Mansfield writings hint at sewage secret

The deadly scale of an infectious disease outbreak in Wellington more than a century ago has only just been revealed.

Between 1885 and 1891, nearly 550 Wellingtonians were killed by typhoid and other infectious diseases like cholera. The population was about 30,000, which meant about one in 55 died.

Wellington historian Redmer Yska, who discovered the figures that were "hushed" at the time, said the outbreaks had a direct and marked impact on a young Katherine Mansfield - arguably New Zealand's most acclaimed writer.

The outbreaks, caused by raw sewage flowing into the harbour, caused such terror that Governor Lord Onslow, who almost lost his son to typhoid, moved from Government House to Picton.

Much like today, Wellington was trying to give itself vitality but, in the late 1800s, was laughed at for its unsanitary living conditions and annual outbreaks of lethal infectious diseases.

As a result, there was no record of the scale of the outbreaks in any council minutes, which Mr Yska trawled through when writing Wellington: Biography of a City.

He found 548 deaths, including 333 children under 5, between 1885 and 1891 hidden in the Registrar General's annual reports.

"They were conveniently forgotten, seen as bad publicity for the city."

Among the victims was Mansfield's 6-month-old sister Gwen, who died of cholera at the start of 1891. Her uncle died from a cholera-like disease.

"I argue, for the first time, that the terrified family, like others in the city, shifted to Karori at the start of 1893, as typhoid kept scything through the city," Mr Yska said.

Mansfield's father, Harold Beauchamp, later wrote that the move was for "the benefit of the children's health".

A massive upgrade of Wellington's sewage system, effectively stopping it being pumped directly into the harbour, cost $31 million in today's money.

It stopped the outbreaks and the family returned to Thorndon in 1898.

Mr Yska said the impact of the move and deadly epidemic could be seen in much of Mansfield's writings, but was often overlooked by Mansfield scholars.

He argues The Garden Party addresses the risk of catching disease from the "poverty-stricken" people who lived "in little mean dwellings" down the lane.

In A Birthday, a character walks through Thorndon muttering: "Everything here's filthy, the whole place might be down with the plague."

In The Doll's House, washerwoman Mrs Kelvey has "untouchable" children.

"Along with social snobbery, their infectious state is presumably one of the reasons why these ragamuffins cannot possibly enter the Karori house," Mr Yska said.

Victoria University Mansfield scholar Associate Professor Jane Stafford said the link made by Mr Yska was not one she had heard before from Mansfield biographers.

"I think it's very interesting."

While infectious disease was common in Wellington at the time, the move to Karori was usually regarded as being driven by social advancement.

The disease more commonly associated with Mansfield was tuberculosis, which killed her in 1923.

Redmer Yska will be giving a talk on his findings at Wellington Library at 12.30pm on Wednesday.

The Dominion Post