Friday, March 31, 2017

Dirty old town : death and disease in early Wagga Wagga 1870 to 1930

headline from the Wagga Wagga Express 1909

Drains, sanitation and the removal of waste water, garbage and other refuse may not seem like an interesting subject, particularly if you are a bit squeamish or have a germ phobia, but the start of public health in Wagga Wagga is a fascinating story to follow.  The 1880s were the real start of a public health revolution, with the borough council of the time trying to establish  sewerage, water and garbage systems. There was oddly a lot of push back by some members of the public who were averse to changes and resented attempts to clean up the town and eradicate disease.

Infectious disease was everywhere in a town without proper sewerage and drainage systems. And as Sherry Morris writes in A Delicate Balance: A history of Wagga Wagga Base Hospital ,
“During the first half of the nineteenth century, medical practices were still somewhat  limited. Doctors knew nothing about disease carrying bacteria or germs.” p 3, A  Delicate Balance 

Infectious disease cases were reported in the newspapers of the time, with a growing acknowledgement that hygienic practices, clean water and the removal and careful storage of  of waste were the basic and best protection against the big three diseases of the time: scarlet fever, typhoid, and diphtheria.

People emptied waste water into the streets, despite laws and fines being imposed. Backyards filled with horse manure, kitchen waste, dead animals and worse, and if rain came, it would sluice the waste into the streets and contaminate wells, food, and people would walk in it, and carry disease into their homes.  Personal hygiene wasn’t a priority for many either. Hand washing wasn’t yet established as a way of avoiding disease, and as the water was most probably contaminated, in cases of typhoid, it wouldn’t have been an effective deterrent. There was no systematic collection of garbage, and in 1908, the Sanitary Inspector "urged the adoption of garbage receptacles".

The Sanitary Inspector raised the ire of many householders if they were caught – usually they were given a notice to clear up the waste, and if they didn’t comply within a given time, the matter would proceed to court. The inspector was also expected to report on conditions and make recommendations that the borough council would carry out.

from : the Wagga Wagga Express July 1908

There was a high turnover in the early years of sanitary inspectors, mostly due to resentful residents of the borough objecting to being told to clean up their refuse. The facts of science and disease were received with disbelief.

from : Wagga Wagga Express, September 1898

The Inspector of Nuisances  mostly attended to environmental pollution such as drains from businesses  emptying into waterways and public use land. The Albion brewery in Baylis street, in 1898, emptied all its waste into a creek at the rear of Baylis street (highly likely it was the current Bolton Park) . Manure from horses and other livestock was another problem.  The Inspector of Nuisances and the Sanitary Inspector’s duties often overlapped and at some stage the Nuisance Inspector role was merged into that of the Sanitary Inspector.  Buildings and new buildings also had to be inspected to comply with new and emerging regulations that dealt with sewerage and waste water.

The borough council took sanitation very seriously and different aspects of how to best solve the problem of infectious disease was regularly discussed in council meetings and reported on in the newspaper, which also regularly devoted whole editorials to the cleanliness of the water supply, how to manage refuse, and the duty of every citizen of the town to comply and promote hygienic practices.

Dead bodies were another ongoing problem. The lack of proper mortuary services in the town meant that the local police and district coroner took bodies around the town in a cart asking if any householder had an outhouse or other building in which to put the body or bodies for a few days storage in order for the post mortem examination to be carried out.  Hospital mortuaries were often built as an afterthought, and the local hospitals refused to house bodies of people that hadn't died in the hospital itself.  Post mortem examinations involving dissection  of the body on the back of a handy cart were sometimes carried out in full view of the public. Police and the Coroner (who at this time, in the 1870s to 1880s, was one of Wagga Wagga's pioneers, F A Tompson) would take the body around the streets of Wagga, in a cart, asking  pubs and even households to take the body in for a few days. Often publicans refused (understandably) though I did read that at one stage it was a law or regulation that publicans were obliged to house the body if requested by the Coroner. Public dissections were avidly attended by the more bloodthirsty citizens of  the town, who happened to be walking past at the time.

from : A Delicate Balance by Sherry Morris

There was no sewerage system so human waste was removed by sanitary wagons, sanitary pans in outside toilets being collected and stacked into the waggons. In 1909 it was discovered that there was leakage from the carts and pans which caused a typhoid outbreak.

from : the Wagga Wagga Advertiser, May 1909

The 1920s still saw cases of the disease, with an outbreak of typhoid at the Wagga Experiment Farm in 1924 prompting an inquiry.

Infectious disease was still being reported during 1930, but with scarlet fever cases being described as "mild" in the Daily Advertiser on 8 January 1930. By this time infantile paralysis, also called poliomyelitis or polio, had appeared and was being included in the health statistics gathered by the health authorities. There would be weeks at a time go by with few reports of disease, then there would be another outbreak. Medical treatments for infectious diseases evolved over time and with the control of sanitation taken on at all government levels, the diseases that were a part of daily life were controlled.

Wagga Wagga City Library has copies of A Delicate Balance : A history of the Wagga Wagga Base Hospital , by Sherry Morris, if you would like to borrow or read the book within the library.

If you would like to do your own digging into Wagga's murky past, go to Trove: