I saw the dustbin lorries coming along to pick up the refuse today, and I was wondering how dependent our sanitation systems are on having this kind of infrastructure, and how did they cope in the past?
After all, in the Winter of Discontent in 1978/1979 on the UK, when the bin men went on strike, refuse just piled up in the streets:
The bitter disputes that followed were crystalised in the media and in modern memory by images of piles of uncollected rubbish and horror stories of grave diggers refusing to bury the dead. (1)
With many collectors having remained out since January 22, local councils were running out of space for storing waste. Rubbish was piled high in Central London's Leicester Square after Westminster Council had allocated rubbish to be dumped there. The rubbish attracted rats and, rather indistinguishably, the conservative media, who used pictures of the Square in an attempt to discredit the strikers. Continuing its constant campaign throughout the winter criticising the strikers through the medium of the "breakdown of public convenience", the pictures of the piled rubbish presented itself as yet another front on which to attack the workers. (2)
That's what we might expect, not just from a strike, but if there was a breakdown in supply lines, such as a diesel shortage, so that refuse lorries couldn't operate. It's a scary thought how dependent the smooth running of our society is on those almost invisible tasks which go on week by week. It's a custom to often leave some gifts or cash for the dustbin men who go out in all weathers to clear the frighteningly vast amount of rubbish and discarded packaging that our throwaway culture has developed.
So how did it start? We al know about the Middle Ages when life was nasty, brutish and short for most people, and incredibly smelly. Waste management meant throwing stuff out onto the streets to be washed away, or for more solid waste, dumping it in ditches and rivers. Soap was brought back by the crusaders, but only used by the upper classes in society, and then only infrequently.
After an outbreak of the Black Death which ran from 1348 to 1350, Parliament finally got its act together in 1388 and issued a statute to try and clean up England:
"Item, that so much dung and filth of the garbage and entrails be cast and put into ditches, rivers, and other waters... so that the air there is grown greatly corrupt and infected, and many maladies and other intolerable diseases do daily happen... it is accorded and assented, that the proclamation be made as well in the city of London, as in other cities, boroughs, and towns through the realm of England, where it shall be needful that all they who do cast and lay all such annoyances, dung, garbages, entrails, and other ordure, in ditches, rivers, waters, and other places aforesaid, shall cause them utterly to be removed, avoided, and carried away, every one upon pain to lose and forfeit to our Lord the King the sum of 20 pounds..." (3)
The UK's Chartered Institute of Waste Management produced a centenary history in 2007 of 100 years of their society. The story begins in 1751, with Corbyn Morris, then commissioner of customs in London, who noted the seriousness of waste problems. His strategy in 1751 proposed some pretty radical steps
- "One uniform publick Management", an integrated London-wide strategy
- Conveyance "to proper distances in the country", well away from the city
- Use of the Thames to landfill downstream (As still used in 2007 for barging from Inner London until that runs out)
- Use of the waste as a land improver.
In Southampton, meanwhile, "scavengers" were hired to clean up waste:
On 30 September 1769, that town scavengers had been appointed "to keep the streets clean and to send proper servants and carriages for so doing two days in every week on Fryday and Saturday". In spite of this, there were often complaints about dung heaps in the city.
In August 1770, that the Southampton Commissioners appointed William Bissington scavenger for the city. He rented the town waste at £5 per annum, and every householder paid scavenge money. It was an offence to "throw, cast or lay any ashes, dust, dirt, dung, soil, filth or rubbish, or the refuse of any garden stuff, or any blood, offal, or carrion or any other noisome or offensive matter or thing whatsoever" with a fine of five shillings for a first offence (Minute Book of the Pavement Commissioners of Southampton, 1770-89). (4)
The streets were swept twice a week, and the deposits left in heaps in the Marsh to be removed when dry, used as fertiliser, or placed on the Hoy at Water Gate from where it would be "shot immediately into the vessel" and shipped away. (4)
There was also a surprising amount of recycling of waste going on, because of the heavy use of coal:
The industrial revolution and migration to the cities meant that residual waste comprised largely coal ash from domestic fires. This residue was in demand for both (a) brick making, badly needed by a rapidly expanding London, and (b) soil conditioner in the neighbouring South East, including for the crops needed to feed the growing urban masses.
In response, London parish vestries began to let contracts in the 1790s. These granted exclusive annual franchises to private contractors, both to collect 'dust' and to sweep the streets. The contractors also established 'dust-yards,' resource separation facilities, from where separated materials were sold to various end-uses. (4)
The mid-19th century - as described by Henry Mayhew's "'London Labour and the London Poor", had five categories of workers in waste management (6):
Street buyers: buyers of various categories bought any repairable items, old clothes, furniture, waste paper, bottles and glass, metals, rags, hare and rabbit skins, dripping, grease, bones and tea leaves. Survived as 'rag-and-bone men' until well after the second world war - Steptoe and Son is a classic example.
Street Finders: The bone grubbers and rag gatherers were very much at the 'bottom of the heap,' eking out a miserable income from the dregs overlooked by others. More prosperous then were the more specialised finders, who focused on 'pure' (dog-dung, in demand for leather tanning), cigar-ends and old wood.
Sewer and River Finders: Included dredger-men, mud-larks and sewer-hunters. The mud-larks were generally children, who scavenged along the Thames beaches at low tide, before the embankments were built.
Paid Labourers: Dust-men were employed by dust contractors, and scavengers (street sweepers) by their sub-contractors (as street cleaning was included in the dust contracts). 'Night-men' also removed night-soil (human sewage) that had a ready market as a fertiliser.
Recycling Shops: A huge variety of shops bought and sold reusable goods and recyclable materials. The most comprehensive were the 'rag-and-bottle' and 'marine-store' shops, which bought direct from the public, from the street buyers and from the various 'finders.' The Rowlett's rag-store in Lambeth had been relatively prosperous, until they lost their entire stock of rags and waste paper in a tidal flood around 1870, and had to sell tons for manure.
Along with Victorian legislation for new sewage systems, sanitary inspectors etc, waste management also improved over this period, and it is from this date that we see the nascent modern refuse system. A major figure here was Sir Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890) who argued for new waste management methods in major cities and towns. His 'magnum opus' came in co-ordinating the influential 1842 'General Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain'.
Key dates regarding refuse collection:
1875 Public Health Act - local authorities responsible for regular removal and disposal of refuse, and required households to put waste into 'moveable receptacles'
1894 Local Government Act - created hundreds of new Urban and Rural District Councils across the South East, with responsibility for local services including waste collection, disposal, and sewerage
1899 London Government Act - transferred Waste powers from hundreds of parish vestries to 28 new Inner London metropolitan boroughs and the City of London council This reduced hundreds of London waste authorities to a mere 90.
The centenary booklet has an interesting case study - that of the "Winchester Destructor" in Hampshire:
Work started in 1875 on the building of a refuse-fired sewage pumping station in Garnier Road, Winchester and the plant was later extended in 1904 and 1930. The burning of household refuse generated steam that was used to pump Winchester's sewage three quarters of a mile to St Catherine's Hill for processing.
Dustcarts delivered refuse throughout the day, and boilers were stoked every two hours, day and night. Each week, roughly 160 tonnes of material was burned. Incineration continued on site but was later superseded by electric and diesel power for the sewage pumping. Southampton University made a film about the plant in the 1960s and there is a video copy in the Hampshire Record Office.
In 1885, a Fryers Destructor was also built at Corporation Wharf, Chapel, Southampton, and also burnt the refuse to produce steam to pump sewage, and integrating the two processes. (4)
More key dates relate to the vehicles used to carry refuse:
Until the 1930s, most waste collection and public cleansing was carried out using horses. In 1928 the percentages were:
Electric vehicles 16.4%, much higher in towns and urban areas with destructors
Petrol 15.7%, higher in towns under 250,000 population
Horse & Petrol vehicle combination 4%, the 'Container System' used by Kingston and others
Steam traction 0.6%, whose previous great popularity had passed.
Southampton was one of the last councils using horses for some collections near depots like Shirley, right up to 1967, and marked that event in 2007 with a 40th anniversary re-enactment.
It's remarkable how waste management has developed, and changed over the years, but to some extent it seemed that Victorian society had far better methods of recycling, even if they still had to improve sanitation and have better methods of clearing up rubbish. But some waste management still harks back to the older days, as for instance this report from 1985 shows:
The Travellers' scavenging serves a valuable economic and ecological function in Irish society. Tons of steel, iron, copper, lead, and other metals would be wasted if not reclaimed in this way; the Travellers also recycle used clothing, appliances, and furniture from the middle classes to the poor (Gmelch, 1985: 70).
In fact, although that was 1985, the itinerant members of the travelling community still go round collecting scrap metal even today as they did in earlier times. This useful work often goes unnoticed:
Another economic advantage inherent in the Traveler recycling approach occurs at the segregation stage. The segregation of material is not a significant cost in the Traveler recycling economy. As work-space and living space are one and the same, separate segregation facilities are not required. (7)
(6) Henry Mayhew (1862) 'London Labour and the London Poor', Volume 2
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