(Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-858)
A recipe for death - dirt streets, poor drainage, primitive facilities - early Thames looking north from the corner of Williamson Street in Grahamstown along Owen Street, now Brown Street.
Three years before six year old George Maxwell died at his home in Eyre Street, Shortland, Thames, Doctor’s Lethbridge and Fox reported in despair to the local Board of Health. Thames had no drainage worthy of the name announced Dr Lethbridge while Dr Fox lamented the existence of cesspools and the abominable habit of Thames people of covering up holes full of ‘soil’ instead of emptying them. After heavy rains offensive matter was washed into the water tables likely spreading infectious disease. Earth closets instead of cesspits would vastly improve the sanitary conditions.
Three years later, in 1879, very little had changed. The cesspit was still in common use and even though new water tables had been made the smell coming from them told only too plainly that they carried off more than mere surface rainwater. Dread diseases such as scarlet fever, cholera and typhoid flourished in such conditions.
Fear was fed by a report that that 500,000 typhus germs could thrive on the circumference of a pin head or in a visible globule. These germs could dry up and be borne, like thistle seed, everywhere. More alarmingly it was said the germs “like demoniacal possessions may jump noiselessly down any gaping throat.” Science had discovered a water temperature of 120 degrees boiled them to death and soap chemically poisoned them. “Fly to hot water and soap ye who live in danger of malarial poisoning,” exhorted one newspaper.
Four months before George died the Thames Advertiser asked “Where is the Inspector of Nuisances?” Anyone taking a stroll along the beach from the Burke Street Wharf to Shortland Wharf came across first a mass of filth near the Custom House, followed by a horrid stench from the drain in Sealey Street, and finally piles of putrid fish near Shortland Wharf – all of which created a most disgusting smell.
Three months before George died astronomical phenomena, particularly when a planet’s orbit was nearest the sun, were blamed for causing deadly epidemics as well as terrible rains and prolonged droughts worldwide. Individuals and communities who practiced hygiene “will have a better chance of surviving through whatever atmospheric disturbances may be before us.”
All of which did not bother young George as he quite likely frolicked on the foreshore, played in mud, went barefoot to school and came and went from a small, impoverished crowded dwelling across the festering Eyre Street water table.
A month before he died George became unwell and Dr Gilbert initially treated him for worms. He then observed that George actually had typhoid symptoms. He attended George for just over four weeks and then declared him free of fever. He instructed that George be taken out for an airing and George recuperated over the next seven days.
The day before George died the Thames Star reported on the progress of the Works Committee with respect to the water table and footpath in Eyre Street. The committee recommended that as soon as the straightening of the bed of the Karaka Creek had been effected the footpath and water table could be constructed. Drains at the ends of the streets fronting the railway embankment were to be taken under the railway works to the sea before the warm weather commenced, otherwise drainage would spread itself over the narrow strip of unreclaimed ground between the houses in Eyre Street and the embankment – in all probability encouraging much sickness amongst the inhabitants of the Borough.
The day George died panic broke out. Dr Payne forwarded a notice to the Thames Mayor that it was a case of typhus fever. The Mayor immediately gave instructions that all steps considered necessary by Dr Payne be taken. The clothing of the child was at once to be burnt. Other members of the family were to be isolated. Mr Mason, an officer of the Board of Health, was to see that these instructions were carried out.
“It is unfortunate that such a disease has visited the township and it is to be hoped that the preventative measure taken may have the result of preventing it spreading,” said the Thames Star optimistically.
Twenty four hours after George died, around 10 pm, Dr Payne and a policeman came to the Eyre Street house. They ordered that George be buried at once in the middle of the night.
When the notice for immediate burial came Mr Maxwell called Dr Kilgour for a second opinion. Dr Kilgour said that to the best of his belief there was no case of typhus fever and that the body, he felt, could be kept till morning or longer without danger but that unfortunately Mr Maxwell must now obey the burial order.
Four days later George’s distressed father wrote to the Thames Advertiser to “allay the alarm of the public” caused by the report of the death of his son from typhoid. He detailed doctor’s diagnosis’s and visits and was at pains to point out if Dr Gilbert had told him to have the child buried at once he would have done so. He added in a PS “I may as well state that all the rest of the family are perfectly well.”
Eight years later the Thames Advertiser reported on a small pox epidemic in Tasmania and recorded the feeling of uneasiness experienced when epidemics broke out, adding “despite all the medical skill which is brought to bear on these horrible diseases, they have not been eradicated.” Scarcity of money meant many people did not have proper outlets for refuse water. The Inspector of Nuisances needed to ensure proper attention was paid to the cleanliness of homes and premises. “The want of a proper diet is another cause...men of sound physique and with well nourished bodies are not so liable to fall victim to malalrious fevers, as those who do not pay proper attention to their food."
George Maxwell, aged six years and nine months, is buried at Shortland Cemetery, Thames. His mother Isabella had died in 1875 aged 31, when George was two. His widowed father appears to have battled on, raising children, doing his best. To have got his youngest son to nearly seven in those conditions and in that day and age was somewhat of an achievement. During the 1870s there was a great loss of life among Thames children. In one month alone 35 children under 12 died, most victims of the poorly understood but aptly named ‘demoniacal possessions’.
(Diseases were brought to New Zealand by European settlers early in the 19th century. Maori suffered heavily having little or no natural immunity. The typhoid era continued from the 1810s to the 1870s. It was a common disease very prevalent on the gold fields and in fast growing towns. Cesspits leaking into water supplies transmitted the disease as well as milk or food contaminated by the faeces of an infected person. Infants and young children were especially susceptible. European settlements were often very unwholesome with no clean water supplies or sewage disposal and inhabitants had poor hygiene habits. Typhoid deaths declined as sanitation improved across NZ but milk borne typhoid infections still caused epidemics into the 1940s.
Eyre Street no longer exists and is now part of Queen Street, Thames.
An Inspector of Nuisances was employed by the council to seek out bad sanitary conditions, unhealthy living conditions, places where animals were kept, to remove filth and dung from footpaths and roads and inspect drains, ditches, cesspools and ash pits.)
© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert, 2013.
(Source: National Library, Papers Past; The Treasury, Thames - W G Toss Hammond memories.)