History of Adelaide Plumbing

The History of Adelaide Plumbing

Adelaide is forever linked to the River Torrens, the most significant river within the Adelaide Plains. Although the Torrens has faced some challenges, it helped spur the city towards modern sewerage plumbing.

But how exactly was an unhygienic past overcome? Find out more with the history of Adelaide’s plumbing and sewerage.

A Brief River Torrens History

Stretching for 85 kilometres, the Indigenous Kaurna people called the Torrens Karrawirra Parri (karra – redgum, wirra – forest, parri – river). It was integral to the lives of the Kaurna people.

When colonial settlers arrived to create a permanent settlement in 1836, many of them chose to camp nearby the Torrens. Surveyor-General Colonel William Light instantly recognised its importance as the major source of drinking water, too. That’s why his plans for Adelaide centred around the Torrens from the start.

Unfortunately, looking after the environment was not on the radar of early settlers. As a result, the Torrens was a free-for-all. Locals used it to bathe, for drinking water, and to dump any waste.

In less than 50 years, the once beautiful river degraded badly. One cause was the removal of trees and gravel which caused severe erosion. The other was a mix of pollutants and human waste which quickly led to some disastrous side effects.

During the 1800s, settlers either used toilet pans or a pan closet toilet, which was also called a thunderbox. A thunderbox toilet was essentially a bucket, or pan, housed in a wooden structure. There was no plumbing, and little hygiene.

The waste collected in the pan was dumped straight into the Torrens. Straight into Adelaide’s water supply.

And so, typhoid and dysentery were widespread. In 1839, on a day where five children died from dysentery, bathing, and animal disposal in and around the River Torrens was banned. Finally, in 1852, the government built a dedicated water storage facility.

Improving Adelaide’s Water Quality

In 1856, a commission was inaugurated to solve the city’s water supply and sewerage problems. The commission also instructed citizens to make and use water filters. Most were ineffective, using jars, slate, washed gravel, sand and washed charcoal.

Still, improvements were on the way. Two years later, in 1858, a weir was built to supply water to an off-stream reservoir at Thorndon Park. Adelaide was supplied with a cast iron trunk main which ran along Payneham Road to the newly constructed Kent Town Valve House.

By the time 1860 hit, water was delivered to Adelaide’s citizens for the first time, but this did not come without problems. Citizens were warned to open their taps so that air could escape and those that didn’t had their taps blown across the room by the water pressure.

In fact, the city’s early water pressure was so strong that the hydraulic pressure could operate a lift. Firefighters even tried to hose down loose dust from the roads and ended up damaging the surfaces because of the water pressure.

Over the next few decades, the Adelaide water supply expanded beyond the city. Port Adelaide was supplied from a reservoir constructed on O’Connell street in the city’s north and Glenelg was supplied from South Terrace.

By 1881, a fully functioning water-borne sewerage system was also installed. Although it didn’t stretch to every home, Adelaide was the first city in Australia to have one. And it was the perfect starting point for more and more improvement.

Adelaide Sewerage Evolution

The River Torrens gradually improved over the decades thanks to Adelaide’s expanding sewerage system. Sadly, it’s never quite regained its full majesty, but has remained relatively steady.

By 1955, Adelaide became the first city in the country to have 75 per cent of its suburbs connected to sewers. Meanwhile, over five decades later, the reservoirs which remain operational further into the Adelaide Hills, supply roughly 60 per cent of Adelaide’s water supply.

The evolution of Adelaide’s sewerage system also paved the way for iconic companies such as Caroma. South Australian based Caroma was the first organisation in the world to manufacture one-piece plastic toilet cisterns.

Meanwhile, in 1980, Caroma developed the dual-flush toilet, which has saved a whopping 32,000 litres of water per household.

Other iconic names to have come out of Adelaide include our team, Metropolitan Plumbing! Born in 1995, Metropolitan Plumbing has always aimed to provide  premier plumbing services. Over 25 years later we remain one of the most recognised brand names in Australia and remain committed to providing dependable customer service.


Published: 18 Jun, 2020

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Thank you to Matty and Peter C for their expert help and advice with a new hot water service. Matty is a superb plumber with a can-do attitude and great knowledge. Peter is efficient and knowledgeable. Both plumbers worked quietly and efficiently and tidied up afterwards.

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Metropolitan Plumbing - With over 600+ 5 Star reviews on Product Review, Metropolitan Plumbing is the name you can trust Metropolitan Plumbing - With over 600+ 5 Star reviews on Product Review, Metropolitan Plumbing is the name you can trust