It was a dirty and unsavoury job. But who would have thought it could be life threatening?
James Mitchell was among carters hired to pick up human waste and deposit it at a depot for distribution and disposal elsewhere during the early 1900s.
The role of a night cartman had been in existence since the first days of colonial settlement in Auckland and the task was generally carried out in the very early hours of the morning.
Disposal of excrement was not always executed hygienically or legally and the process frequently came under close public scrutiny.
A number of "suburban sanitary contractors" were commissioned by the council over the decades and many were colourful characters whose business practices sometimes landed them in hot water.
It is likely that James's employer was Frank Jagger, who had worked in the industry previously as part of a partnership during the 1880s.
The year 1906 was a controversial one for Jagger who was accused of dumping "night soil" in the upper Waitemata harbour instead of burying it on a remote parcel of land.
He'd faced similar allegations before after human waste had washed up on various beaches – creating a health hazard for bathers and walkers.
Jagger got off with a 25 fine, much to the horror of commentators who believed he should have been punished more severely.
Just a few months passed before the industry was again in the spotlight for very different reasons.
Attention this time focussed on James and his accidental death.
The 40-year-old's body was found on a road near Avondale as the sun rose on the morning of December 28.
It was clear he'd been run over by his own wagon – though how the accident happened was not so obvious.
Had he fallen from the horse drawn cart and rolled under its wheels?
Or had he stumbled and fallen while walking alongside it?
Neither question was ever answered.
James, married with several children, was buried at Waikumete Cemetery.
The collection of night soil waned over the years as flush toilets became more commonplace.
The practice had all but disappeared by the end of the 1960s.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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