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.
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.
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.
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.
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.