When ‘Going To The Can’ Really Did Mean Going To The Can


Most dictionaries will list one of the meanings of the word ‘can’ as a colloquial term for ‘toilet’.  Where does the expression come from?  Perhaps this short history of our park’s toilet and shower facilities will point us towards a possible answer…

For those who have been vacationing at Waihi Beach Holiday Park for many years, and in some cases for five or six decades, it seems that memories of the old toilet and shower facilities are among those which remain the most vivid – and not always for the best of reasons.

Up until the early 60’s the ablution blocks at the Waihi Beach Holiday Park were rather basic, consisting of can drop-toilets and shower blocks that ran only cold water.

Campers took it in turns to use their single cold shower, some electing to take a bucket of warm water with them in order to fend off the chill.  The warm water came from a ‘copper’ located between the cookhouse (now the kitchen and dinning area) and the ladies’ washroom, and holidaymakers would fuel it with wood to keep the water constantly hot for use with cooking and bathing.

The toilets consisted of army-style latrines; simple cubicles of wood and iron which housed a seat and a large tin can which was emptied just once a day.  The ‘seat’ was merely a wooden bench with a hole in it, together with a round lid which was removed before use and replaced afterwards.   Unsurprisingly, the toilets were home to large numbers of excitable blowflies, something which, when added to the nasty smell, made a trip answer nature’s call a somewhat unpleasant experience for campers.

Six ladies’ and six men’s toilets serviced the entire camping ground which, during busy periods accommodated a good many visitors.  Campers tended to brave using them only when they simply couldn’t hold off any longer – this being especially so after 4pm when the tins began to get rather full and, as a result, stinky.  As Pam Mitchell, who spent every childhood summer holidaying at the Park recalls, the ‘aroma’ coming off the toilets by late afternoon and into the evening was ‘hardly Chanel Number Five’.

The latrines were emptied at around midnight by the night-cartman – a local gentleman who, together with his horse, had the unenviable job of collecting not only all the waste from the Holiday Park but from the wider Waihi Beach settlement as well.  A flap was opened at the back of the latrine, the can removed, emptied and then replaced – a rather crude but effective system.  For those still sitting around a campfire at midnight, perhaps with a guitar and some beer, the standard song that would start up as soon as ‘Dan the Dunny-Can Man’ was heard coming began: ‘Tippy tippy tin, tippy tin, tippy tin…’  He would be given a beer and told to drink it down quickly – nature was calling and those still awake were looking forward to the small pleasure of using an empty tin.

Pam remembers a summer’s night when one of her parents’ friends fell asleep on the toilet, probably following one too many bottles of home-brewed beer.  The night-cartman took the can from under him, pinched him hard on the bum-cheek and then casually replaced the emptied can.  This pinch, in combination with a stiff gust of wind through the open flap, woke him up in a hurry.

In the early 60’s new flush toilets were installed at the camping ground – they were the first in the district and the rest of the beach continued with night can collections.  The toilet block was built close to the edge of the small stream which runs through the camp and, regrettably, the septic tank was only the size of an ordinary household one.  The result came with the summer crowds – mobs walking in off the streets to use ‘the nice new flush toilets’ conveniently located close to the public road.  The under-sized holding tank filled quickly then overflowed, its contents poured into the creek and onto the beach.  The Health Department, a very active government body in those days, came down hard and closed the camp!

When in 1964 the park lease was taken over and re-opened by Roly Green and Huon Gray, the toilets were re-built and more elaborate drainage systems were installed. Huon was the type who could invent and build something from nothing and in 1965 he modified a thousand-gallon petrol tanker and a vacuum system from Rolly’s dairy farm, bolted it to the tray of his Bedford truck and began using it to clear out the camping ground sewage and waste water tanks.  During the quiet months Hewan was able to provide this service to local residents too, but during the busy summer months when the sewage systems were at capacity the sheer quantity of waste became a problem.  Ever the thinker, Hewan struck on an idea – free fertilizer for grateful local farmers, and following its application, a little rain and a few days of sunshine it became fairly obvious as to where in the district Hewan’s truck had worked its magic!

Today, clean, modern facilities mean visitors to Waihi Beach Holiday Park can go about their ‘business’ just as if they were at home.  Although they needn’t hold their noses with one hand while swatting flies with the other, let’s hope that, having read this, they spare a thought for those who endured the old ‘cans’ for the sake of their beloved Kiwi beach holiday.