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. Pre-cast concrete staircases became popular in the early 1920s for use at the back of shophouses. Night soil collection was an important task for households and residents living in the Chinatown shophouses because it played a crucial role in maintaining the sanitation of homes.
Night-soil is a euphemism for human faeces. Toilets in the city of London were first introduced during the 13th century. The term ‘night soil’ came about because human waste was collected from buckets, collected in silence at night, and sometimes soil was put on top to cover it up. Night-soil carriers entered the alleys behind shophouses and climbed to each storey from there. To make it easier to carry the night-soil in buckets, they filled them with sand. These men would replace full buckets with spare or empty ones. He would then carry a pole balanced over his shoulder with cans attached to each end.
Since the 1880s, Chinese syndicates have been responsible for collecting and transporting night-soil to plantations on the outskirts of town. The onus was on the farmers and gardeners to pay for the removal of night-soil from households, however, once population reached a certain level it created an excess amount of night soil. Households would pay for night-soil removal through a service.
It was in the 1890s that the municipal authorities took over and implemented the night-soil bucket system as a waste removal method. They encountered problems such as the overflowing of night-soil on agricultural land and unsatisfactory disposal.
Pioneering sewage schemes were introduced in 1911. A network of sewage pipes and pumping stations moved used water to the new Sewage Disposal Works at Alexandra Road. When the sewage system first opened in 1930, it only served around 100,000 people.
The rapid housing developments and industrialization programmes of Singapore’s post-independence era helped fuel a program to improve the city’s sewerage infrastructure. As the population increased and more estates were built, more sewage treatment plants were constructed. Queenstown, Singapore’s first satellite town, was serviced by the newly completed Ulu Pandan Sewage Treatment Works.
All new flats came with flushing systems, and more households were retrofitted with modern sanitation facilities. The night soil system began to be phased out in 1984. The first station to have this done was the Toh Tuck disposal station, which closed that year. In 1987, Tampines closed its final sewage treatment plant.
Before only three decades ago, night-soil collectors walked to our door to collect night-soil buckets. Flushing toilets are a relatively recent development in the grand scheme of human history.