Miasmas in Milton – a colony beset by respiratory diseases

‘there is always a damp vapour arising [in Tokomairiro], highly prejudicial to the health of the inmates, and especially the children’

Francis MacBean Stewart (1875)

Milton in the 1870s was not the healthiest place to be. Dr. Frances MacBean Stewart the local medical officer of Health can be found deploring the high death rates in Tokomairiro in his various reports. At one point he claimed a death rate of 60% in the settlement! He attributed Milton’s problems to its position in the Tokomairiro wetlands, with the damp vapours (or miasmas) from the swamp, and the local green timber used to make houses causing no end of respiratory problems in the township.

The death certificates collected by the Tokomairiro 60 Project group for our St John’s Milton sample reflect this (Findlay et al., 2016). Of the 55 people with a listed cause of death, 20 people died of some kind of respiratory problem (e.g. whooping cough, asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, tuberculosis).  

Example of a death certificate showing respiratory issues as cause of death. This one is for one of the individuals in a marked (unexcavated) grave at St. John’s Milton. Here gangrene of the lungs is a complication associated with severe lung infection

We know that colonial doctors weren’t always as precise in their diagnoses as we are today, so we always have to take death certificates with a pinch of salt. But we are seeing evidence in the bones themselves of chronic respiratory disorders. B21, for example, has bony changes associated with tuberculosis in his hip and skull – this infection starts in the lungs but can move to other parts of the body. We’re currently working with our genetics colleagues to try and isolate the DNA of the TB bacteria causing his illness to see which strain he suffered from. Stay tuned for more news on this, and B21’s life story in general in later blog posts.

The high rates of respiratory disease in the colonial settlement of Milton were likely to have been very disappointing to settlers, many of whom were lured to the colony by the promise of fresh air and easy-breathing away from the crowded and smoky conditions of Industrial Revolution Britain. At this point in time, respiratory diseases were at an all-time high in Britain, fostered by the sulphurous smogs belched out by the growing-number of factories. People thronged to the cities in search of work, living in crowded, unsanitary conditions and allowing rapid transmission of diseases such as tuberculosis which quickly took hold in urban populations.

A landscape picture from the potteries of the UK showing the amount of pollutant in the air as a result of industrial activity. Source: Wellcome Collection. (Public Health: industrial workplace (CC BY 4.0).

The promise of healthy air and environments in New Zealand was a major part of the New Zealand propaganda.  In 1848 the Otago Journal claimed that there were no diseases local to New Zealand and that all members of society enjoyed constant good health. William Swainson (one of NZ’s leading naturalists) claimed in 1853 that New Zealand’s climate actively prevented chest infections…. ironically he himself succumbed to bronchitis and died in Wellington in 1875.

New Zealand wasn’t a place of uninterrupted good health. And Milton residents perhaps suffered more than most from respiratory diseases. Sadly, many children in colonial New Zealand died of infections that are preventable or treatable today. For example, the burial records from St. John’s Cemetery show that two sisters, aged one and three years, died of whooping cough on June 16th 1873. Several other individuals in this cemetery died of typhoid fever. Nowadays vaccines should make many of the deadly diseases suffered by early colonists a thing of the past. Today whooping cough is prevented by the TDaP vaccine, which is on the routine schedule for childhood immunisations in NZ. Typhoid is no longer a major disease here but the vaccination is still encouraged for people traveling from NZ to a country where it is not yet under control. Modern medicine has certainly enhanced the lives of 21st century Kiwis!

Charlotte King and Annie Snoddy


MacBean Stewart, F. 1875. ‘Medical Officer of Health, Milton, to His Worship the Mayor’, in ‘Reports from the Boards of Health in the Various Provinces’, H-22, AJHR, , p. 20

Swainson, William. 1853. Auckland, the Capital of New Zealand, and the Country Adjacent: Including some account of the gold discovery in New Zealand, London,

Otago Journal, I. 1848. p.6.

See also: James Beattie’s excellent PhD thesis on settlers and their environment:

Beattie, J. 2004. Environmental Anxiety in New Zealand 1850-1920: settlers, climate, conservation, health, environment. Department of History, Otago University.

4 thoughts on “Miasmas in Milton – a colony beset by respiratory diseases

  1. Very interesting. Good reading. Well done.

    Although I have my head down working on my next publication “Progeny of Dunedin-a North Dunedin Family 1862-1967” I’m conscious a newsletter is overdue for TP60 & Finch family members advising them of the current situation regarding TP60

    I’m thinking of including the draft list of names that will be going on the Memorial plaque, which is not complete yet. A life story abt. Jane Welham AND maybe a note about the existence of the Southern Cemeteries archaeological project blog.

    Can you send me a list of the blog titles to date for inclusion.



    PS Findlay with a d, in the last blog d was omitted.


    1. Hi Robert,
      So sorry about the typo in your name – that’s all corrected in the article now. Thanks for all of your excellent work collating the historical information and we look forward to blog posts from you in the future!
      I’ll send you the blog titles and URLs for you to add to your newsletter via email.


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