Bucket Swap of the Spiral Staircases

Bucket Swap of the Spiral Staircases

It is hard to fathom how these Instagram-worthy shophouse spiral staircases have anything to do with Singapore’s early dealings with human waste management. These external pre-cast concrete staircases first made their appearance at the rear of shophouses from the mid-1920s. Their introduction facilitated an important regular routine for households and residents living in the shophouses – the collection of night-soil.

The spiral staircase is an early example of a prefabricated modular construction technique, where each stair is cast as a separate unit and placed on top of another until the desired height.

The spiral staircase is an early example of a prefabricated modular construction technique, where each stair is cast as a separate unit and placed on top of another until the desired height.

The backlane facilitated night-soil collection from households living in the shophouses.

The backlane facilitated night-soil collection from households residing in the shophouses.

The spiral staircase allowed the night-soil carrier to enter from the backlane to different storeys  without having to pass through the main body of the shophouse.

The spiral staircase allowed the night-soil carrier to enter from the backlane to different storeys without having to pass through the main body of the shophouse.

Night-soil is an euphemism for human faeces. The term came about, as human waste was collected in buckets in the silence of the night and sometimes, soil was used as a cover. A night-soil carrier would enter the alleys behind the shophouses and climb these spiral staircases to each storey. That was where buckets filled with night-soil were placed. These men would replace the full buckets with spare or empty ones. They would then hang these full buckets onto each end of a pole balanced on his shoulder and proceed to the collection point.

Night-soil carriers in 1940. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

Night-soil carriers in 1940. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

Night-soil carriers replacing the filled buckets with empty ones. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

Night-soil carriers replace the filled buckets with empty ones. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

Until the 1880s, Chinese syndicates organised the collection of night-soil and their transfers to plantations on the outskirts of town for use as fertiliser. Interestingly, the onus was on the farmers and gardeners to pay for the removal of night-soil from households but the practice changed once the availability of night-soil grew in abundance with the rising population. Households would pay for their night-soil removal service.

A night-soil carrier walks through the Clarke Quay area in the early 1980s. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

A night-soil carrier walks through the Clarke Quay area in the early 1980s. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

Night-soil buckets were usually collated at a collection point before being loaded onto carts. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

Night-soil buckets were usually collated at a collection point before being loaded onto carts. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

The municipal authorities took over and implemented the night-soil bucket system as the standard waste disposal method in the 1890s. They encountered problems such as the unsatisfactory disposal of night-soil on agricultural land and overflowing into public drains.

The first sewage scheme was started in 1911. With a network of sewage pipes and pumping stations, used water was sent to a new Sewage Disposal Works at Alexandra Road. The treated water was then discharged into the Singapore River. By 1930, this sewage system had expanded to serve almost 100,000.

The laying of new sewage pipes along Victoria Street. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

The laying of new sewage pipes along Victoria Street. Image Source: National Archives of Singapore.

These spiral staircases, retained with the conserved shophouses, are a physical reminder of how Singapore’s sanitation system has progressed from the night-soil bucket to the flush toilet.

These spiral staircases, retained with the conserved shophouses, are a physical reminder of how Singapore’s sanitation system has progressed quickly from the night-soil bucket to the flush toilet.

An intensive sewerage development programme was initiated in the 1960s during the rapid housing and industralisation programmes of post-independence Singapore. As more estates were developed to house the rising population, more sewage treatment plants were built. Queenstown for instance, Singapore’s first satellite town, was served by the newly completed Ulu Pandan Sewage Treatment Works.

All new flats came with a flushing system and more households were retrofitted with modern sanitation facilities.  In 1984, the night-soil system began to be phased out, with the Toh Tuck night-soil disposal station the first one to be closed. On 24 January 1987, the last night-soil system at Lorong Halus in Tampines was closed.

It was only three decades ago that night-soil collectors walked to our door to collect night-soil buckets. Today, we push a single button and flush ­– voila! Gone.

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