I came across this hilarious exchange of correspondence recently. I laughed so hard I feel compelled to publish it here in its entirety. But first a bit of background - until the late 19th century, many people were still using chamber-pots to store their urinary and excremental output. The closed pot, stored under the bed, would sometimes not be tossed out until 2 or 3 days later. While running water for the water closet was introduced by the mid-19th century by inventing geniuses like Thomas Crapper, there was another school of thought that using dry earth to deodorize and neutralize the nightsoil (and also thereby fertilizing the earth), such lavatory conveniences would be more sanitary and hygienic. Its chief supporter an Englishman by the name of Henry Moule. For a time in the latter part of the 19th century it was thought that dry earth was literally the way to go, with him having a fantastic role model in Her Majesty Queen Victoria herself swearing by the dry earth facilities at Windsor Castle and shunning the WC.
Moule according to the article I reference, even quoted the Bible:
``And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee.'' (Deut. 23:13) The New English Bible is even clearer: ``With your equipment you will have a trowel, and when you squat outside, you shall scrape a hole with it and then turn and cover your excrement.''
So with this in mind, we set our time machine back to 1877 when complaints of the horrible odors of Victorian Gaol prompted Sir John to propose dry-earth closets for all the prisoners. The document's title is even funny, referring to itself as 'The Sanitary Papers':
Minute by His Excellency the Governor, 28th May, 1877The Colonial Surgeon then had the temerity to cross the Governor:
On visiting the Gaol I found that a system of latrines is in use that has long since been condemned in similar institutions elsewhere; such a system may lead at any time to a serious outbreak of disease. Refer the Acting Superintendent's memorandum, and any other documents on the subject, to the Colonial Surgeon for his observations.
J. Pope Hennessy, Governor
Copy of Memorandum made by the Acting Superintendent in reply to the Governor's enquires on His Excellency's visit to the Gaol, 26th May 1877:
I find from the records that in July 1874, on the recommendation of Mr. Tonnochy [former prison warden and colonial administrator, Tonnochy Road in Wanchai named after him - Ed.], a number of wooden Closets were put up in the Cells with a view to introducing the earth, system, which I am informed was tried for a short time, but owing to a difficulty in procuring suitable earth and getting the prisoners to use it, the system was abandoned.
Mr. Scudder, the Head Turnkey, tells me that during the short time the dry earth system was being tried the smell in the Corridors was more offensive than it had been before.
The old system was reverted to, viz: a wooden bucket with a close fitting cover is provided for each Cell which the prisoners use at night - the contents are removed in the morning by the Government scavenger. [What a job! - Ed.] During the day time the prisoners go to the latrines provided in the five Upper Yards, but those employed in the Lower Yard use the buckets, which are emptied every morning.
Female prisoners use buckets day and night, which are emptied into the drain running though the Yard.
Prisoners confined in the Remand or Debtors' Ward or in solitary or separate confinement use the buckets both day and night.
Geo. L. Tomlin, Acting Superintendent
Minute by the Colonial Surgeon, 29th May 1877So, in Victorian parlance, some rather savage riposte and counter-riposte going on. Hennessy, unsatisfied with Ayres response, kicked the rather messy issue way upstairs - asking the Earl of Carnarvon [yes, the road in Tsim Sha Tsui is named after him - Ed.] for his support:
Nothing can be done here on the dry earth system, as the proper soil cannot be procured in the Island or none at hand, so that the expense would be very great. The same system is pursued all through the town. In the Chinese quarter proper tubs are under every bed and only emptied once in 2 to 5 days; the average being 3 days. There is no choice but to procure earth froma great distance, to use charcoal or make water closets; all of those systems would be a great expense.
The stench in the Warden's Quarters at times in the hot weather is sickening, and the previous Warden's health suffered very much in consequence.
Ph. B. C. Ayres, Colonial Surgeon
Minute by His Excellency the Governor, 6th June 1877
I fear the Colonial Surgeon is not as fully alive as he should be to the grave consequences of allowing the existing system of Gaol latrines to continue.
Under the present system, a solitary case of cholera or of typhoid fever in the crowded and badly situated Gaol of Hongkong, might speedily destroy a large proportion of the Community.
Nor is the danger confined to that part of the town of Victoria (the centre of the European Quarter) where the Gaol is situated. On proceeding towards the place (Lap-sap-wan [Cantonese for Garbage Bay- Ed.], West end of Victoria District) where the contents of the prisoners' tubs are ultimately deposited [Now we know why Kennedy Town rents are cheap! - Ed.], I found the stench so great as to be offensive outside a radius of an eighth of a mile.
I am not disposed to allow this to continue till some calamity compels the responsible officials to carry out the instructions given more than once by the Secretary of State on this subject.
An abundance of proper earth can be obtained (especially from the neighbourhood of the Wong-nei-chung Valley) for the Gaol.
Means must at once be taken for collective, kiln-drying and properly sifting this earth, and using it according to the printed instructions which accompanied the Secretary of State's despatch of 2nd December, 1867.
I shall hold the Chief Authorities of the Gaol, and especially the Colonial Surgeon, gravely responsible if any unnecessary delay occurs in carrying out these instructions.
J. Pope Hennessy, Governor
Explanation by the Colonial Surgeon
Sir,- I have the honour to acknowledge receipt of your letter No. 389 of the 7th instant, and deeply regret to think that His Excellency the Governor should think I am not fully alive to the evils referred to.
2. In 1875, partly at my instance, an attempt was made to put the dry earth system into operation in the Victoria Gaol. During the time it was on trial and apparently working satisfactorily, I was attacked with typhoid fever, and was subsequently absent for some months on sick leave. Before my return the dry earth system had been abandoned as impractiable, for what valid reason I was never able to discover.
3. Dr. Mouat, the Inspector General of Gaols, mentioned in the Indian Report as one of the promoters of the dry earth system in India, being a personal friend of mine, I have been able to obtain from him the results of its success, and these results I have been able to verify for myself when I was in charge of Indian Gaols and Hospitals.
4. At the same time, I may perhaps point out that being only consulting physician of the Victoria Gaol, I have myself no practical means of putting in practice the dry earth system in that Establishment, and that my duties in regard to it are limited to indiciating to its Superintendent whatever sanitary measures may occur to me from time to time desirable.
5. I am however by no means sesirous on this account to limit myself to giving good advice, and would be glad to assist His Excellency the Governor practically, and in any way which the Government may wish, in the work of Sanitation...
6. In applying the dry earth system to the Victoria Gaol or any other Public Building, I would strongly recommend, in spite of the increased expense, the use of some other earth than that obtainable in the Island, as its deodorising qualities, from the prevalence of quartz, are extremely feeble.
Ph. B. C. Ayres, Colonial Surgeon
Governor J. Pope Hennessy, C.M.G., to Earl of Carnarvon, Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State, 14th June 1877That evidently did the trick:
My Lord,-I enclose for Your Lordship's information a copy of my Minute of the 28th May referring the question of the state of the latrines in the Gaol to the Colonial Surgeon, Dr. Ayres. In his reply of the 29th of May he gives his reasons for thinking that nothing could be done to carry out the dry earth system in the Hongkong Gaol: though he admits that even in the Warden's Quarters, the stench is, at times, sickening; and that the previous Warden's health suffered much in consequence.
In my Minute of the 6th of June, I pointed out that, under the present system, a solitary case of cholera or typhoid fever in the crowded and badly situated Gaol of Hongkong might speedily destroy a large proportion of the Community, and I directed proper steps to be taken, without any unnecssary delay, for establishing the dry earth system.
There will be in fact no real difficulty in getting this system into operation in the Gaol. Gentlemen who have also resided here for many years, tell me they have used the system with complete success and with no more trouble than in other places.
J. Pope Hennessy, Governor
Colonial Surgeon to Acting Colonial Secretary, August 2nd, 1877I shall leave it there, with the Governor more or less getting his way, though people try to foil his dry-earth policy (how much more pleasant than a scorched-earth policy!) at every turn. The rest of the report is a fascinating read, especially with regards to Peak residents basically throwing their excreta away on the hillside or even into drinking reservoirs. But I shall leave such discoveries, and stories of scavenger services, to your personal interest. Until the morrow!
Sir,-In replying to the Minute of His Excellency the Governor in regard to the date when the dry earth system was introduced into the Victoria Gaol, I would refer you to my letter of the 11th June, a copy of which I enclose.[must not have gotten to the Governor before he wrote off to the Earl-Ed.]
In that letter I explained that in respoect to the Gaol my functions were not executive, and being purely consultative, I limited myself to arranging with the Honourable Surveyor General for the carrying out of His Excellency's wishes.
Mr. Price now informs me twenty dry earth closets have been working in the Gaol since the date of His Excellency's first Minute, that ninety-one are on the verge of completion, and that the remainder will be finished during the month.
A better quality of earth than heretofore used is to be brought from Kowloon, and observations will be made of its efficacy after a sufficient trial.
I may add that the new buckets are being prepared as I have recommended, so as to insure a more perfect deodorization [might the Colonial Surgeon have read Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which refers to a 'more perfect Union'? - Ed.]
Ph. B.C. Ayres, Colonial Surgeon
Acting Superintendent to Colonial Secretary, 7th January, 1878
Sir,-With reference to the 'dry earth system' in Victoria Gaol, which up to the present time has worked satisfactorily, the earth having been supplied by the Surveyor General's Department, I have the honour [!-Ed.] to state that the last supply is exhausted and that more is urgently required.
In answer to my requisition to the Surveyor General's Department on the 1st January, I was informed by Mr. Bowdler that "from the first of the current year dry earth would be provided by the Gaol Department," and as there are no records in the Gaol office to show that any arrangement had been made on the subject, I have the honour [there he goes again -Ed.] to request that I may be informed how the earth will be provided.
I have, &c.,
T.C. Dempster, Capt., Acting Superintendent
Minute by the Surveyor General, 8th January 1878
I regret this unfortunate delay should have occured through my absence from the office last week. The earth is now being sent to the Gaol. I had arranged with Captain Ducat to supply the earth - while he was to pay for it out of the Gaol grant voted expressly for the purpose. The dry earth service will now continue uninterruptedly through the year.
J.M. Price, Surveyor General
Minute by His Excellency the Governor, 19th January 1878
Is the dry earth system now in force in the whole of the Gaol?
J. Pope Hennessy, Governor
Reply of Acting Superintendent, 21st January, 1878
The dry earth system is not carried out in the female ward and all the yards and Turnkeys' and guards' closets. It is in force in all the cells and body of the Gaol. Partly carried out in tubs by five coolies, and partly emptied down a drain. The Surveyor General has been communicated with on the subject, and this morning all the contents of the buckets were taken away by ten coolies. When the system is in force all through the Gaol, more coolies will be required.
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