Plumbing the past

STANDARD, NEWS, COBDEN CISTERN CHAPEL 170210 Pictured: Brian O'Shannessy and Tony Van Rooy stand outside the Cobden Cistern Chapel. Picture: Morgan Hancock

STANDARD, NEWS, COBDEN CISTERN CHAPEL 170210 Pictured: Brian O'Shannessy and Tony Van Rooy stand outside the Cobden Cistern Chapel. Picture: Morgan Hancock

It’s not surprising the plumbers who made an “Ettamagoh” dunny to race in the former dunny races at the Warrnambool Gift have created a “Cistern Chapel” plumbing museum. 

Warrnambool plumbers Tony Van Rooy and Brian O’Shannessy obviously like a bit of fun but their Cistern Chapel is much more than dunny humour.

The collection of plumbing paraphernalia shows how changes in plumbing technology have made life a lot easier as well as highlighting past plumbers’ skills and the dangers they faced.

Mr O’Shannessy said he first thought his friend Tony’s pastime of collecting plumbing paraphernalia was “stupid” before he caught the bug and joined him at a few collectors’ rallies.

The collection grew and the two got a site at the South Western District Restoration Group’s centre that is next to the Cobden Miniature Railway and Mini Golf Park.

In the true spirit of the old plumbers who were ingenuous in fixing things, they recycled a corrugated iron shed from nearby Dixie to create a home for the makeshift museum.

It houses everything from old night soil cans to elaborate ceramic and metal piping configurations and the big array of different styles of toilet cisterns after which the museum is named.

Other exhibits include round the corner chisels and coin-operated gas meters.

Most have not been restored to add to the allure of their age.  

Tony, 67, and Brian, 62, have both been plumbers for many decades and know the tales behind many of the items including the inspiration for the saying “as flat as a shit carter’s hat.”

In the time before sewer pipes were installed, night soil carters took away the toilet cans from backyard toilets. 

They carried the cans on their shoulders and the hats they wore to protect their heads from spillage often wore flat.

Many of the museum’s exhibits are more than 100 years old such as a water main made of overlapping wooden slats bound with wire.

When the absorbent wood became wet, it swelled to become watertight.

Other items are bathroom water heaters using woodchips or gas that sometimes burnt the bathrooms down.

Mr O’Shannessy said people today took for granted having a big supply of hot water.

The early bathroom heaters often only produced sufficient hot water for one bath which meant all family members shared the same bath, with the last one in often getting a lukewarm or cold one.

The exhibits elicit lots of laughs and stories from visitors’ about their experiences with similar items.

Comic signs such as “Old plumbers don’t die, their plungers just perish” and a “Plumber’s Poem” add levity to the museum.

Old wooden toilet doors have a new role as display boards for collections of taps.

The plumbers delight in comments in their visitors’ book saying the museum is “a shit place” or something similar.

But while they can laugh about their work, they said it was clear advances in sanitation had provided big improvements in quality of life.

The improvements have applied to the tasks required of plumbers as well as for the people who benefit from plumbers’ services.

Mr Van Rooy said plumbing was a lot safer occupation now than when he started in the trade in 1964.

The shift from metal and ceramic components to plastic had reduced some of the hard yakka.

“We are not breathing lead and we now have scaffolding on roofs to prevent falls,” Mr Van Rooy said.

“I used to use lead topped nails on roofs because they sealed well.

“Now you cannot have any lead on a roof,” he said.

Mr O’Shannessy said the safety training he receiving for working on roofs when he started in the trade was “Do not fall.”

The museum also pays tribute to some of the plumbers’ hand skills such as soldering that were used in earlier technology.

But it also highlights the complexity of some of the new technology such as modern flushing toilets.

“Before a flushing toilet was so simple,” Mr Van Rooy said.

But even with all the technology, he said meeting his customers was one of the best parts of his job.

The opportunity to meet people was why he enjoys doing maintenance plumbing rather than construction.

Mr Van Rooy said while plumbing sometimes involved getting into unsanitary situations, plumbers were usually able to keep “out of the shit.”

Mr O’Shannessy said a lot of thinking was sometimes needed to solve some problems and attention to detail was vital.

“Something small, if missing, can cause a major health issue,” he said.

“It’s crucial to get everything right with gas,” Mr Van Rooy said.

The two opened the museum last year and they are getting many items donated by the public, filling not only the museum but also another shed in Warrnambool.

“It’s grown like Topsy,” Mr Van Rooy said.

Some donations are left outside the museum and the two sometimes rely upon visitors to tell them what the items were used for.

The museum is open on the third Sunday of each month, along with many of the other collections at the South Western District Restoration Group centre at the corner of Grayland and Hallyburtons Rds, Cobden.

The centre will also be open for its annual rally which this year will be held on March 11-12.