when they ask me to tell them stories about the old days. Still, this is more than just a grown-up version of the “horrible histories” of bodily functions and gross practices so popular with kids.

A focus on dirt allows Wood to consider how the people of Dunedin struggled to physically establish their settlement. By inviting us to consider what got up their noses (and stuck to the bottom of their shoes, tainted their water and stained their clothing), she allows us to get inside their heads. Deftly, Wood draws out attention to the changing meaning of dirt and the significance attached to its control. Why were the problems of the Old World being replicated in the new, and who had the authority to deal with them? Why were bodies – especially those belonging to females, non-whites or workers – considered so revolting? How could civilised standards be brought to bear on them? What did the delightfully named Dunedin Inspector of Nuisances see when he went on his rounds?

Public dirt is the principal concern: dirt in the private or domestic sphere enters into the history on occasion, but generally only when contemporaries chose to regard it as a public issue. Of course, the body often made a mockery of the distinction between private needs and public spaces. The ladies’ long stand-off  with the council over the provision of public toilets (or rather their longstanding desire to have somewhere private to sit and do their business) shows how private needs “stimulated both individuals and the city council to ‘spend a penny’”.

Priorities changed over time. The earliest Free Church and New Zealand Company settlers were literally swamped by dirt. “Good roads”, the Otago Daily Times proclaimed in 1865, “have always been considered the first step towards civilisation.” But Dunedin, bordered by swamp on three sides, faced considerable obstacles to the establishment of a solidly grounded and well-roaded settlement. “Mud-edin”, John Thompson, Otago’s Chief Surveyor, dubbed it. As commercial activity increased in the 1860s, problems worsened. A thick porridge of mud and manure coated winter streets. “Old identities” established their credentials by telling recent arrivals stories about wading up Princes Street through knee-high muck.

Later, sewage, bodily hygiene and slums replaced mud and drainage as Dunedin’s most pressing concerns. In a chapter on Victorian conceptions of the city, Wood discusses the way in which settlers used bodily metaphors to envisage their settlement and discuss its health. The municipal body needed clean water, fresh air and nourishment. Its health required quarantine, vaccination and other measures and the removal of waste products. None of this was simple: “It was not that the city-body lacked a rational head; it lacked a single mind.” Authority was uneasily distributed between provincial and municipal governments, and money for city improvements was difficult to wrest out of provincial hands. In the 1870s, after the demise of the provinces, city governments were able to provide more effective leadership on public health issues.

Wood’s chapter on sewage makes for bracing reading. Conditions dramatically worsened in the late 1860s after the discovery of gold in the region:

Tents and shanties spilled down the hillsides, cesspools overflowed and seeped into wells, drains and muddy bogs stank with rotting waste, and the town site merged into the harbour in a swampy mass …. the town oozed at its edges and overflowed its channels for water and waste.


But what was to be done? Where possible the wealthier inhabitants took to the hills, leaving low-lying North and South Dunedin to others. Still, shit happens even to people living on hills, and only slowly were solutions found to the problem of disposing of the more than 20,000 tons of “excrementitious  matter” left lying around Dunedin each year.

The town board was responsible for constructing sewers but, short of cash and lacking an overall plan, it made only slow progress. Most established settlers were dependent on long-drop loos, known locally as dunnies, dunnikins and dubs. But holes dug too shallowly into soft earth seeped “liquid nuisance” into the surrounding soil, which frequently overflowed in wet weather, and the holes were infrequently emptied because of the cost and the problems of disposal. Many plots of land let out to newcomers for shanties or tents were not large enough to accommodate a privy. Those with no other way of disposing of their waste would just wait until dark to throw it out into the street or down a nearby drain.

How was Dunedin’s population to be roused out of apathy? Containing dirt, Wood argues was not enough. The Dunedin Sanitary Commission set up by the Provincial Government in 1864 did not just catalogue the varieties of colonial filth, it played a decisive role in defining filth and encouraging Dunedites to turn “a revealing gaze” on themselves. The doctors, newspaper reporters and school inspectors who led the chorus denouncing dirt in the 1860s were, over the next few decades, joined by a wide variety of other “practical men” – engineers, builders and plumbers prominent among them – all claiming roles in the business of sanitary surveillance. “Sanitary”, itself a word newly coined in the 1860s, became part of the language defining a broad spectrum of professional identities.

In the 1880s the revealing gaze was turned on the slum. Morality was a key element in 19th century discussions of dirt, and this was nowhere more obvious than in the debate over substandard housing. While there is little in the book discussing Maori (the majority of the Otakou Maori lived well beyond the city limits), the discussion of attitudes to miners, particularly Chinese miners, provides good material on the intersection of class, race and morality. The final chapter on bodies in disorder and decay is a valuable case study of the problems of dealing with the sick and the dead. Foul liquids trickle through this chapter as well: with the hospital discharging its effluent direct onto the muddy foreshore and the Southern Cemetery draining into streams used for drinking water, its graves seeping and slipping downhill.

All books have their shortcomings. Readers with only a passing acquaintance with Dunedin’s layout might find themselves wishing for more maps. Some of the illustrations, like that of the Southern Cemetery and the landscape image of the northern swamp, are reproduced on too small a scale for many details to be discernible. The relative absence of Maori from the Dunedin streetscape has been noted, but does that mean they were also absent from the popular imagination? Didn’t the notion of civilised colonial sanitation take some of its cultural weight through an implied contrast with the supposed habits of the region’s pre-colonial population?

The conclusion is under-developed, and here it would have been useful to see some of Wood’s notions about the gendering of dirt explored in more depth. Her professional men determinedly “pushing their uninvited ways into dank interiors” only to be repelled by what they found, or disgustedly surveying the “swampy”, “inflamed” – “absorbent” recesses of their female patients – are nicely drawn; but it is hard to tell what conclusions the author wants us to take away from the misogynistic images of penetration, decay and infection. Women feature in the book – they need toilets, become prostitutes, sicken and die – but few of them seem to have taken public stands in the crusade against filth. Why did dirt not offer women a route into Dunedin’s public life? The gendered politics of this dirty discourse, like its racial politics, is only fitfully analysed. It is a big ask, but the book would have been better balanced had Wood not drawn the boundaries of her subject matter quite so tightly. The history of dirt in the colony’s “public realm” is perhaps not as easily separable from the history of dirt in other places as the book’s introduction implies.

None of this outweighs Dirt’s manifest strengths. Don’t read this book over dinner. Wood’s text too deliberately evokes the sights and the smells of our noisome past to make good meal-time reading, and where the text fails to turn the stomach some of the illustrations will do the job (my favourite is a neat display of the 60 fat rats caught in one grain store on a single day in 1914). Read this book for fresh and important insights into the values animating New Zealand’s colonial development. Wood succeeds in showing us why dirt matters, and how it changed over time.


Deborah Montgomerie’s most recent book, Love in Time of War: Letter Writing in the Second World War was reviewed in our December 2005 issue. 


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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