Recycling in London isn’t new – we’ve been doing it for around two hundred years. But it hasn’t always been for environmental reasons; and it hasn’t always been pretty… Lee Jackson, Web Development Officer for LSE Law and author of Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, explains.
The modern enthusiasm for recycling household waste dates back to the environmental movement of the 1970s. The capital, however, has a long history of recycling its domestic rubbish – although not necessarily for the good of the planet.
At the start of the nineteenth century, rubbish collection was the responsibility of London’s local authorities – parish vestries. They, in turn, contracted with businessmen, who employed teams of labourers to clean the streets and empty bins. There was money in accumulating muck. Rotten food, offal and bones could be sold for manure; linen rags used in the manufacture of paper; ‘hard-ware’ or ‘hard-core’, consisting of broken pots, crockery and oyster shells, could be crushed and used as a foundation for roads. Even dead cats were a valuable commodity, sold to furriers “Sixpence for a white cat, fourpence for a coloured cat, and for a black one according to her quality” 1.
All the above, however, played second fiddle to ashes and cinders – the great bulk of household refuse (hence dustman etc.) – which could make the recycling of rubbish a potential goldmine. Ashes had always had some value to farmers as fertilizer, and could be profitably mixed with the dung of road sweepings, but the great market in the early nineteenth century was amongst the brickmakers, whose works ringed the ever-expanding capital.
Fine ash was mixed with clay in the manufacture of bricks, and the larger cinders or ‘breeze’ – coal that was incompletely burnt in household fires – was used as slow-burning fuel. As London grew at an unprecedented rate, the construction industry’s demand for bricks became insatiable. The profits for the dust contractor, in turn, were commensurate. Wags joked that London was a phoenix, rising again from its own ashes. In fact, this was doubly true. It was common to use hard-core not only as a foundation for roads, but new houses.
The demand for ashes amongst brickmakers was so great that dust contractors paid local authorities for the privilege of collecting waste (as well as cleaning the streets for free, or at a discount). ‘Flying dustmen’ stole ashes from domestic bins, before contractors could reach it. In 1822, two men were arrested in Downing Street, described as “in the constant habit of creeping down into the area, and removing by stealth ashes from the dirt-hole”. They confessed that they “sold the cinders for 4d. or 5d. a bushel, and disposed of the small dust to the brick-makers”.
Workers in a dust yard.
The vast wealth of certain contractors would become notorious. Mr. Boffin of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865) is Victorian literature’s famous dust contractor (the ‘Golden Dustman’) having inherited Mr. Harmon’s King Cross dust-heap, together with a hundred thousand pounds (earned from the dust business). Boffin was most likely based on Henry Dodd, a successful contractor from Islington, whom the great author met whilst both were involved in an attempt to set up a charity for retired actors. Dodd reputedly began his working life as a farmhand. When he died in 1881, he left a thriving business in London and a renovated Jacobean manor house in Essex, with his personal estate worth an astonishing £111,000 (in comparison, Dickens’s estate, in 1870, was worth £93,000 – both men would have been millionaires by modern standards).
The business did entail some financial risk. In particular, contractors were extremely vulnerable to changes in the demand for ashes and cinders. The price paid by brickmakers for ashes was volatile, mirroring fluctuations in the building trade. Contractors’ finances, in turn, could swiftly become very precarious. Records from the ‘Day Book’ of a contractor in the early 1800s shows prices dropping from 16s. per chaldron (waggon-load) to 9s. within the space of two months, and down to 6s. within a year. The annual accounts of individual parishes, likewise, show how prices rose and fell. In St. Clement Danes, Westminster, the dust contractor paid £1,100 for the privilege of collecting dust in 1824/25; but only £900 guineas in the following year.
In 1826/27, when it was clear the metropolitan economy had fallen into a spectacular slump, after a stock market bubble collapsed, ‘he would give nothing, nor would he have it at all’. All this had predictable consequences for the general public – dustmen and street cleaners disappeared; complaints about unemptied bins were legion (“Bribes offered to the dustmen, complaints lodged at the Court-house, and appeal to Hobbs, the dust contractor, have all alike been utterly futile”2).
The use of contractors, nonetheless, continued. In part, this was because many contractors were closely connected to local authorities – rumours of bribery were rife. But there was also an assumption that contractors would ultimately return to paying handsomely for the privilege of collecting refuse – perhaps not this year, but the next year, or the one after that – and the parish would reap the rewards.
This actually held true until the 1860s. But London began to grow too big. The supply of cinders and ashes from the burgeoning metropolis began to exceed any possible demand. Likewise, the transport costs involved in shipping breeze to ever more distant brickfields increased proportionately. The price paid for dust by brick-makers dropped and – unlike in the past – did not recover. The railways also brought more and more factory-made bricks from the provinces, not cut from London clay.
Local authorities looked for new ways to make rubbish pay. Some dismissed their contractors and attempted to replace them with their own municipal endeavours. In the 1870s, for example, St. Mary Newington developed an extensive business selling ‘Newington Mixture’, an artificial manure conjured up from street sweepings and dust,shipped by rail from its dust depot to purpose built storage facilities at Meopham and Longfield in Kent, whence it was sold to farmers. In the 1890s, Shoreditch experimented with new incinerators – ‘dust destructors’ – which could power steam engines to produce electricity for local businesses.
But the halcyon days when rubbish collection generated great profits were over. Without the profit from ashes and cinders, recycling in general became less economically attractive, and local authorities increasingly switched to landfill as the principal method of disposing of metropolitan refuse – setting the pattern for the following century. Indeed to this day, landfill still accounts for almost fifty percent of London’s rubbish.
However, the latest strategy document from the Mayor of London notes that the relevant local authorities in the home counties “are increasingly reluctant to accept London’s waste”. Meanwhile, “Many waste authorities have not yet capitalised on the growing markets for recycled materials or on the demand for the energy that can be produced from waste”. The report blames “long-term, inflexible contracts” with private firms and a “preference to outsource risk”, and concludes that “waste authorities have not actively pursued the opportunity to generate income from their waste management activities”.
The nineteenth century’s alchemical dream of extracting gold from dust is alive and well, and living in City Hall.
1. Horne, Richard H: ‘Dust; or Ugliness Redeemed’ Household Words, (July 1850), p.380
2. Letter to The Times, 27th May 1885
Lee Jackson works part-time as Web Development Officer for LSE Law. A novelist and historian, he is fascinated by the social history of Victorian London, runs the website www.victorianlondon.org, and can be found on twitter @victorianlondon. His latest book Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth has just been published by Yale University Press. A public talk to launch Dirty Old London is being held on Wednesday 19 November at 6.30pm in the Wolfson Theatre – all welcome.