An incredible history lays beneath the surface of Melbourne

They’ve been described as a marvel of engineering. Melbourne’s sewers, some of which are over a century old, have stood the test of time.

You probably didn’t know that Melbourne’s first sewerage system was built by unskilled workmen who dug into a swamp with spades and escaped methane explosions.

Before it was built Melburnians had no choice but to dump their raw sewage in the streets causing serious health issues. Today Melbourne Water operates over 400 kilometres of sewers around the city and treats around 320,000 [three hundred and twenty thousand] million litres of sewage every year.

It’s Sewer Relining Program is currently underway and will upgrade about 15 kilometres of sewer. The $100m project includes work on 6 sewer mains and will continue for about three years.

Melbourne Water’s Colin Neathercoat spoke with ABC Radio Melbourne about the incredible history that lays beneath the surface of Melbourne.

Welcome to the newest addition to Melbourne Water's news and communications - the Melbourne Water podcast. 

Colin Neathercoat of Melbourne Water talks to ABC Radio about the history of Melbourne's Sewer System. Courtesy of ABC Radio.

Melbourne's Sewer History - transcript
OUTLET: Afternoons, ABC Melbourne
HOST: Richelle Hunt
GUEST: Colin Neathercoat, Melbourne Water
OTHER GUEST: Raf Epstein, Drive presenter

Voice over: They've been described as a marvel of engineering. Melbourne's sewers, some of which were over a century old, have stood the test of time. You probably didn't know that Melbourne's first sewage system was built by unskilled workmen, who dug into a swamp with spades and escaped methane explosions. Before it was built, Melburnians had no choice but to dump their raw sewage in the streets, causing serious health issues. Today, Melbourne Water operates over 400 kilometres of sewers around the city, and treats around 320,000 million litres of sewage every year. Its sewer relining program is currently underway, and will upgrade about 15 kilometres of sewer. The $100 million project includes work on six sewer mains, and will continue for about three years.
Melbourne Water's Colin Neathercoat spoke with ABC radio about the incredible history that lays beneath the surface of Melbourne. You're with Richelle Hunt.

Richelle Hunt: When you think about what makes our city tick, what makes it work, the things that just let us get on with our day, there is one major element that I think we take for granted: our sewers. Unless you've had some kind of sewage or toilet problem, you have no idea how bad it is and how much it'll affect you until it happens. Yes, I've been there. Let's just, for a moment, and this sounds strange I know, pay some respect to a bunch of unskilled workmen who dug into the city swamp back in 1930 and built Melbourne's first sewage system. To this day, it has still been labelled a marvel of engineering. To talk about that is a man that knows many things about sewage, Colin Neathercoat, he's the manager of public affairs at Melbourne Water. Colin, welcome to Afternoons.

Colin Neathercoat: Good afternoon, Richelle.

Richelle Hunt: Let's go start at the very beginning, 1930, the first sewage system was built here in Melbourne by what's been labelled "unskilled" workers, but to this day it's still marvelled at. How is it that so-called unskilled workers created a bit of an engineering masterpiece?
Colin Neathercoat: Well, let's go back even a little bit further, Richelle.

Richelle Hunt: All right.

Colin Neathercoat: In fact, if you go back the late 1890s, that sort of time, which is when those main sewers were first being built, but I'll take you even further back, the 1850s, population about 77,000, Melbourne growing, and your average toilet was a chamber pot, or it was something that you emptied out into the street into a channel and a gully, where it mixed no doubt with a bit of horse poop-

Richelle Hunt: Nice.

Colin Neathercoat: A bit of household rubbish. In the rain, it flowed on down to a creek, probably had a tannery or something somewhere down the road that was adding a little bit of waste to that, and on it went down into our waterways. It was 1857, we were still drinking the water from the Yarrow, the Merriman on, and our major waterways. We were putting all of this sewage into the waterways, and then we were happily drinking it.

Richelle Hunt: What was the rate of illness at that point in time?

Colin Neathercoat: There were major public health consequences, so significant outbreaks of typhoid, cholera, something called colonial fever, and I think the records show about one in four children didn't make their third birthday, so pretty horrendous public health outcomes.
Richelle Hunt: That's horrific.

Colin Neathercoat: A little bit of innovation around that time as well, there was a new toilet called the thunder box, which is effectively-

Richelle Hunt: I think my dad still refers to our toilet as the thunder box.

Colin Neathercoat: I think some may still exist out there somewhere.

Richelle Hunt: We had an outdoor loo when I was growing up, [crosstalk 00:03:46].

Colin Neathercoat: Effectively, a wooden closet with a pan that could be taken away, and of course that gave birth to the night soil man, who turned up every morning in the night soil cart. You emptied your pan into that, and all they did-

Richelle Hunt: The night soil man.

Colin Neathercoat: The night soil man, yes, a sanitized name for that particular job. He would take it away, and he would spread it on market gardens, but probably not that far away from where you lived. Major, major public health problems.

Richelle Hunt: At what point then did society, did local government, did the people with the power say, "Okay, we've got to make significant change here, this is clearly not working"?

Colin Neathercoat: Always I think you see with these major changes, you see some discussion and some debate, so from around about the 1860s, but nothing was really effectively done until 1888, when there was a royal commission into public health. That brought in some experts for overseas, particularly UK and London, who obviously had flushing water closets by then as well. The decision was made to create the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works, which many of your listeners I'm sure would not only have heard of, but probably worked for at some stage as well.

Richelle Hunt: If you were ever a night soil man, I want to hear from you now, 1300222774.

Colin Neathercoat: The MMBW was formed in 1891, and with it a program of works to create the sewage system, which is still there, 120-odd years today, and that we're obviously in the process of refurbishing them and updating.

Richelle Hunt: We are literally, there are men and women down in the sewers now fixing some of the cracks, but just general wear and tear, no major structural problems of what was created back then and built in 1930. When we look at major structural change in our city even now, whether it be our rail system, whether it be a metro tunnel, whatever it may be, we know that it's going to take years and that there's going to be some level of disruption to our everyday lives. When you're talking about building the first sewage system in our city, what was the outlook for how it would be done and how long it would take?

Colin Neathercoat: Well, incredible, because Melbourne's population was over half a million by that stage. There was a lot of urban development that needed connecting to some kind of sewage system. Melbourne is actually blessed, both from sewage but also from a water point of view, that we're surrounded by hills and high ground. We're able to collect water and let it flow downhill to houses, which is a terrific asset when you're thinking about affordability of water systems, but also from a sewage point of view. The decision was made to build a sewage system that was water fed and would literally flush all the sewage downhill via four main sewage mains, the north Yarrow main, south Yarrow main, Hobson's Bay main round the bay, and obviously the Melbourne main coming out of Melbourne itself.

They all drained downhill to Spotswood, where there was a pumping station that pumped it up 25 meters into what was called the main outfall main, and that ran around about 22 kilometres out to Werribee, where they actually didn't do anything different than they'd previously done. They dumped it on fields, although in a much more structured way where it broke down, and eventually effluence would flow out back into the bay.

Richelle Hunt: Werribee, it was always kind of based, that was always originally the dumping ground, so to speak?

Colin Neathercoat: Yes, it was a long way from all of the urban development at the time.

Richelle Hunt: I guess that's something too, that at the time you didn't think about urban development and the extreme level that we have embraced urban development. How does that original structure that's over 100 years old now, how is it set up that it could be added onto, or it could be used, or there could be development?

Colin Neathercoat: Well, I should say that what they built was quite visionary for the time, and it's been so well-built. I should also mention, they built it through some of the worst conditions you can imagine as well, you mentioned in your introduction, through a swamp. It's one thing to blast through basalt and granite, which they had to at Spotswood for the pumping station, but it's another thing to tunnel through what you could liken to porridge. They had a system which was a tunnelling shield that they had to go under the Yarrow and the other floodplain areas, and that's like a large metal disc that was pushed forward on hydraulic rams.

Then in the middle of it was a trapdoor which they would open, and this porridge would ooze to their feet through that trapdoor like toothpaste, and they would have to shovel it away and take it up to the surface. To stop those tunnels as they built them flooding, they had to work in compressed air, with all of the health issues that we know. There were enormous safety issues for the workers who were actually building the system, but equally for the community, because as you got closer to the houses themselves, the mains came closer to the surface, eventually it was an open trench system.

There's one incident back in 1894 where a milk cart and its driver actually fell into one of these trenches that wasn't properly fenced, and six of the workers were tragically killed under the Yarrow-

Richelle Hunt: I was going to ask, yeah, gosh.

Colin Neathercoat: When the Yarrow collapsed through the roof, and on a sub-branch up in Richmond is, again, a number of the workers were overcome by noxious gases, and five unfortunately died as well. Those old systems, they built an amazing legacy for us, but with safety issues, with community impacts.

Richelle Hunt: Was it the main, I guess, income, was it like the majority of people working in the area? How many jobs did it provide at the time, and were people always local, or were we having to bring in experts from the UK, from areas that had already sort of had a sewage system in place?

Colin Neathercoat: You often hear today of infrastructure projects shoring up communities in difficult economic times, and those times in the 1890s were at the end of a bit of a depression era. There's around about 11 to 12,000 Melburnians that were unemployed and out of work there, so this project that was spending in the area of 500,000 pounds a year on the construction of the new sewers, was able to employ 1,300 people on the main outfall, and even more licensed numerous plumbers to make those connections into houses. There was a policy that everything that they possibly could was built, produced, manufactured in Melbourne, so an enormous boost to the economy, even back then.

Richelle Hunt: We're speaking with Colin Neathercoat, who's the manager of public affairs at Melbourne Water. Some restoration work is being done on the original sewers that were built in Melbourne well and truly over 100 years ago. They have been labelled a masterpiece of engineering, a marvel of engineering. Some texts coming saying, "Richelle, when I was a kid in the 70s in Altoona, one didn't leave a bike up the driveway, as the night man went base over apex and spilled the week's takings." You don't want that spilled on your bike, do you? "My great-grandmother paid the night soil man one pound to sift through the excrement to find her lost engagement ring. He found it, and he was very handsomely rewarded." That's from Jackie in McRae, that's going above and beyond when you're the night soil man.
If you have stories to share like this, please do. Who would've thought it would be so fascinating to talk about sewage, but it truly is, 1300222774, and you can text 0437774774. Colin, so how many years did it take to build?

Colin Neathercoat: Well, the foundations were built over that five-year period, 1892 to, I think it was about 1897. In fact, the first connection to the new sewers was in Port Melbourne, it was the all-England XI hotel on the corner of, I think it is Rouse and Prince's Streets in Port Melbourne. Interesting that they chose a pub to be the first connection that they made.

Richelle Hunt: Interesting when you go in there next time, just check out their loos, I'd be thinking.

Colin Neathercoat: I think it's a private house now.

Richelle Hunt: That's right.

Colin Neathercoat: I hope they've upgraded their toilets since then. Yes, I mean it took five years of, I think you would call it feverish tunnelling and burrowing all around the city, to connect all the main suburbs. Then over a longer period of time, make of all those connections to individual houses, around about 300 a week at its peak, and on average I think the cost to the household was 20 pounds, and they could choose to actually pay that over 10 years.

Richelle Hunt: When we look at the engineering of it now, what made it a marvel? I mean, we're talking about unskilled workers that had created this system, what made it so clever and an amazing piece of engineering that is still being used to this day, and still being copied?

Colin Neathercoat: It is, you know those mains are the ones that we're upgrading at the moment, 120 years later, they're incredibly well-built, and crucially they were built with the foresight of extra capacity. As Melbourne grew and the more sewage that was being produced, the capacity was there to carry that away down to Western Treatment Plant, and more recently, obviously Eastern Treatment Plant which we also have. But there is wear and tear, so today, with all of the concerns of safety for our own workers, also for the community impacts, and also affordability, there's a lot of automation is used. We don't have to go down into the sewers as often, we send robots down there.

Richelle Hunt: That's a good thing, this is where we need robots.

Colin Neathercoat: That's a good thing, and it's a great thing when you're applying for a job at Melbourne Lottery as well-

Richelle Hunt: Absolutely.

Colin Neathercoat: To hear that we've moved onto robots. The robots today have progressed from using CCTV, as they're now using radar to look for weak spots and eroded spots in those sewers. Then when it comes to fixing them, we're actually able to send other robots down and other machinery down so you don't have to dig up the road. You don't have to go to all of those strong community impacts, and you can also reduce costs by putting a new lining into what is an existing, extremely well-built sewer.

Richelle Hunt: I'll get you to pop your headphones on for me, Colin, because I think we have a night cart man on the line. Gary, did you have the job of all jobs?

Gary: Yeah, I did it for about seven years.

Richelle Hunt: What did your job involve?

Gary: I used to go from house to house to do the Shire of Sherbrooke, when it existed, up around Bell Grove, et cetera. I would pick up X amount of pans per day, and we used to empty them out into the Lysterfield Pit, we used to run furrows up the back of the Lysterfield tip and empty the non-soil content to the pans into the furrow, and then run another furrow with a tractor and plow and bury them. That was for three years, and then probably for another three and a half years, I worked in the city of Knox, picking up around Ferntree Gully Road, Burwood highway, estates type of area, factory areas, until the sewage came through, where we used to take the night soil up to the pumping station opposite the Burvale Hotel, on the corner of Springvale and Burwood highway

Richelle Hunt: I love the fact that this has been called the "night soil", it's just a lot more palatable. Gary, I am so impressed. I come from a family that dry retches at the smallest of smells. My mom had to pack me up and move me to my nana's to change my nappy, that's how bad she was. Did you ever get used to the stink?

Gary: Yes, indeed, the first couple of days. In fact, I started working for the chapel as a runner on a garbage truck, and when I was introduced to the night cart, I quickly decided the night cart was actually cleaner than the garbage, for one reason or another. It got to the point where I'd think nothing of having a Boston bun in the big end in the cabin of the truck. A lot of people to this day, I've got a nephew or two or a niece, when they had birthday parties, 21st, the big ticket article was getting Uncle Gary to get up and tell some of my shit carting stories.

Richelle Hunt: That's it, you'd have all the good stories, Gary, wouldn't you? Well, you know it was just a part of everyday life, and it was a job that needed to be done.

Colin Neathercoat: Gary, can I ask you, did you work for the Melbourne Board, or did you work for a council?

Gary: I worked for a proper contractor who had the contract with Shire Sherbrooke, and same as in Knox, I worked for a private contractor that worked for the city of Knox.

Colin Neathercoat: Can I ask you what you got paid?

Gary: Yeah. It was funny because I'm a butcher by trade, I am retired now, I'm 69 years old, but in those days, I remember I was getting about, I'm talking 1973, '74, I was getting about $160 a week. You started working with and your little heart out, and you can knock over the whole week in about 20 hours. Quite often, I would put a second job with that income, and it was quite lucrative, so about $160 week in the hand in those days, $174, 75.

Richelle Hunt: And if you ran like crazy, you'd get it done in 20 hours. Gary, thank you so much for your story, it's so wonderful to hear it. The night soil, it's a very polite way of putting it, isn't it?

Colin Neathercoat: Interesting phrase, isn't it? Yeah.

Richelle Hunt: I will never think of soil the same again. Well, so the sewers, the system, it's all being upgraded. Any major works, are we expecting any inconvenience to be happening to local communities now, Colin?

Colin Neathercoat: No, Richelle, this is one of the beauties of this trenchless system that we use, is that we don't have to dig up streets, we don't have to put the community either to inconvenience nearly as much as we used to. What you may see down at Brighton at the moment, and you might see out at Yarraville and up in Avondale Heights, is you'll see the bypass where we have to bypass with an over-ground pipe, and that's where we're doing the work relining the sewer. It's a hard lining which can either support the sewer or just reseal it, and make sure that it is there and functioning properly for years and years to come. Hopefully, minimum of inconvenience, and the most cost effective way that we can do that as well.

Richelle Hunt: Can I ask you, Colin, when was the last time you climbed down those stairs and you went underground?

Colin Neathercoat: Only last week, actually, when we were approached by the H newspaper to also write these stories. I had to delegate the opportunity for so many of my team.

Richelle Hunt: Did you? You didn't do it?

Colin Neathercoat: No, I've been down in the sewers before.

Richelle Hunt: "I've been down there enough."

Colin Neathercoat: I wasn't in a rush, I gave that development opportunity to somebody else.

Richelle Hunt: Fantastic. Well, who would've thought this would be such an interesting chat, but it really is, and it's one of those things that just makes our lives tick. To all the night soil men out there, I take my hat off.

Colin Neathercoat: Gary especially.

Richelle Hunt: Gary especially, what a legend. $150 a week to be the night soil man, eh? 20 hours.

Colin Neathercoat: I don't envy him one of those dollars.

Richelle Hunt: I reckon Gary's the sort of bloke that just gets it done, pretty much. Colin Neathercoat, manager of public affairs at Melbourne Water, thanks so much for joining us. A couple of minutes away from 4:00, a huge welcome back to Mr. Rafael Epstein.

Raf Epstein: How you going, Rich?

Richelle Hunt: Six weeks, have you slept?

Raf Epstein: I slept really well last time. Actually yeah, it's the subsequent nights where you suffer jet lag. I only got back yesterday, but I don't know if you mentioned the super blob that's floating around in London's sewers, there's that massive just island.

Richelle Hunt: Didn't they get rid of that?

Raf Epstein: They're sort of gradually attacking it, aren't they?

Colin Neathercoat: I think it's 32 tons.

Raf Epstein: That's right, it's 32 tons, and isn't a lot of it made up with the-

Richelle Hunt: Baby wipes.

Raf Epstein: Yeah, baby wipes.

Colin Neathercoat: It's a collection of grease-

Richelle Hunt: Just makes you want to spew, doesn't it?

Colin Neathercoat: They're actually called fatbergs.

Raf Epstein: That's it, fatbergs.

Richelle Hunt: Ugh, fatbergs?

Colin Neathercoat: 250 meters across.

Richelle Hunt: That's all baby wipes? Ugh.

Colin Neathercoat: It's fat, it's oils, and this is always a call out to the community: don't put this stuff down your sewage system.

Raf Epstein: That's right. Wipe the fry pan with a cloth, chuck the cloth in the bin.

Colin Neathercoat: In the bin.

Raf Epstein: Don't soak all the oil and the fat down the sink.

Colin Neathercoat: Thank you, Raf.

Voice over: There's a lot of history flowing through this project. If you'd like to know more, visit

Media contact
Caitlin Rode, Senior Media Advisor. Ph. 03 9679 6742