The history of the Coronation Drive Office Park - Part 7
A hub of sanitation
By Angus Veitch
The sanitary stables (1898-1940s)
In the late 1880s, a debate was being had in Brisbane about how best to manage the disposal of the city’s nightsoil, otherwise known as human faeces. At that time, most of the city’s nightsoil was being buried in shallow trenches on St. Helena Island, 21 km east of Brisbane in Moreton Bay. St Helena was at the time also being used as a prison. The island’s sandy soil barely contained the refuse, and the resulting smell was so bad that the governor of St. Helena took pity on the prisoners.(1)
In that same year, a man named E. Parr Smith devised a plan to dump the nightsoil at sea. He took his plan directly to the mayor (bypassing the tendering process that was underway), and in quick order also won the endorsement of the premier, who recommended that the council accept his proposal. Amid considerable controversy, Smith and his partners were awarded a contract, and in January 1890 commenced operations as the Brisbane Sanitary Company.(2)
Under the contract, the sanitary company would collect nightsoil from the suburbs and load it onto a steamer which would take it down the river and outside Moreton Bay before dumping it into the ocean. While most of the operations would take place at a wharf and at sea, the company had to maintain a fleet of horses, carts and other equipment, which is where the Coronation Drive Office Park (CDOP) site came in (see the image at the bottom of this article of the CDOP). As the Brisbane Courier explained,
The company have built a stable and a depot for the carts at Milton, and the entire plant of Dobbyn and Co. [the previous sanitary contractors] has been acquired. This plant comprises thirty-three waggons, eight night carts, four drays for carting dry earth, two drays for removing dead animals, and fifty-six horses.(3)
The company’s depot was listed in the post office directory as being near the top of Boundary Street. Most likely, it occupied the site of the Brisbane Ice Works, which had closed down a few years earlier. The Brisbane Sanitary Company ran the depot until 1900, when the city’s sanitary contract was awarded to Henry Carr from Brighton, Victoria. Carr’s company, which in about 1924 went to his sons Justin and William, would hold the city’s sanitary contract for another 50 years.
The sanitary depot maintained an uneasy coexistence with the surrounding residents. In 1913, householders in Milton submitted a petition begging the Health Department to intervene and prevent the sanitary company from depositing offensive rubbish on the site. At times, the smells from outside the site might have been as bad as any coming from the sanitary depot. Milton in the late 19th century was densely populated, but many of the neighbours of the CDOP site could not afford nightsoil collection, so instead they dumped their refuse in their low-lying, flood-prone backyards.
The nightsoil dump (1928-1940s)
Brisbane continued to dump its nightsoil into Moreton Bay until 1928, when a new scheme was devised to dump it at Milton instead. Although the suburbs were not yet sewered (and would not be for many years), a main sewage pipe had been built from Toowong to the treatment works at the mouth of the river, passing the CDOP site and the Carr brothers’ sanitary depot along the way. All that needed to be done was to connect the sanitary depot to the sewer.
So began the Milton nightsoil dump. I’ve found no plan or picture of the building, but it was most likely located between the tram workshops and Carr’s incinerator (both discussed below). The Brisbane Courier described the dump’s operation:
The dump is a concrete structure, and about 50,000 pans will be taken to it each week. The contents of them are flushed through screens by heavy pressure of water at an average of six gallons a pan to the sewer at North Quay. The pans are carried over a series of rollers to a trough for cleansing, and are then taken on a conveyor for stacking. Machinery has been installed for reducing the sawdust chips to a small size to facilitate the work of the dump. The introduction of this system will obviate sanitary carts traversing the main streets, and the use of sanitary steamers and a wharf at North Quay for the berthage of them.(4)
Enthusiasm for the scheme did not last long. Two months after the scheme commenced, there was a major blockage in the main sewer at Milton. A gang of workers toiled for two weeks to unblock it, one of them dying after succumbing to the trapped fumes and falling down a shaft. The blockage was caused by sawdust, which had been mixed into the nightsoil with insufficient water at Milton. When the sewer was unblocked, the dump recommenced its operations, much to the disgust of local residents who complained that the smells from the depot made their houses uninhabitable.
In 1932 a deeper flaw in the scheme became apparent. The pipes of the sewer main had been slowly deteriorating, and the prime culprit was the gas generated by the stale, sawdust-laden sewage from Milton. A Council engineer’s report into the pipe damage confirmed these suspicions, but incredibly, the scheme was allowed to continue, despite mounting opposition from both within and outside the council.
The final straw came in April 1940 when the sewer main collapsed at Pinkenba. Poor design of the sewer was partly to blame, but so too were the corrosive gases generated by the 500,000 gallons of sewage that came from Milton each day. Dumping at Milton was halted immediately, and Lord Mayor Chamberlain hoped that it would not recommence. However, the disposal contract still had three years to run, and an internal council memo from staff at the tram workshops shows that the dump was still operating — and still stinking — in 1943.
The incinerator (1918-1950)
In June 1918, a notice appeared in the Brisbane Courier alerting readers to ‘the proposed erection of a garbage destructor at Milton’. Local residents quickly mobilised against the proposal, gathering 1,351 signatures on a petition presented to the Toowong Council. In the following months, correspondence flowed between Henry Carr and the council, the latter expressing strong opposition and the former insisting that there was nothing to worry about.
Carr won the battle, and the incinerator was in operation by February 1922, which is when complaints about it started appearing in the paper. The incinerator received some more positive press in November 1927, when the Sunday Mail ran a pictorial spread describing in considerable detail the incinerator’s operations and its ‘big task’ of ‘keeping the city clean’.
The incinerator was built on land that was originally attached to the Milton Distillery. The various components of the incinerator, as drawn on the Water and Sewage Board’s plan of the site from 1927, are shown below, with labels derived from the surveyor’s fieldbook.
The incinerator’s chimney was for a time the highest in Brisbane, standing at 130 ft in 1937 and 160 ft in the late 1940s.(5) Smoke can be seen billowing out of it in the City Council’s aerial photograph from 1946:
The Milton Incinerator is visible in the upper-left corner of the CDOP site in this 1946 aerial photograph. The Carr brothers’ sanitary stables were in the adjacent lot. On the right-hand side of the site, and also fronting Coronation Drive, are the tram workshops and administration building. Hover over or tap the image to see the modern landscape.
Garbage from most of Brisbane’s metropolitan area was incinerated at Milton. In 1927, the incinerator operated around the clock except for one Sunday each month. By 1937 it was operating every day of the year and employed about 25 people, many of whom lived in the adjacent houses where they could keep watch for fires.
All kinds of garbage were incinerated here. As well as general household refuse, the incinerator disposed of confidential government documents, confiscated narcotics, and rats from the city’s wharves and laboratories. Among the few things that were excluded were unbroken bottles (which were re-used) and any dry material that could be used to fill up the city’s swamps (this is how Gregory Park and many other parks in Brisbane’s parks were formed). Occasionally, things found their way in that should have been kept out, such as explosives and volatile chemicals. In 1947, an unexploded aerial bomb was discovered just before being shovelled into the furnace. In 1942, a worker fell onto the conveyor and narrowly escaped being drawn into the flames.
On one occasion, a valuable item was retrieved from the incinerator after it had been through the furnace. In 1944, 25 milligrams of radium in a gold tube, worth more than £200, went missing from a doctor’s surgery in the city. A lecturer in bio-physics at the University of Queensland named D.F. Robertson searched the surgery with a Geiger counter and concluded that the radium must have ended up in the trash, which in turn must have gone to Milton.
Mr. Robertson visited the City Council’s incinerator at Milton and ransacked the mountain of rubbish there. He found dead dogs and refuse of every description — but no tube. Then he decided to make a daily check on ashes from the furnace. As he worked with his detector, nearby residents saw the strange spectacle of a man wearing ear phones, and going over the dump, waving what seemed to be a long wand with a tin on the end.
Mr. Robertson did not know in what shape the tube would emerge from the furnace, and he came across many objects that looked more like tubes than the real thing did, when, on his third day, he discovered it in the ashes. It then was a misshapen blob of black metal — but the radium, in its protective inner sheath, was intact.(6)
The ashes from the incinerator were used to build up the ground on the site, including the depression left by the old Boundary Creek. Flower gardens flourished in the ash-enriched soil. The ashes were also used to fill in the swampy ground at Lang Park.
The City Council decommissioned the incinerator along with the rest of the sanitary depot in 1948 and bought the land in June 1950 to expand the tram workshops. The iconic chimney came down later the same year.
- The Brisbane Courier, 10 April 1889.
- The Brisbane Courier, 28 December 1889.
- These heights were cited in the courier mail in November 1937 and September 1950. I am assuming that the chimney was rebuilt or extended in the intervening time. Alternatively, the chimney might have been unchanged while one of the newspaper reports described the height incorrectly.
- The Sunday Mail, 23 July 1944.
- The Brisbane Courier, 3 August 1929.