What has four legs, two wheels and flies?

By Jeff Powell, Curator Cobb+Co Museum.

Transport museums are not usually associated with presenting medical advances, but few objects in any museum had a bigger impact on public health than our dunny cart.

It is difficult for us in the twenty-first century to imagine a time when people were left to their own devices regarding human waste or ‘night soil’, as it was genteelly called in the past. Where toilets were provided these were simply a seat with a hole in it over a ‘privy pit’ in the ground. Pits sometimes overflowed into nearby drains and watercourses or seeped into the water table. The situation was worst in crowded inner city suburbs.
Full cesspits could be emptied by contractors for those who could pay. The muck was simply shovelled into open carts and taken just out of town to be spread on a paddock or into a creek.

An open drain in a suburban backyard, Ellen Street Paddington, Brisbane, around 1905. Poor drainage combined with inadequate sanitation services spread diseases such as typhoid. (Courtesy State Library of Queensland)

Surprisingly, some people actually loved the stuff as fertilizer for farms and gardens. And life-ending diseases aside, it did make things grow very well.

If the night soil were free from useless matters, and consisted of the ordinary contents of a domestic cesspool, without being diluted with kitchen wastes such as sink slops and soapy water from washtubs, a load of 30 cubic feet would be worth twice or thrice as much as the equal bulk of horse manure of the best quality…

Darling Downs Gazette, 21 Dec 1878. Page 1.

Enter the backyard dunny…

Many people suspected that ‘foul odours’ or ‘corruption of the air’ were associated with outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid, which were very common.  There was close enough association of smelly cesspits and disease in most people’s minds for councils to organise regular human waste collection services. Earth closets were introduced. These had a toilet seat with a can (‘pan’) underneath.  They were called earth closets because after relieving oneself a handful of dirt or ashes, and later sawdust was tossed into the can to limit the smell and flies. ‘Privy-cesspits’ with a hole no larger than one cubic yard were still allowed in some areas but had to be emptied by contractors.(1) In either case the fetid muck was emptied into open carts which were such an affront to senses that they were only allowed on the streets at night when everyone was asleep, hence the term ‘night soil’.

Germ Theory

‘Germ theory’ was proposed by scientists from the early 1870s, gaining gradual acceptance over the next few years. The bacteria which causes typhoid, Salmonella typhi, was identified in the mid-1880s. As the Gympie Heath Officer explained in 1887 during yet another typhoid outbreak…

…the only chance of thoroughly eradicating enteric fever (typhoid), which is practically endemic here, is by removing all faecal excreta to a distance from town and its water supply, and treating the substance in the best manner to render it innocuous…

Gympie Times and Mary River Mining Gazette ‘Night Soil Disposal’ 14 October 1897.Page 3.

It sounds like the message had finally gotten through, but he added that in Gympie where most houses had a large backyard, ‘mixing with dry earth or ashes and burying as often as necessary’ was still acceptable.

Norman Park, Brisbane around 1950. Every house had a ‘backyard dunny’ before the sewerage network was extended to Brisbane suburbs in the 1960s and ‘70s. (Courtesy State Library of Queensland)

One pan or two?

A welcome breakthrough for householders and presumably the ‘dunny man’ as well came with the introduction of the ‘two pan system’. With one pan (can) the contents were tipped into an open cart and the dirty can returned to the toilet. With the ‘two pan system’ the dirty can and its contents were replaced by a fresh can that had been steam cleaned since the last use. The full cans were taken away in a sealed cart or wagon with a roof and doors, like our dunny (night soil) cart in Cobb+Co Museum.

Typhoid not only spreads through faecal contamination of water and foodstuffs, it can spread from person to person as some people remain carriers after recovering from the symptoms. Completely removing the full pans of manure, and encouraging people to wash their hands, greatly improved the health of the population.(2) Some councils were still resisting the introduction of the ‘two pan system’ in 1900 because of the extra cost, but health concerns eventually won out.

A newly built sanitation wagon in Ipswich, with presumably empty pans. The ‘double-pan system’ was adopted by most town councils by 1905. (Roberts Collection. Queensland Museum Network)

Toss it in the sea

The next question after deciding to collect the stuff was what to do with it. The ‘Kelvin Grove Depot’ in present-day Victoria Park was the repository for central Brisbane waste for several years. The night soil was buried in trenches. As the city spread residents took the Council to court to have the practice stopped. The Council came up with a brilliant solution, put the waste on a barge, tow it out to Moreton Bay and dump it in the sea!(3) Seventy tonnes of human manure a day was going into the water.(4) What began as a stopgap measure was continued until the late 1920s. There was even a special ‘sanitation wharf’ near the Queen Street end of the Victoria Bridge, right in the centre of town. Fortunately, by mid-century the practice of incinerating the waste at depots was adopted by most towns and cities.


Life expectancy in the 1880s in Australia was below 50 years of age.(5) The average was dragged down by a high rate of infant deaths. Over 10% of babies born did not reach one year old. 30% of all deaths were children under two years of age.(6) Life expectancy rose steadily through the twentieth century due to a host of factors including advances in medicine, and improvements in personal hygiene. But so too did the humble dunny cart and the ‘double-pan system’ contribute to better health, and the virtual eradication of the dreaded typhoid fever. (Pity about the pollution in Moreton Bay.)

Vale the dunny man

Boys in Brisbane were often told, ‘If you don’t study at school you’ll end up a dunny man with Hunter Brothers.’ Hunters had the cleansing contract from the 1930s to the ‘70s. In retrospect dunny man (or more politely ‘night man’) was a very important and necessary vocation, if not the most desirable job in town. My family, like many others in our suburb, always left out two tall bottles of beer for the dunny man at Christmas, and the same for the ‘garbo’.

A dunny cart which belonged to Robert Hunter, who won his first sanitation contracts in Sydney 1912. Hunter Brothers eventually had sanitation contracts in towns throughout New South Wales and Queensland including Brisbane, Toowoomba, Bundaberg and Redcliffe.  Their trucks were a common sight in Brisbane before it was largely sewered in the 1970s. (Telegraph 7 March 1952. P11) On display at Cobb+Co Museum.

End Notes

1.  Telegraph ‘The Health Regulations’ 26 June 1883. P2

2. ‘Typhoid and Paratyphoid Fact Sheet’, NSW Govt Health. Available on-line at https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/Infectious/factsheets/Pages/typhoid.aspx

3. Warwick Examiner ‘Brisbane’ 8 April 1887. P2.

    Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 16 April 1887. P4.

4. Telegraph ‘Moreton Bay as Night Soil Depot’ 28 April 1887. P3.

5. Life Expectancy Trends – Australia’, Australian Bureau of Statistics, March 2011. Available on-line at     https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features10Mar+2011

6. Ronald Lawson 1987, Brisbane in the 1890s, University of Queensland Press. P32.