What’s that smell?
Today it is definitely Spring (although that may not be the case tomorrow). The sun is shining, the birds are active and plants are starting to put on a bit of spring growth, even if it is not their flowering season.
On a walk through the Geelong Botanic Gardens, my senses are stimulated by a wonderful array of smells. However, to call these perfumes might be overstepping the mark. My favourite is the wonderful aroma of the freshly spread “euchy mulch” in the restored fern glade. There is also the perfume of the Michelia flowers along the camellia walk, and soon there will be the scent of cut grass and the heady aroma of roses from the heritage rose bed.
The prevailing aromas in the Gardens and wider park were not always quite so enticing. Geelong, like other urban areas in the 19th Century had a problem with … let’s call it poo. Horses contributed largely to the “street sweepings” which were much prized for giving a boost to the municipal garden beds, but the odour of horse dung pales into insignificance compared to the “nuisance” of nightsoil (aka poo). The problem was, what to do with it?
By 1850, Corio Bay was considerably less pristine than prior to European settlement, as the bulk of the domestic waste from the northern part of town simply flowed, via the open drains, into the Bay (south of the ridge waste flowed into the Barwon River). The resulting smell was considered a “nuisance”. This pre-dated any scientific awareness of just how dangerous human waste was in the spread of disease – hence referring to the disagreeable odours as a “nuisance” rather than as a dangerous health hazard!
As the town of Geelong grew, so a system of collecting and disposing of the euphemistically named “nightsoil” developed with carters coming by night to change the tins in the dunny and cart the waste away for disposal.
The eastern edge of the town of Geelong, on the Bay side, then as now, was the Eastern Park or Botanical Gardens. The shortest route out of town was along the Portarlington road, past the Gardens towards Moolap. The general practice was to take the nightsoil away from town and to deposit it below the high tide mark, outside the town limits, and for the sea to do the rest. In 1856 a directive was given that rubbish, including nightsoil was to be deposited in the Bay to the east of Limeburner’s Point. It seems that the favoured site to tip your buckets was in Stingaree Bay behind the rifle butts – once situated on the site where CSIRO’s Australian Animal Health Laboratories are now. Unfortunately, not all the nightmen wanted to travel that far and there were complains of nightsoil being deposited along the road-side with its consequent “nuisance” in terms of smell and health.
In 1876, the Council decided that they needed to have a proper “Manure Depot” to deal with the nightsoil problem, just like Melbourne, and the Mayor of Melbourne was brought down to advise on the best possible site. This turned out the be the Botanical Gardens (now Eastern Park) “bounded by the south carriage drive on the north, and the park fence on the west, south, and east sides” – in other words, hard up against the Friendly Society Oval (now the soccer pitch on Howard Glover Reserve) and adjacent to the Corio Oval – home to both the local football and cricket teams. As you can imagine, local opinion was not favourable!
“Citizen” (Geelong Advertiser 1/3/1876) wrote,—Why make a manure depot of the Botanical Gardens, when the Market-square is so much a better place. How handy for market gardeners; after depositing their produce, they could at once load up with manure. It is a wonder that this simple idea did not strike the heads (?) of some of the enlightened members we have in our Town Council.
But, “where there’s muck there’s money” – and well treated nightsoil was a potentially valuable commodity. The councillors settled on a scheme whereby trenches would be dug and the nightsoil deposited and covered over to prevent too much nuisance from the smell, which would be further abated (!) by the planting of a belt of trees. The Garden’s curator, John Raddenberry was strongly in favour of the scheme, claiming that the ground would be made valuable and productive by the addition of the manure and that there was sufficient land for 30-40 years of treatment in this way.
Despite the protests, a Manure Depot was developed within the Eastern Park – but only as a temporary solution, although temporary turned out to well over 10 years and the depot was reopened again around 1900 – much to the annoyance of visitors to the Corio Oval who complained bitterly of the smell. It was not until 1916 that Geelong got a sewerage system and the nightmen became a thing of the past.
In the meantime, the Council charged 2 shillings per load of nightsoil deposited and sold “deodorised” nightsoil to farmers for use as manure at the princely sum of 2/6 per yard. From time to time, private contractors found these rates attractive and ran their own manure depots, but these frequently failed the “nuisance” test.
The dangers of untreated human waste were not confined to the “nuisance” of the smell or the potential spread of disease. The manure trenches must have been a thoroughly unpleasant place to work, being both damp and smelly. To add to this, most of the work was done at night as the nightmen were prevented from collecting when the rest of the townspeople were going about their business (hence the name). In April 1880, Mr Edward Jones, an employee of the Corporation (a forerunner of Geelong City Council), met his death by suffocation through falling into a nearly full trench while working alone on a damp night at the Manure Depot in the Botanical Gardens. The coroner’s inquest suggested that his untimely demise might have been averted if he had not been alone at the time.
When I next have cause to visit one of the more “agricultural” toilet facilities in the Gardens, I will spare a thought for Mr Jones and his untimely death and be thankful that at least most of Geelong, though sadly not most of the Botanic Gardens’ toilets, are connected to the Black Rock sewerage treatment works and that open nightsoil pits are a thing of the past.
Also – the smell in the Gardens today is distinctly more fragrant.