I was sorting out the recycling the other day and began to wonder just how the average Georgian dealt with their waste and rubbish.
To get the most unpleasant waste out of the way first – a privy and cess pit serving a home where a well-built facility was regularly emptied was one thing, the shared privies in a back slum, quite another. At least in Jane Austen’s day most human waste was dealt with via a cess pit and was not flushed straight into the drains that had been designed only to take the rainwater to the rivers. The privies were emptied by the ‘night-men’ or ‘night-soil men’ who carried out their smelly task after dark, tipping the contents into great vats on the back of carts that then trundled off to the market gardens that surrounded London where raw waste was used to fertilise the crops.
Animal waste was another vast problem. There were thousands of horses in London and added to that were the great herds of animals driven right into the centre of town daily to small local slaughterhouses. The print is from Ackermann’s Repository March 1812 and shows the Tottenham Court Road turnpike with St James’s chapel on the right. Today the burying ground behind the chapel is lost under Euston station. A flock of sheep and a cow are herded past on their way to London, a routine part of the day.
All the animal waste ended up on the streets to mix with dust, household sweepings and rainwater to create a disgusting muddy slurry. At least within central London the roads were cobbled – being ‘on the stones’ marked the limits of the hackney carriages – and the pavements were, as their name suggests, paved. In the better areas the parish officials would employ road sweepers to clear the worst of the mud and muck. This print by Richard Deighton is from his London Nuisances series and is entitled Passing a Mud Cart. The smartly-dressed gentleman is dry-shod on the pavement, but that does not save him.
Crossing sweepers, often young boys or elderly men, made their living by clearing a path through the worst of the muck whenever someone wanted to cross the road.
Adding to the mess on the streets were industries and markets. Tanneries, breweries, metal working all created foul waste water to be flushed away to the river. Beggars, scavengers and stray animals dealt with much of what fell to the ground in markets. Very little was wasted – even the most unpromising meat scraps could be sold to feed pets, guard dogs and the kitchen mouser. This print shows a cat and dog meat seller outside Bethlem Hospital.
In the home recycling was a way of life. The mistress drank expensive tea but the used tea leaves were a perk of the housekeeper who would dry them and resell them. The left-overs from the family table were eaten by the servants or given to the poor. Carcasses and scraps were boiled for stock and soup, bones could be resold for various industrial purposes.
Packaging was paper-based, so could be reused until it fell apart or was put on the fire. Clothing was re-cut and reused and gradually descended through the social orders from lady to lady’s maid, to second-hand clothes shop to rag man and finally paper manufacturer. In this detail from William Pyne’s ‘Guy Fawkes’ the woman applying blacking to boots is wearing an old army jacket while the coat on the guy has reached the end of its life.
The market for second hand goods ranged from the elegant antique shop or a sale at a major auction house to a market stall. Repairing worn or damaged goods was commonplace and gave employment to a range of craftsmen such as chair seat repairers, tinsmiths and cobblers.
In the household candle stubs were reused in the servants’ quarters, or if they were good quality wax, formed part of the housekeeper’s perks and were sold. Ashes were used in the privy or on the garden or, if thrown out would be picked over to remove every re-burnable scrap. The chimney sweep would remove the soot and resell it as fertiliser.
In 1805 William H Pyne produced the series of prints known as Pyne’s British Costumes, showing everyone from a highland shepherd to an admiral by way of bakers, knife grinders and aldermen. A detail from ‘Guy Fawkes’ is shown above and this is a detail of ‘Dustman’ showing the protective leather attached to the back of his hat so he can shoulder the baskets of waste.
The accompanying text explains that to prevent plague and pestilence the cities of London and Westminster had appointed ‘a regular body of scavengers, and dustmen, the former to sweep the open streets, and cart away the filth, and stagnant dirt; and the latter, to collect from door to door such waste materials as composed the dunghills.’ An Act of Parliament in 1670 required householders to ensure that ‘the dirt, ashes, or soils, of their houses should be in readiness for the Carmen, by setting out the same overnight in tubs, boxes, baskets, or other vessels…’
Pyne states that the dustmen ring a bell to announce their arrival and collect rubbish to ‘the dust hills in the environs of the town…time has brought to light, that industry, aided by experiment, can turn everything to advantage; and that rubbish and filth, the former pests of the city, are now become a source of utility and wealth.’ The rubbish had become so valuable that scavengers and dustmen had to pay for permission to cart it away. ‘It furnishes the means of an honest livelihood for a great number of men and women, of the lowest order, who are employed in separating the different materials, which are heaped together upon the dust hills.’
It seems that recycling in some form or another was a way of life for the Georgians and one that provided a living for virtually every strata of society below the wealthy.
6 responses to “Recycling Georgian Style”
Fascinating, as always. Recycling everything is such a tidy solution. Plastic has a lot to answer for!
Who would have thought that rubbish and dirt could make such a fascinating topic. I was riveted by this article, and as always, your illustrations are marvellous.
Wow, very interesting & detailed article! I wish we had kept some of these resuing & recycling traditions to this day. It’s sad to see so much thrown in the garbage that could easily be reused.
Another excellent article, Louise. I have this lingering question in my mind about how items were designated as rubbish in the better rooms. For example, broken quills, spoiled paper, worn out nib-wipers etc. Did the lady or gentleman hand them to a servant or was there a receptacle? I’m sure most servants wouldn’t dare assume something was rubbish.
That’s a really interesting point, Jo. In all my years of antique-hunting I’ve never come across such a thing as a wastepaper basket, and the dictionaries are no help either. I bet they were a Victorian invention – they created receptacles for everything! Presumably one placed the worn out/broken items on your desk and the butler or housekeeper would decide, or you’d toss them on the fire (and if you’d any sense, you’d burn your incriminating correspondence!)
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