Plumbing in Collingwood


Language changing with technology is not new!  
Collingwood - early 1900'sCollingwood - early 1900's, Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection, T 178059/3Click image to enlarge

In the mid 1960's I commented to my mother-in-law about the design of 1930-40's bungalows, where the "Little Room" was always on the back porch, while the rest of the bathroom was in the main body of the house.

This is what Mother-in-law then told me about "water closets" coming to Collingwood, Nelson.

As a young married woman in Collingwood, my mother-in-law lived in a house like everyone else, with a path down the garden to a long drop in a little building.  Every house had a long drop.  A young, local man who was the drainlayer (or whatever his title was) went off to America. On his return, he spoke glowingly of "water closets" he had seen. Instead of going down the garden path, these contraptions were situated near or INSIDE THE HOUSE!! People were horrified. If all you had ever known were longdrops, how could anyone contemplate having one anywhere near the house.

Luckily, some people were partially convinced and  agreed that maybe one could be tolerated in the outhouse just beyond the backdoor, in the washhouse. Later, as people took up the new technology, the water closet did get put in the house, albeit on the back porch. As this became more acceptable, space was found in bathrooms and in the larger, more affluent homes, more than one was installed.

The Language

When I was five years old (1939) and lived in Papanui, Grandfather had a wash house in an outhouse just off the back steps, complete with copper, wooden tubs with a cold water tap and place to store the wood used to heat the copper. It also contained a small room which contained a large porcelain bowl with a massive polished wooden seat. I was just tall enough to pull the wooden handle on the end of a heavy chain to make the water gush noisily into the bowl. My mother called this the ‘lavatory" and used the term for most of her life until she found nurses in a care facility did not always understand the term so she learnt to use ‘toilet'.

Over my lifetime, there have been many names for this facility and I wonder what will be next. They include:

  • Dunny
  • Longdrop
  • Outhouse
  • Lavatory
  • Toilet
  • Loo
  • The little room
  • The bathroom (even when there is no bath there)

As sections got smaller, a more modem version of the long drop appeared, necessitating a person to empty the can under the seat (as opposed to a deep pit.) This involved a man with a horse and cart who plodded the wee small hours of the night emptying cans. Romancing couples hastened indoors smartly when they heard man and horse approaching.

As I took my mother and her sister through to the Haast Pass, we saw a DOC [Department of Conservation] Toilet and suddenly this ditty was quietly sung by two 85+ year olds:

The night was dark and stormy
The night man was within
We heard a crash and then a splash
My God! He's fallen in!

(I was in my 60's and had never heard that from two hitherto very "proper" women. Mother told me she learned it while at University in Christchurch in 1929.)

Story submitted February 2009

Updated: April 2020

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Further sources - Plumbing in Collingwood



  • Daley, C. (2000) Flushed with pride? Women's quest for public toilets in New Zealand. Women's Studies Journal 16(1):p.95-113
  • Dow, D. (2003, June 4) Dodgy sanitation a blight on settlers. New Zealand Doctor, p.43
  • MacKenzie, A. (2006) Our sewerage legacy : plumbing for alternatives. magazine,7(4) p.15-21


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