In Australian suburbs and rural towns where the sewer wasn't connected, people usually had an outside toilet. The toilet seat was made of a plank of wood secured at its ends to the walls of the building with a large round hole in the middle. Underneath was the removable sanitary pan (dunny can), and on a regular basis, usually weekly, the full pan was taken away and replaced with an empty one. This was the job of the sanitary carter (dunnyman).
The first sewers in Sydney were constructed in 1857. Wealthy people had 'water closets' that ran into the sewerage system, which discharged into Sydney Harbour. This system soon became inadequate and a large engineering project saw the development of a sewerage system leading to an ocean outfall at Bondi. The Northern (now called Bondi) Ocean Outfall System was completed in 1889. A Southern System was also completed in 1889. Originally this discharged to a sewage farm near Botany Bay. As Sydney spread westward, a Western Suburbs Sewerage Scheme was built and this also discharged into the sewage farm. Eventually a Southern and Western Suburbs Ocean Outfall was constructed, emptying into the sea at Malabar, north of Botany Bay. This was put into commission in 1919. By the 1920s there was an ocean outfall on the northern side of Sydney as well, discharging at North Head.
As a result of these massive engineering works over several decades, much of Sydney was sewered by the 1930s. However, there were still many suburbs that remained unsewered until around the 1960s. Ironically, the sandhill suburbs near the Malabar treatment works and ocean outfall were amongst the last to receive sewerage.
The sanitary pan in the Powerhouse Museum collection was donated by a resident who was born and raised in Matraville, one of the suburbs near Malabar. He and his wife still live in the Matraville house they built after they were married in 1954. The house was connected to the sewer in 1962. For reasons that he cannot now remember, on the last day that the 'dunny man' came to collect the 'dunny can' the donor asked him to leave an empty pan. In 1997 he offered this pan to the Powerhouse Museum. It still has the strong tarry smell of disinfectant.
The donor remembers the dunny man coming round in the early hours once a week, carrying an empty can under his arm up the path to the backyard outhouse, putting a lid on the full pan and taking it back to the 'dunny cart' on his shoulder. Only a few streets away, the full pans would be emptied directly into the sewer line that led to the Malabar outfall.
The pan adds to the story of Australia's sanitary history along with the willow-pattern toilet bowl and the dual flush toilet cistern both also in the collection.
Aird, W.V., The water supply, sewerage and drainage of Sydney, Sydney Metropolitan Water Sewerage and Drainage Board, Sydney, 1961.
Scullion, John, conversations with Megan Hicks, curator of health and medicine, Powerhouse Museum, 1997 and 2002.