Protection a stinker

CENTURY-old sewerage vents will be granted the highest heritage protection by Vincent city council.

The vents at Hyde Park are a small sample of the surviving sewerage infrastructure that’s mostly been moved, built over or forgotten.

Perth council’s already protected some within its borders, and heritage buffs consider them an important part of the state’s history.

They were only installed after 10 years of agitation by Perth folk growing increasingly unhappy with unhygienic conditions.

As early as the 1860s there were reports of the problem causing illness, and CT Stannage’s book The People of Perth relates that Perth was referred to as a “dunghill”.

• The history of Perth’s poo lives in these vents.

• The history of Perth’s poo lives in these vents.

The Perth Board of Health tried cess pits and earth closets, but they couldn’t cope with the influx of gold diggers during the boom of the 1890s.

Trinity Antiques dealer Trevor Hancock currently has an exquisite example of how the well-to-do tried to overcome the smell; a small silver locket with a piece of sea sponge inside which would be doused in vinegar and held close to the face.

The council of the day introduced a pan collection system in 1893 but there were still typhoid outbreaks in 1895, 1896 and 1897.

Politicians like Winthrop Hackett agitated for a deep sewer system, and despite the high cost senior engineer Hugh Oldham was given the brief to design the system in 1903.

The plan had one problem, as chief engineer CSR Palmer noted, the system was emitting “noxious gases”.

By 1914 people were complaining of foul smells, especially around the Claisebrook treatment centre, and it only grew worse as summer hit.

Because the poo wasn’t getting enough air, it was generating hydrogen sulphide — a stench far worse than a mere Edwardian-era stool. The solution was to get air into the underworld.

In 1912 the first vents came into operation at Cook Street and Adelaide Terrace, and while complaints about smells decreased, whinges about the high cost of installing them grew at around the same rate.

They continued to be rolled out across the decades, the most iconic being the Smith and Lincoln Street tower in Highgate that’s a frequent target of happy snappers because of its peculiar art deco stylings.

To this day it’s a mystery when the vents were disconnected from the sewer system. A report from the state heritage council states “one opinion is that after World War II, changes in the operation of the sewerage system did away with the need for ventilation shafts and they were disconnected”. Another theory holds that the bulk of them were still operating until Perth switched from an open to a closed sewer system in the 1970s. A third theory points to the introduction of plastic piping which is less susceptible to hydrogen sulphide.

The state heritage council now describes them “as a collection of street furniture with no current functional use”.

by DAVID BELL

940 Royal Australian Mint 28x5

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