Plumbing In NZ: We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are


Plumbing and gasfitting in New Zealand has a relatively short history. That’s no surprise in a country so young but the plumbing we take for granted today hasn’t been around for too long in the big scheme of things.

From the 1860s onwards,  coal gas was being used for street and home lighting but it wasn’t until the late 1880s that gas ovens started replacing coal ranges. Early gas cookers were usually “primus” cookers, with three burners, although some homeowners preferred to keep their coal range as there was still widespread wariness about gas and the threat of explosions or poisonous fumes. The gas appliances of yesteryear were a far cry from the safe and modern ones we use today, so their fears were probably justified to some degree.

As for plumbing, most New Zealand homes had no town water supplies until the 1870s, and no sanitary plumbing until the early 1900s; most toilets were outhouses and water was carried inside from wells or rainwater tanks. Most of those tanks were little more than wooden barrels although corrugated-iron tanks started becoming popular in the 1880s. So, there wasn’t much call for plumbers back then, let alone ones offering emergency plumbing services.

That started to change once a Wellington plumber, George Hall, started advertising pipes which would bring water from the tank to the kitchen sink. This was something approaching a luxury for many New Zealand homes, and it got even better when that water was heated. Think of the endless gas hot water systems you know and love today; an early water heating system was nowhere near as efficient! It consisted of a copper tank beside the kitchen range in which the water was heated and then dispensed out of a brass lever tap.

When high-pressure town water supplies arrived, plumbers came into their own. They installed separate copper cylinders connected to the water supply, and pipes circulated water to and from the coal range. The copper cylinder was often situated in an airing cupboard beside the range (the old fashioned hot water cupboard) with pipes running to the bathroom and kitchen sink. These innovations increased the demand for plumbers and the number of people entering the trade started to grow as a result.

Some of the biggest plumbing developments in early New Zealand happened in the bathroom. Most people still bathed in a tub in the kitchen, but from the 1880s houses began to have their own bathrooms. Plumbers installed the first toilets, with the town water supply flushing away the waste, but only as far as a cesspit in the backyard! When sewerage systems were eventually installed to handle waste and take it away to treatment plants, drainlaying and sanitation became an important part of a plumber’s daily role, as well as all of the other duties associated with the trade.

So the next time you require the services of an emergency plumber in Auckland, be grateful you have plumbing to fix in the first place. The water, gas and drainage we take for granted today is a far cry from yesteryear’s and when things occasionally go wrong, it can be fixed in no time. Back in the “good old days”, it might have been a very different story.

Steffy Alen

Steffy Alen