… many of the rights of way in the Middle Ward are in a most disgraceful condition. Dead cats, filth of all descriptions and an odour that is highly disagreeable and dangerous to health… I trust the Inspector will act on the hint given him, and bring a few cases into court. It is the only way to deal with people who love filth. The law directs the Inspector of Nuisances to see that the borough is kept in a cleanly condition, and when he fails to comply with this… he aids in an in-direct manner, in the spread of contagious diseases.
Letter to The North Melbourne Advertiser, 6 November 1874
Sanitation in early Melbourne was poor. Streets were littered with animal refuse, decomposing fruit and vegetables, and the effluent from shops and houses. Disease ran rampant, especially in the tenements crowded into narrow laneways. (For example, between 1878 and 1886, Melbourne averaged close to 220 deaths each year from typhoid.)
A growing concern for public health in the 1860s saw the appointment of the delightfully-named ‘Inspector of Nuisances’. The Inspector was responsible for keeping the city clean, sanitary and safe. He was kept very busy!
An Unenviable Job
The Inspector’s job was varied, and not for the faint-hearted. He inspected food offered for sale in the markets and on the streets, in butcher shops and dairies. He visited dangerous buildings and hoardings, kept thoroughfares free from obstruction and supervised the carters who removed rubbish. He dealt with runaway horses, roaming cows and stray goats – even dead dogs tossed into the drain. One woman was reported ‘for having a dead horse on her premises which she refused to move’.
According to historian, Andrew May, one qualification for the job may have been a ‘good nose’. The Inspector was responsible for sniffing out bad smells, such as emanated from swamps and marshlands, or filthy dwellings and offensive trades. In 1888 the Inspector of Nuisances for the Melbourne City Council sniffed out a smell coming from Hall’s Livery Stables, ‘where an attendant crowd was paying admission to see an exhibition of carcasses of dead sharks and other fish.’
In smaller councils, the tasks were even broader. One of the earliest Inspector of Nuisances in Moorabbin was John Bodley. In 1874 he was appointed as Rate Collector, Dog Inspector, Clerk of Works and Collector of Statistics at a salary of £90 per annum. In October 1882 he took on the additional responsibility of Inspector of Nuisances at the increased salary of £175. The Inspector for the Mornington Shire Council in 1902 had ‘the [additional] duties… of secretary, engineer, clerk of works, collector of agricultural statistics and collector of dog tax’.
Sometimes, local policemen assumed the role. In 1895 all constables in the Moorabbin Shire were appointed Inspectors and given an additional salary of £10 per annum. Prosecuting ‘nuisances’ such as people riding bicycles on footpaths or bathing nude at the beach fell within their duties.
Sir, - Will you be kind enough to allow the insertion of a few remarks which may attract the notice of the Inspector of Nuisances… I can assure you, Sir, the state of the cesspools is enough to endanger the health of the inhabitants. – The Argus, 4 August 1859
The disposal of nightsoil (sewage) was a constant issue in early Melbourne. With no underground sewerage system, human waste was collected in cesspits (or cesspools) – great big holes in the ground filled with human excrement – and later in earth closets, with above-ground pans, at the rear of properties. Licensed ‘nightmen’ would collect and empty the pans weekly.
The job of monitoring the state of cesspits fell to the Inspector of Nuisances – lucky him! He had the power to take people to court if their cesspit overflowed, or they disposed of nightsoil ‘inappropriately’. In 1864, for example, the Inspector issued 616 notices of ‘nuisances’ regarding privies and cesspits. Most people fixed the problem, but 26 people were summoned and fined.
Cesspits were abandoned from the late 1870s, but the Inspector still dealt with complaints of ‘dirty closets’. Prosecutions were frequent. One Hotham resident, William Griffith, was taken to court by Mr R. Barnes, the local Inspector of Nuisances in 1889, for having ‘filthy premises’. In court the Inspector stated that Mr Griffith was the owner of a house in Melbourne Road where for several weeks his closet pan had been ‘allowed to overflow’, causing a horrible stench. To make matters worse, there was a butchering premises less than 50 feet from his house.
Unlike the lamplighter or ‘scoop boy’, the function of the Inspector of Nuisances still exists today, with public health inspectors operating in a more salubrious environment.