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Perth's toilet history - wastewater collection in the beginning

About this lesson

Students identify issues related to the disposal of wastewater in the early years of Perth and write a letter as the Inspector of Nuisances.

Year level: 5, 6

Theme: Wastewater

Learning objectives

Students can:
  • identify issues surrounding the disposal of wastewater now and in the early years of Perth
  • use a dictionary or the internet to find the definition of unusual words and historical terms
  • research the history of Perth during the mid to late 1800s
  • plan, draft and publish an imaginative letter using historical terms.

Curriculum links

Humanities and social sciences (history)

  • The role that a significant individual or group played in shaping a colony ACHASSK110
  • The nature of convict or colonial presence, including the factors that influenced patterns of development, aspects of the daily life of inhabitants (including Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islander Peoples) and how the environment changed ACHASSK107
  • The contribution of individuals and groups to the development of Australian society since Federation ACHASSK137


  • Identify aspects of literary texts that convey details or information about particular social, cultural and historical contexts ACELT1608
  • Make connections between students’ own experiences and those of characters and events represented in texts drawn from different historical, social and cultural contexts ACELT1613
  • Plan, draft and publish imaginative, informative and persuasive print and multimodal texts, choosing text structures, language features, images and sound appropriate to purpose and audience ACELY1704
  • Plan, draft and publish imaginative, informative and persuasive texts, choosing and experimenting with text structures, language features, images and digital resources appropriate to purpose and audience ACELY1714

Things you will need

  • Inspector of Nuisances fact sheet
  • Dictionaries
  • Computer and internet
  • Props for the Inspector of Nuisances (e.g. waistcoat, tie/cravat, or black jacket etc.)

Lesson description


  • Ask the class: why do we collect and treat wastewater?
  • Talk about what students think happened with wastewater in the early years of Perth?
  • Have students take turns in reading out loud the ‘Inspector of Nuisances’ fact sheet and discuss.
  • Identify the difficult or unusual words in the fact sheet and record these as a class.
  • Use the Internet to view a photograph of W G Lobb, Inspector of Nuisances, Annandale (inner West Sydney) taken in1894. Discuss the photograph.


Part 1 – Word meanings

  • Divide a piece of A4 paper into three columns headed 'word', 'what I think it means' and 'dictionary'.
  • Students write the identified difficult/unusual word in the first column, guess the word’s meaning in the second column and use a dictionary or the internet to confirm the actual meaning.

Part 2 – Write a letter

  • Have students undertake further research to establish what Perth was like in the mid to late 1800s.
  • Get each student to select a date from the mid to late 1800s. Tell students they are to imagine they are the Inspector of Nuisances and write a letter to the Perth City Council during that period including:
    • Recommendations for water supply and wastewater facilities.
    • Some of the words and historical terms they have researched and previously learned.

Reflect & summarise

  • Nominated students use props to dress up as the Inspector of Nuisances and read out their letter.
  • Ask students to name some public nuisances.

Extension activities

  • Break students into groups and have them improvise a scene involving the Inspector of Nuisances.
  • Explore further why water supply and wastewater systems should be kept separate.

Teacher background information

What is wastewater?

Wastewater is the flow of used water from a community. It comprises 99.97% water by mass and the remaining 0.03% is organic and inorganic matter either dissolved or suspended in the water.

Wastewater treatment: in the beginning

Wastewater treatment in WA was primitive until the early 20th century. In 1896 the colonial government commissioned investigations into the need for sewerage systems for Perth and Fremantle. In 1910 a septic tank facility was constructed near Robbs Jetty to serve Fremantle, with treated wastewater discharged into the ocean.

In 1912 a similar facility was installed at Claisebrook, along with reticulation (piped) sewers to drain sewage from Perth and East Perth into the Claisebrook plant. Treated wastewater from Claisebrook was pumped across the Swan River to biological filters on Burswood Island, with the filtrate discharged into the river.

The Claisebrook plant was abandoned in 1936, following pollution of the Swan River estuary by wastewater from the plant. Sewage was diverted to the gravity collection system and treatment plant at Subiaco (completed in 1927). A similar plant was subsequently built in Swanbourne to service residential areas in its vicinity.

By the Second World War Perth was 73% sewered, but during the 1940s and 1950s funding for sewerage was almost totally curtailed. As a result, newly established suburbs had to rely on individual septic tanks. Today these suburbs are the target of the Infill Sewerage Program to provide sewer access to all properties.

Perth’s wastewater treatment plants

There are four major wastewater treatment plants servicing Perth and its surrounds:

  • Subiaco (1927) and Woodman Point (1966) serve the south and south-west of Perth.
  • Beenyup (1969), which serves the urban and light industrial development of the northern and some of the eastern suburbs.
  • Alkimos (2010) services the far northern suburbs.
  • An additional facility, the East Rockingham plant is scheduled to open in 2016.

What is an Inspector of Nuisances?

An Inspector of Nuisance is, or was, the title of an office in several English-speaking jurisdictions. In many jurisdictions this term is now archaic, the position and/or term having been replaced by others. This office was generally associated with public health and sanitation. The nearest modern equivalent of this position is an Environmental Health Officer.

Did you know?

The first Inspector of Nuisances for Perth was appointed in 1869, forty years after the foundation of the Swan River Colony.

Key vocabulary

  • Cesspit/cesspool: A pit, traditionally dug into the earth, where urine and faeces is disposed of
  • Nightsoil: A euphemism for human excrement that is collected at night from cesspits and privies and sometimes used as fertiliser
  • Nuisance: That which causes offence, trouble, annoyance or injury
  • Septic tank: A small below-ground treatment system where sewage is disintegrated by bacteria
  • Tenement: A substandard multi-family dwelling in the urban core