This week, we look at the early plumbing and sewerage history of Melbourne, which was so poor it earned the city the moniker ‘Smellbourne’.

In Melbourne's early days, the Yarra River was used as an open sewer

1850s-1890s: Marvellous Smellbourne

With the discovery of gold in 1851, Melbourne’s population exploded and by the 1880s it was Australia’s largest city with over half a million people. However, Melbourne’s sewerage infrastructure was virtually non-existent with open sewers and a relatively ineffective night soil (human excrement) system and because of this, British journalists dubbed the city ‘Smellbourne’.

Open sewers

Most residential waste including kitchen, bathroom and laundry grey-water and the contents of chamber pots were poured into open drains which ran down street channels and eventually out into creeks and rivers. Waste from industry and farms were also disposed of in this way and Melbourne’s waterways were turned into open sewers.

Night soil

There was also no septic system- Melbournians either used chamber pots or an outside shed known as a ‘thunder box’ or ‘earth closet’ which was located along the back-fence line. Excrement was mixed with either dry loam or clay to dry the waste, which then became known as nightsoil. Once a week, ‘nightmen’ would come up the bluestone alleyways running along the back of the houses and empty the earth closet through a small door at the back. Nightmen were then supposed to cart the nightsoil away for the use as fertiliser in market gardens, however, they often just dumped their loads on public roads which created a terrific stench. Unsurprisingly, the use of nightsoil in food production was also incredibly unhygienic and led to a huge typhoid outbreak which killed hundreds. In fact, typhoid was such a common killer in Melbourne throughout the 19th century that the infant mortality rate of Melbourne outstripped that of London (then the world’s largest city with a population of 5-6 million) until the city’s sewer system was installed in 1897.


1897- Melbourne’s sewerage system

Melbourne’s primitive sewerage system was clearly buckling under the weight of its growing population and so in 1888, a Royal Commission was set up to address the problem and it was decided that a sewerage system would be established. Plans for the system were drawn up in 1889 by English Engineer Mr James Mansergh. In 1891, the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works was established to manage the city’s water supply and sewerage treatment. Construction began in 1892 with the construction of a treatment farm in Werribee and a pumping station at Spotswood. The first homes in Melbourne were connected to the system in 1897.


JPG are established Melbourne based plumbers offering fast, reliable and affordable services for homes and businesses in Melbourne’s south eastern suburbs. To learn more about our capabilities, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us by calling 0400 978 442.