Return to Appendix One Index

Water Supply, Sewage Treatment
& Household Waste Collection

Water Supplies & Sewage

Neither of these industries have much in the way of a railway connection although both have made considerable use of narrow gauge internal railway systems. Fresh water supplies were simply not thought of when the country shifted over to an industrial rather than agricultural base. The technology was still largely experimental, in Manchester one firm laid pipes bored out of solid limestone in 1812-1817 but the joints leaked so badly the water never reached the taps. The local corporation replaced the stone pipes with iron by the 1820's but even by the 1840's only about half the homes in the city had piped water. The government passed an Act to regulate water supplies in towns in 1848 but this had little effect as the towns were still developing rapidly. Piped water supplies could not keep pace with new building let alone supplies to older houses.

By the 1850's, despite the efforts of the Commissioners for Improvement, there were over eighty thousand houses in London with no piped water, these were home to over half a million people. In poor areas of all British cities people had to rely on 'stand pipes' in the back streets, often these had no piped water supply and relied on a pump to lift ground water. Where piped supplies were installed the flow was often intermittent so people tended to leave the taps on to catch the water when it came and this added to the losses in the system.

Most people in towns and cities made do with polluted water from shallow wells, and with the mass congregation of people in the old and new towns and cities the disposal of the dead in town centre cemeteries added to the problems of water pollution. The increasing use of coffins after the seventeenth century probably helped reduce the spread of disease but in some town graveyards the land was now several feet higher due to the sheer number of burials. The large flat Victorian gravestones were in part intended to stop wild animals digging up the increasingly shallow graves. At Clerkenwell in London the well water was regularly contaminated by run-off from the massive Highgate cemetery.

The railways provided one possible solution to the graveyard problem when, in 1854, the London Necropolis & National Mortuary Company opened for business. This firm set up a large cemetery in an outlying area linked to the capital by a branch from the local railway line. The London end had its own station close by Waterloo and the cemetery boasted two stations (one for Protestants, the other for everyone else). The firm owned a fleet of hearse wagons but hired locomotives and rolling stock for the funeral trains from the railways. This business did well at first but competition from road transport saw it reduce its services and it finally lost the rail service during World War Two.

In 1859 the first public drinking fountain was put into service in London. The fountain, equipped with two brass cups attached by chains, was officially opened by the Archbishop of Canterbury and massive crowds turned out to witness the event. The idea caught on and within ten years most towns and quite a few villages had their own public drinking water fountains. The water supply was still somewhat unreliable however and most of these 'fountains' featured a tap. The two examples shown below are both in North Cheshire, the example on the left was set up in the middle of the road at a junction, the example on the left dates from 1909 and was set up in the centre of a village in memory of a wealthy local woman.

Fig___ Public drinking fountains

Public drinking fountains

By the 1860's supplies were relatively constant and people stopped leaving the taps in their homes on all the time to make sure they didn't miss the water when it was available, but tap water was still far from perfect.

In the 1870's there began to be serious public concern about the safety of drinking water. A series of outbreaks of cholera and 'infantile paralysis' (polio mellitus) provoked public interest and the Government began to act. They passed an Act in 1872 which ordered the local councils to appoint 'Public Health' inspectors and 'Medical Officers of Health', tasked with sorting out the arrangements for dealing with sewage and industrial waste. Things took time to arrange however and in 1874 there was an outbreak of disease, probably due to local water supplies being polluted by the over-crowded graveyards.

Iron pipes, made using sheet metal drawn through a die, were used for mains water supplies. Steel pipes were developed in the 1880's but simple corrosion resistant cast iron remained the norm. By the 1880's most towns had comprehensive water supplies but quality remained variable. The famous engineer F. W. Lanchester wrote to his family about his new job at a works in Birmingham;
"The tap water contained many living creatures, the most interesting of which was a small fresh water shrimp about half an inch long. Of drainage there was none."

It was only in the 1890's that water supplies were routinely filtered (although Paisley in Scotland had filtered water since 1802). In the early systems the water was passed through beds of coke to remove some of the impurities and most of the animal life.

By the mid 1930s only isolated farms and houses were still reliant on well water, having said which in the 1980s I knew a chap who bought a row of weavers cottages in a Yorkshire valley which relied on a spring for fresh water (he had it tested and it was found to be as pure as tap water). The spring was in the basement of one of the houses (he knocked the three together to produce a single large home) and in the 1980s there was an electric pump to carry the water (when required) up to the header tank.

Fig___ Advert for domestic water pump - 1934

1934 advert for domestic wtaer pump

Soft water is best for dyeing, tanning leather and uses less soap in the laundry. Hard water is best for beer, hence the success of Burton on Trent, however it depositis calcium which is bad for boilers and soap does not function well in hard water. Detergents, first developed in the 1940s, are much better as cleaning agents in hard water areas. The problems of 'limescale' building up in hard water areas lead to the development of water treatment plants

Sewers were equally problematic, the quality of plumbing had declined after the departure of the Romans and during the Middle Ages people disposed of waste materials by throwing them into the street. Sewers were built in the larger towns but these were intended to prevent flooding by draining off surface water.

A type of flush toilet was developed in the 1500's however it did not come into wide use because of the general lack of piped water to houses and the absence of sewerage systems. In 1778, Joseph Bramah, an English cabinetmaker, patented an improved flush toilet (more detail on Mr. Bramah will be found in Appendix One, Significant engineers and Inventors ). With increasing availability of piped water during the nineteenth century water operated flush toilets became quite common. In the early days however most of them drained into pits called cesspools, which often overflowed. Septic tanks were invented in the mid-1800's, but as with the cess pits these often overflowed. In London the 1848 Metropolitan Sewers Act required all new houses to be connected to a sewer, this was a good idea but difficult to put into practice. Machine made stoneware sewage pipes became available in the 1850's and a modern sewerage system began operating in London in the 1860's. In the early days there were many complaints that the existing sewers were not intended to carry human waste and the smell and perceived risk of disease were objected to. Also the sewers drained into the local rivers, polluting what was often also the local water supply. The latter problem was 'solved' by pumping the sewerage downstream before dumping it in the river and large steam powered pumping stations were built in London for that purpose.

The architect of the London sewer system was the British civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1890) who was chief engineer at the London Board of Works. The system he installed comprised over 80 miles (150 km) of sewers covering an area of about a hundred square miles (250 sq. km.). He went on to build the Victoria Embankment which contains a sewer and an underground railway, supports a road along the top and provided a mooring point for ships. The road along the Victoria Embankment was the first in Britain to be lit by electricity (using Russian designed arc lights in 1878).

The design of sewers is not as simple as one might think and problems arose when the rainfall was low and deposits of sludge built up. Men were employed to 'flush' the sewers using wooden boards (there is an illustration of men doing this work in Henry Mayhew's book London Labour & the London Poor of 1851). but this was expensive and dangerous work. The next idea was relatively simple; a large tank of water mounted on a horse drawn carriage was positioned over an opening in the road an emptied into the sewer directly. This system worked and the practice continued well into the twentieth century. Metal man-hole covers were not strong enough to cover a hole of the required size so on the cobbled roads stone setts were fitted which could be lifted to expose the hole. The only photograph of this work I have found shows two or three setts each about three feet (1 m) long by about a foot (30 cm) wide and perhaps eight inches (20 cm) deep. These must have been very heavy but there is only one workman in the picture. By the 1920's steam road lorries were being fitted with a tank and equipped with a long metal tube which could be lowered into the road-side 'gully' to pump out the sludge. By the 1930's motor lorries were also being used for this work and this represents a fairly straightforward conversion or rather modification of the Dornaplas Thornycroft or (for more recent layouts) Ford tanker road lorry. All that is required is the long metal tube (cigarette paper wrapped round a pin and soaked in PVA glue), the flexible hose at the top end of this pipe (a length of wire-wound guitar string), the swinging arm from which the pipe is suspended (stiff wire would do for this) and a 'pump' (a blob of Milliput carved to shape and attached to the tank). From a model railway perspective these vehicles are attractive as they can legitimately remain stationary on the road but they also have the possibility of movement in the release arm of the horse drawn tank wagon or in the lift and fall of the suction tube of a gully-emptying lorry in a roadside gully. By the 1950s the gully-emptying facility was fitted to street sweeping lorries, in the illustration below the bottom photograph shows such a vehicle in 2006. This machine is essentially similar in appearance to those I remember from the 1950s although it is larger and privately owned. Those of my youth were operated by the local corporation and were painted military green with gold lettering.

Fig___ Sewer flushing cart & gully-emptying lorries

Sewer flushing cart and gully-emptying lorry

Inside the houses things were also somewhat difficult in the early years, if piped water was available at all it would probably be a single tap on the ground floor (it was only with the introduction of cast iron pipes that mains water pressure could be raised to provide water upstairs). Water was not terribly plentiful and even into the 1930s many isolated farm houses relied on a spring or a well for their water.

The most common lavatory, well into the 20th century, was the 'earth closet', a small structure in the back yard which held a box fitted with a wooden seat, inside which was a riveted metal container. Incidentally the wooden toilet set was usually made of either oak or mahogany. When going to the toilet the standard procedure was to scoop up some ashes from the coal fire and take this with you. Having finished the ashes were then dropped down into the container, reducing the smell. The resulting mix was collected at regular intervals by the 'night soil' men, usually at night as the smell of the cart they used was a bit strong. This material was called 'night soil', it was used as fertiliser (called Marl) and if you dig up the garden or yard in an older house you will often find bits of broken clay smoking pipes which had been thrown into the fire. Civic pride and inter-town rivalry was such that in the later 19th century one councillor in Bury, north of Manchester, went on record claiming that
'Our night soil is of far greater manurial value than that of Rothenstall!'

Not everything ended up in the earth closet, human urine is a valuable material, because of its use in various chemical processes (notably the production of mordants, which hold dyes onto fabric) it was at various times illegal to throw urine away. Even after other chemical processes were developed urine was much used in hat making (the employees were issued with chamber pots for collecting the stuff), and in a thread on the uk.railways news group Brian Williams commented that -
My home town in South Wales was (and still is, in a much diminished sense) a centre for the tinplate industry. There, there used to be men with horses and carts who collected the urine from the numerous public houses. This was used to 'pickle' the steel sheet prior to tinplating or galvanising it. The chap who used to collect this from my great-aunt's pub was known to all as 'Dai yr Lant', 'lant' being the Welsh for his stock-in-trade.
The urine produced an interesting by-product, in the form of saltpetre deposits in the pickling vessels- many years later, when many of the plants were disused but not yet demolished, we used to scrape this off and mix it with the powdered sulphur to be found in grandad's greenhouse and charcoal pinched from the art room at school. We used to put tubes stuffed with the mixture in the middle of cowpats, light the fuse and see if we could get away before being showered in s***.

The common 'earth closet' toilet influenced the design of houses, where a terraced row was built it required passageways at intervals to provide access to the rear of the row so the night soil men could collect. In the deeds of older houses there is a often legal requirement to maintain access for the 'night soil man' and sometimes for his cart as well. A friend of mine has an end-terraced house purchased in 2001 and the deeds stipulate that he must leave clear access to the rear for this specific purpose. These passages are, in Manchester at least, referred to as 'ginnels', in a long row of terraced houses you will see several small passageways through to the back at intervals provided to allow the 'night soil men' access to the rear. The example shown below is wider than the quite wide front doors of the houses and would allow a small cart to get to the rear pathway.

Fig___ Typical 'ginnel' in Victorian terrace

Typical 'ginnel' in Victorian terrace

It was standard practice to build the outside lavatory against the rear wall of the yard, with a hatch provided into the rear passageway for collection. In larger terraced houses, typically four or five houses in a row, it was common practice for the path to the rear of the property to pass along between the back yard and the associated garden, so you had to cross the path to enter your garden. The photograph shows a typical outside loo building, built on the adjoining wall and providing accommodation for two houses, this example dates back to about 1900 when it was an earth closet type. It was subsequently converted into a flushing water closet in about the 1920s, at which time the 'hatch' at the rear was bricked up. In the 1950s the toilet was removed, the floor concreted over and the building has remained ever since as a garden shed with the door re-hung to open outwards. The structure is about 6' 6" (2m) wide along the door wall by just under 4' (1m 20cm) wide. This is quite a large example, if it had an outward opening door the size could be reduced to about three feet (90cm) wide by four feet (1m 20cm) deep, which would be typical for a smaller terraced house.

Fig___ Typical outside toilet
photo of outside loo

There was considerable railway involvement in the night soil trade, a thread on the uk.railways newsgroup turned up some interesting insights. Eddie Belass was able to advise-
Here in Newton-le-Willows, the former Urban District Council yard was rail connected right into the 1960s. One of the internal tracks was labelled 'Night Soil Siding', on which used to stand an open 10 ton wagon, parked hard against a sloping ramp.
Being of 1930s vintage myself I can remember that the hundreds of LNWR-built back-to-back terraced housed used to have a rear alley, along which came the council refuse cart once a week, plus another, rather special purpose conveyance which always called in the middle of the night!
My wife lived in one of these houses when I first met her and its toilet had only recently been converted to a flush type. Prior to that, 'it' went into a large metal bin, which had a second access via a wooden door facing the alley.
Again on a weekly basis, the council's horse-drawn, purpose built metal tubs used to trundle down the alleys with their accompanying crews who emptied these bins into the tubs. When filled, the horses would return the tubs to the council yard where they backed them up the sloping ramp and tipped all the contents into the waiting wagon.
The Earlestown pick-up goods would periodically collect this wagon, replace it with an empty one, then leave for a somewhere south of Warrington, where the contents were shovelled out onto a tip.
Dave Hill commented -
Well I don't go that far back but can remember in the late 50s and early 60s in the village. The row of houses near home were all earth closets. As many others were in the village The lavender man called with his horse and cart during the day. The produce was dumped on the farmers fields out the village.
This stopped when someone bought a property and installed running water and drains (previously all water came from a communal spring). Then everybody got the message (Grant aid) and building work - bathrooms, toilets and kitchens were added to property like falling dominoes
Dr Barry Worthington was able to point out -
It would be processed in a drying plant, reducing it to a powder like substance. It was used, in the days before chemical fertilisers, by farmers, and I suppose this practice lingered into the fifties.
Before the First World War, manure was very big business. In those days, not everyone had a flush toilet......ash pits were still used. The contents were collected by special wagons known as 'honey carts' (there is a model of one in the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester), operated by the local authority. The 'night soil', as it was termed, was mixed with manure from stables (the horse was still widely used in towns) and offal and refuse from council abattoirs. The mixture was dried and bagged, ready for loading.
The local authorities competed in advertising this product in newspapers and publications read by farmers and gardeners. (A chemical analysis of an average bag usually featured in the advertisement.) Bags could be ordered and delivered to the railway goods yard nearest the customer, ready for collection.
As this product was invariably shipped by rail, it was processed at council premises that were sometimes rail connected. Bury's town yard was situated just to the north of the first occupation bridge beyond Bolton Street Station on the present East Lancashire Railway. If you look on the right hand side, you will see the remains of a descending incline. At the base were once situated exchange sidings for, amongst other things, the shipment of the manure traffic.
All in all, an interesting episode of railway history that is largely forgotten today.
to which Roger C added -
From what I recall of the display at the Museum of Science and Industry. I believe the people of the Fen Country spoke highly of Manchester manure for its role in stimulating carrots.
In the North East of England several of the big colliery companies ran private railways through the towns eg Ashington was one. The narrow gauge tracks ran down the back lanes, and moved the miners and their goods as well as removing the night soil from the earth closets. Even now one can walk down these back lanes in any of the N East towns and see evidence of the hatches left in the walls. Ground level for the night soil and waist level or little higher for the coal.
and Joyce Whitchurch was able to advise -
Specifically relating to Manchester and the topic of rubbish disposal on the tips at Chat Moss in the years between 1900 and 1914, Nightsoil accounted for over 20 per cent of refuse, and Sweepings for over 40 per cent (roughly averaging 10,000 and 20,000 tons per annum respectively). These declined in both relative and absolute terms after World War I.
None of this except for Clinkers was deposited at Chat Moss after World War II. "Slaughterhouse refuse" and "Lairage manure" supplanted them until the spreading of refuse ceased completely in the 1960s. Apparently the smell of slaughterhouse refuse prevented its disposal by other means.
These facts come from "Manchester's Narrow Gauge Railways" by Robert Nicholls, published in 1985 by the Narrow Gauge Railway Society. The book also relates how the waste was transported from central Manchester, either along the Ship Canal or else by main line railway, then transferred to tramways for distribution in the fields of Chat Moss and Carrington Moss.
The book also has a splendid picture showing a chap in a flat cap at Boysnope Wharf, just off the Ship Canal near Barton. He's using a long pole - a /very long/ pole! - to guide the bucket of a mechanical shovel, which is transferring some wet and evil looking waste from a barge to a narrow gauge wagon.

There was then a considerable debate regarding the relative merits of the earth and water systems, the earth closet is by far the most ecologically friendly, producing a valuable by product and little harmful pollution, but the simple convenience of the water type won the day where piped water supplies and sewers were available. The use of human 'night soil' as fertiliser continued into the early 1960s in some country areas, where many older houses and cottages retained the non-flushing outside loo. There was a general push for civic improvements at the time and grants were made available to refurbish older homes, installing plumbing as part of the exercise. This in turn necessitated the rebuilding of many local sewers for the sudden increase in traffic they had to handle.

There had been some interesting variations on the plumbed-in flush toilet, notably in country areas where piped water was not that common. In a thread on the uk.railways newsgroup DB recalled -
Did you ever meet the "tippler"? My Granny's house had one. Water from the kitchen sink ran into a (below ground) pivoted container. When full, this would (without warning) tipple - flushing out the open pipe that passed maybe four feet below the lavatory seat. It came with a helluva rush, often very alarming for the occupant who was quietly sitting, contemplating life!

Such systems, and those where piped water was available but sewers were not, employed a 'cess pit' or 'midden', an open pit into which the waste flowed and from which the water leached into the ground, leaving behind a solid residue which had to be removed at intervals by the 'night soil' men. The open cess pit evolved into the 'septic tank', a self-contained closed settlement tank in which sewage is retained for a sufficient time for organic matter to undergo anaerobic decomposition. The sewage is liquefied, a thick oily scum forms on top of the tank contents and sludge falls to the bottom of the tank. The relatively clear liquid in between is then (ideally) treated further or (often) discharged direct to the environment. These still require periodic emptying but the modern systems have desludging intervals of typically five years or so. These systems are still used where access to a sewer is not available, the rules and regulations are covered by British Standards Code of Practice for the Design of Small Sewage Treatment Works and Cesspools BS 6297 : 1983 and Regulation H2 of the Building Regulations 1985 and its accompanying Approved Document of 1st April 1990. These systems are not without their problems however, the owner of a 150 year old house found that due to unusually heavy rainfall between September 2000 and February 2001 the cesspit was becoming full of water within hours of being emptied, rendering his sanitary and washing facilities unusable. There then followed a protracted court case with the insurance company which hinged on the definition of the word 'flood' (he won his case).

The flush toilet required a proper lavatory, designed to be self cleaning and incorporating a 'u bend' in which water is retained to seal the toilet from the smells of the sewers (The 'U-bend', or the water-sealed trap, was invented in 1782).

Early lavatory pans were made of iron and were difficult to clean but in the 1880's Twyfords solved the problem of casting a one-piece self-cleaning stoneware lavatory bowl with its integral U bend and this instantly became the standard. Contrary to popular belief Thomas Crapper (1836-1910) did not invent the flush toilet, it is likely that he purchased the patent rights for a siphon system which would operate even when the header tank was only part full from a Mr. Albert Giblin. The patent in question is British Patent number 4990 of 1819 and refers to a 'Silent Valveless Water Waste Preventer' intended to be incorporated into one of Bramah's toilets. Mr. Crapper was a successful plumber in London with nine patents to his name, one of which was for an improved man hole cover. He had the lavatory bowls he purchased marked with his company name, W. Crapper & Sons Ltd, and after he died his firm continued to trade until 1966. Nor is the WC named after Mr. Crapper, the new flushing toilets were called 'water closets'. They were placed in the back yard of smaller houses partly due to fears about hygiene but also because they often took the place of earlier 'earth closets', requiring no alteration to the internal plumbing of the house.

The general introduction of water toilets meant the end of earth closets in most homes and factories by the end of the nineteenth century. However the earth closet and its successor the 'chemical toilet', which does not require water or sewer connections, remained in use at outlying locations such as railway signal boxes into the late twentieth century.

In 1989 the regional water authorities of England and Wales were privatised to form ten water and sewerage companies. Following concern that some of the companies were failing to meet EC drinking-water standards on nitrate and pesticide levels, the companies were served with enforcement notices by the government Drinking Water Inspectorate. The problems of water supply are really a matter of sheer scale, we generally treat water rather casually in the UK and in towns the total used for domestic and municipal (road washing & sewage) purposes accounts for about 135 gallons per head each day.

Public Toilets

The idea of a formally appointed public lavatory is not a new idea, the ancient Minoans and after them the Romans had them but they fell from use for many years although there were places accepted as 'suitable' for the purpose, usually beside a watercourse. In York the oldest post-Roman recorded public convenience dates from about 1367, however it was the civic pride of the Victorian era that saw them become both more commonplace and also more elaborate. The intention was to prevent ’public nuisance’ and promote public decency but the resulting buildings were also an expression of style and the design of public toilets has reflected the architectural fashions ever since. As a result it is worth paying some attention to the humble public loo as a typical 1930s toilet on a Victorian era layout would be an unfortunate anachronism.

The first pay-for-use public toilets in Britain were installed in the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851. These toilets charged a penny for their use and this charge remained standard until the change to decimal currency in 1971 and is the origin of the phrase 'spend a penny'. Having said which the 'super loo' at Euston Station, which featured showers as well as toilets, charged a pound a go from its opening in the 1960s.

The Victorian public lavatories were as much an expression of civic pride as anything, a chap by the name of George Jennings was the architect of a country wide movement to establish these facilities, his designs featured elegant slate conveniences, with cast-iron arches, decorative panels and even pergolas. By the later 19th century his designs were in use in the streets of Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong and Sydney. In 1882 it was claimed that Jennings's name was known "from Zembla's shores unto the far Peru" for his service to convenience. In parks they often built rather ornate structures, complete with Gothic towers and even domes on the top. Similar buildings were erected in the streets, although these disappeared in the 1930s, replaced by brick built structures set back on the pavements.

Fig___ 1880s public urinal on town street

1880s public urinal

The example shown above is typical of the rather ornate designs then in vogue, the lead covered dome of the roof is topped by a gas lantern, serving as a street light for the road junction. The lad sitting bottom left is a street sweeper, employed to sweep horse manure off the road so ladies could cross the street in their long skirts. Horse manure was a fact of life on British streets up to the 1940s, in towns however it was often collected by children using the shovel for emptying the fire grate and deposited on the garden as fertiliser. By the 1930s having a gents in the middle of the street in this way was no longer practical as motor traffic density and speeds had increased whilst steering and particularly brakes remained problematic. Urinals of this type would still be seen in public parks, or set back at the side of the road, well into the 1960s, by which time they were ill cared for and often rather scruffy in appearance.

One odd point was that men in charge of a horse drawn vehicle were prohibited from leaving it unattended, in case the horse bolted. They still needed to pee however so a law was passed to the effect that 'the driver of a vehicle requiring to relieve himself can do so against the front off-side wheel of the vehicle providing he shouts 'in pain' loudly three times before commencing'. This may sound pretty unhygienic but remember the horses were depositing their urine and manure all the time.

There were gents urinals everywhere, often simply a rectangular structure of cast iron panels with a stone flagged floor surrounded by a cast iron roofless structure (for which no charge may be made). These always carried a notice reminding patrons to 'Adjust your dress before leaving'. A preserved cast iron gents urinal has now been restored and reinstated at the Crich Tramway Village (Crich, Matlock, DE4 5DP, Derbyshire, England). The Critch example has a street lamp mounted on it, not a universal feature but it adds a little interest. This type was usually tucked away, hidden behind other buildings, except on railway platforms where they would be in plain view usually sites close by one end of the station building.

Fig___ Cast iron Gents urinal

Cast iron Gents urinal

Public toilets for men were often marked MEN up to the 1930s after which the usual marking was GENTLEMEN. Public toilets for women were (I believe) always marked LADIES. This changed in the 1990s, to MEN and WOMEN.

Ladies toilets were, until the 1930s, much less common. When the first was opened in London in 1900 there was intense public debate, there was concern in some quarters that providing public toilets would encourage ladies to wander about. The first Ladies loo in Camden Town, opened in 1900, was repeatedly damaged by cab drivers deliberately driving their wheels against it.

Where the public lavatory was sited in a town there was a general acceptance that it should be 'in keeping with the area' so the syle of the building often echoed the surrounding architecture. The example shown below top left was sited on an urban thoroughfare in central London (not on the main road but just inside a side road). I believe this dates to about the time of the First World War. The example on the top right is a rare survivor in a park in South Manchester which may date back to before the First World War, the iron panels are now breeze block walls but it remains open. The two pictures at the bottom are front and rear views of a public lavatory close by a small shopping area in a residential district, I believe this dates from the 1930s. At that time the immediate area boasted two pubs, a church and church hall, a bank, post office, and several shops. Benches outside the church allowed people to take a sit down break, and there was a regular bus service into the nearby town centre from a stop outside the church. This loo was closed in line with Government policy in about 1990, however since the 1990s only one shop remains open in the nearby arcades of shops (selling pre-packed sandwiches and tobacco for office workers), the remainder of the shops are all now offices, also in line with Government thinking.

Fig___ Public toilets

Public toilets, probably dating from the 1930s

In town streets the Victorians were rather fond of putting the lavatories underground, accessed by a flight of steps, surrounded by tall iron railings and often in the centre of the street. The underground lavatories were seen in most larger towns and cities, the access stairs were often on a traffic island in the middle of the street. Illuminated signs, using early incandescent light bulbs, were often mounted above the entrance, in later years a simple white sign with black lettering was usually attached to the railings. The photographs below show an example in Manchester, there were two sets of stairs, one on either side of the combined lamp standard and ventilation duct. One for 'Gentlemen' the other for 'Ladies'. Lavatories of this type appeared in the 1880s, they disappeared rather suddenly in the later 1990s following changes in Government policy.

Fig___ 1880s public lavatory

1880s public lavatory

In the larger lavatories, equipped with proper toilets in stalls, it was usual to have an attendant based in the place, equipped with towels for use with the hand washing facilities for which a small charge was levied. As noted above gents urinals were commonplace, ladies loos were rather less common. The example shown below dates from 1934 and was erected close by the main shopping area in a town, about ten yards up a side street. There was an existing gents across the road so this was a ladies only loo.

Fig___ Ladies only public lavatory (1934)

1934 Ladies only public lavatory

This building is now being sold off for redevelopment, although to be fair to the council there is a modern public lavatory in the nearby shopping centre. Public loos reflected the architectural tastes of the time, the example is close by a library and park in a suburb south of Manchester and dates from 1940, even during wartime civic pride dictated that 'style' was considered worthwhile. It houses both a gents and a ladies, the entrance to one is at the front, the other is at the side. In the 1980s it was clean and well maintained, but in 2005 it was locked up in line with government policy.

Fig___ 1940 Public Loo

1940 Public Loo

In the later 1990s there was a concerted drive to close down the public conveniences, it was too expensive to pay an attendant so they were becoming vandalised, and with the introduction of legislation requiring toilets to be disabled friendly the local councils took the opportunity to close most of the remainder on the grounds that they were too expensive to convert. This was a moveable feast however, where it suited the council they have remained, the example below is at a local market hall and remains open (to serve the market traders) even though access is via a flight of steep steps as if closed a replacement set would need to be provided.

Fig___ Public lavatories at a market hall

Public lavatories at a market hall

By the 1960s, with the country still suffering from the financial constraints left by World War Two, public buildings were in general a bit bleak, and the public toilets built during this period were no exception. The basic design with windows placed high in the sides of a rather plain building echoing those of the 1930s and 40s but without the style and quality of design. The male and female toilets were still marked Gentlemen and Ladies and disabled toilets were starting to appear.

Fig___ 1960s public lavatory

1960s public lavatory

With the decline in civic pride (considered old fashioned from the 1960s on) the councils were prepared to spend less on public facilities and a long decline in the provision of public toilets followed. In the 1990s the Government decided to improve the facilities for disabled people, a perfectly rational objective, unfortunately however the legislation was rather hastily drafted and poorly worded. As a result this had the unintended consequence of closing something like 50% of the remaining public toilets in the country (as the councils could plead that cost of converting them was too great). Some councils had adopted the politically fashionable expedient of paying someone to do the job for them and employ commercial contractors to provide and maintain public lavatories. Oddly this reduction in the direct responsibilities of the council has required an increase in council staff levels. New toilets are being installed that meet the requirements of the disability legislation however these tend to be rather complex and technically involved contraptions that cost a lot, have a dubious history of reliability, and are therefore not terribly common.

Fig___ Modern coin operated public lavatory

Modern coin operated public lavatory

One poor executive in central London had the misfortune to encounter a particularly advanced self cleaning design when suffering from a spot of tummy trouble. Unfortunately as with any machine it relies on people behaving in the expected way. The chap in question inserted his coins and went in, he then opened the door, intending to leave, when he realised he had not finished and went back in (without waiting for the door to close and without putting another coin in the slot). Sadly the system did not allow for this behavior and the lad found himself trapped inside being sprayed with the powerful and smelly disinfectant mixture. I gather this absolutely ruined his rather expensive suit, and probably did little for his day in general. In 2006 one of the modern loos in a northern town suffered a 'technical fault' which caused it to fill with water and then explode. Fortunately no one was inside at the time, and no one was hurt in the explosion. Such is the nature of progress, but incidents such as these have done little to endear these 'advanced' facilities to the general public.

Domestic Waste

By the end of the eighteenth century most houses had their 'dust bins', small brick enclosures into which the surplus ashes from the fires, scraps of food and other rubbish were deposited. This waste, along with the contents of the outside lavatory, were collected by 'scavengers' who sold it for use as fertiliser. When Britain began importing guano as fertiliser in the 1840's the scavengers lost interest and by the 1850's people had to pay to have their household rubbish removed. Obviously some people saw fit not to bother paying for the service for in 1875 a law was passed which obliged all local authorities to clean the streets and collect household rubbish.

By the end of the nineteenth century the 'dustbins' used were wicker baskets similar in size and shape to a standard modern dustbin but without the lid. The lightweight galvanised metal type of dustbin was in use by 1902 (in Liverpool at least) but the wicker bins remained a feature of the London dust cart into the early 1930's. Dustbins were supplied by the local corporation and dust carts often carried a couple of spares to replaced damaged ones found on the rounds.

By the 1920s the standard 'dust bin' was a lightweight galvanised metal affair with ribbed sides and a ribbed metal lid. Most houses had only one of these, and that remained the norm into the 1980s. One problem with this design was that as the bin was emptied (by tipping it up and banging it on the side of the dust cart) it was deformed, so the lid seldom fitted. The noise of a cat disturbing an ill-fitting dustbin lid was so commonplace it was routinely used as a plot device in films.

By the later 1960s the 'rubber' dustbin lid was becoming increasingly common. These were a lot heavier than the old metal type (much less suited to use as 'shields' when playing at knights) and extended a couple of inches down the sides of the bin to prevent insects, cats, rats etc from gaining access. By the mid 1970s the all-plastic bin was becoming more common, although these could not take hot ashes from the coal fires (and were embossed with the phrase 'No Hot Ashes'), so the metal type remained commonplace into the later 1980s.
Fig___ Typical 1970s plastic dustbin
photo of plastic dustbins

In the early 1970s the black plastic 'bin bag' appeared, however the dustbin remained in use into the later 1990s, the filled bags being placed in the bin for collection. By the later 1990s bin bags were being supplied by the corporations, to be placed on the pavement on collection day. Animals tended to attack these to get at the food inside and from the mid 1990s the 'wheelie-bin' began to appear. These are large bins fitted with wheels at the base, they hold as much as two of the old dustbins but as the man does not have to carry them this is acceptable. They are wheeled to the rear of the dust cart where a special hydraulic device lifts and empties them into the rear (a hydraulic compacting arm then compresses the rubbish into the rear of the vehicle). In about 2000 a new bin began to appear in suburbia, a green wheelie-bin, slightly larger than the standard type and intended for garden waste (this can then be composted rather than tipped into land-fill). By about 2004 councils were starting to supply additional containers, typically a black rectangular box, for tins and glass to be recycled. This saves having to separate these materials from general household rubbish (mostly packaging by this time) at the depot.
Fig___ Wheelie-bins and tins & bottles box.
photo of wheelie bins and recycling box

The size of bins supplied to households has increased over the years. In the 1950s it was not uncommon for the metal type to be less than half full when collected. The standard size was about 24 inches (61cm) high and 22 inches (56cm) wide at the upper rim, most had a slight taper toward the base, some were near cylindrical, all had vertical ribs pressed into the sides and radial ribs pressed into the lid. Most people had open fires, so paper and other material was commonly burned in the fire rather than thrown away. The quantity of packaging increased from the later 1960s and by the later 1970s people were using plastic bin bags and it was not uncommon for the metal bin lid to be sitting on a pile of bin bags half again as high as the bin itself. By the mid 1980s the councils began asking people to simply place the plastic bin bags on the street on collection day, saving the collection team a trip back to the house to return the bin. As noted above this brought problems with scavenging animals and crews had to repeatedly clear up the mess so the rather large 'wheelie bin was introduced. The wheelie bins in my local area, introduced in about 2000, are 44 inches high and the top is 22 inches wide by 28 inches deep (to the handles at the back).
Fig___ Dustbins showing comparative sizes.
Sketches of dustbins

Commercial users, such as shops and offices, require larger bins. For a shop the standard seems to be an outsized wheelie bin, similar to the garden waste bins but black with a distinctive coloured lid. For establishments with more waste four-wheeled bins are used, these are quite large and are usually provided under a special contract, requiring a specially equipped collection lorry to empty them.

Fig___ Commercial premises wheelie-bins.
photo of commercial wheelie bins

The commercial wheelie bins are usually handled by rear-load bin lorries, there are however even larger bins requiring specialised handling gear. The example shown below is a large 'skip' type bin and the associated 'top loader' lorry to empty it. The lorry lifts the bin (using the arms on the front) over the cab to empty it into the rear body. These have been in use since the 1970s and remain in use in 2006.

Fig___ Top loader bin and lorry.
Top loader bin and lorry

One variant on the standard metal bin was the garden incinerator, a model of which is easily made from a commercial 'dustbin'. This was a standard metal bin with some holes punched in it, stubby metal legs added to the bottom and with a short chimney added to the top. People had been doing something similar for years, punching holes in the side of an old bin and standing it on bricks to burn garden waste. The commercial variant had been on sale since at least 1900 but gained popularity in the 1970s as councils switched to providing plastic dustbins. The system worked well enough for garden rubbish but I do remember a neighbour, disposing of some polystyrene ceiling tiles, who tried burning these in his new incinerator. Polystyrene is a major component of the fuel in air to air missiles and burns very hot indeed. By the time he got home the shiny new incinerator had been reduced to a circle of white ash.

Fig___ Garden incinerator.
Sketches of a garden incinerator

Dust carts and bin lorries

In the later nineteenth century street cleaning and household rubbish collections often involved large two wheeled horse drawn open carts (usually with a canvass cover to prevent the ashes from the coal fires blowing about on windy days). By the early years of the twentieth century four wheeled one-horse dust carts were in use with the rear covered by canvass sheets supported on arched wooden supports or curved sliding lids to allow side loading. The waggon sat rather high and the sketch in Fig ___ A shows two men tipping a metal dustbin into such as wagon, the sketch was made from a photograph dated sometime in the 1930s. Some carts had a raised body and the men had to climb ladders (carried on the side of the lerry) to empty the bins. By the 1920's steam powered dustbin lorries were in use (although never very common), these still had rather high sides and a canvass cover over the rear. Note the ladder on the side of the steam wagon in Fig___ B. In 1922 the first petrol powered bin lorry appeared. The steam and motor wagons and lorries were usually emptied by tipping through rear doors at the dump site but were normally loaded from the side (although I believe some rear-loading lorries, resembling furniture vans) were in use by the later 1930s). For side-loading work models with small wheels and a low chassis were selected to make it easier to tip the bins into the side openings, Fig ___ C and D show two Shelvoke & Drewry bin lorries based on their innovative Freigher chassis. Sketch C is their original 1922 design, D shows a 1930s version with a glazed front window and pneumatic tyres (for more information on these diminutive lorries see also Road Traffic - Steam, Motor and Electric Commercial Vehicles). The sketch Fig ___ E shows a common type supplied by Karrier in the 1950s. I believe rear-loading bin lorries appeared in the later 1930s, by the later 1960's these were equipped with mechanical devices inside which moved the rubbish into the body of the lorry, often compressing it as it did so. An example is shown in Fig ___ D, as with most specialised commercial vehicles the chassis was built by one firm whilst the rear body and rubbish handling gear was built by another.

Fig___ Rubbish Collection Vehicles

Rubbish Collection Vehicles

The wheelie bins do not have to be lifted by the crew for emptying, this being done by a hydraulic lift on the rear of the dust cart. The photographs below show the system in use, note the protective clothing issued to staff, a waterproof coverall with a yellow high-visibility jerkin, this appeared in the later 1990s. The photographs were taken in 2006.

Fig___ 'Wheelie-Bin' Rubbish Collection Vehicle

wheelie bin rubbish Collection Vehicle

Compare the size of the 'wheelie bin' lorry with the horse drawn cart sketched above, which would have handled a round of roughly similar size. In Britain in the 1990's, the average person throws away about ten times their own body weight in household refuse each year, adding up to some 50 million tonnes per year. From the 1970's various schemes have been tried to increase the recycling of waste but the results have not been terribly successful. See also Lineside Industries - Waste Disposal .

In the later 1960s the local councils began sub-contracting rubbish collection to private companies, but I do not remember seeing lorries emblazoned with logos until the later 1980s.

Street washing and sweeping

With all the horses in town streets the road surface was generally rather dirty and children would find employment armed with a stiff hazel brush clearing a path for the middle classes wishing to cross the street. These youngsters were still a regular sight into the 1880s but by the time of the First World War legislation on children working had seen them replaced by formal street cleaning services operated by local councils. British towns and cities had begun washing their streets in the 1830s using large rectangular water tanks pulled by horses. This supplemented a not very effective street cleaning effort, usually contracted out to 'scavengers' who also handled domestic waste. By the twentieth century most street cleaning services were operated by the 'direct works' or 'highways' department of the council. By the 1920s men with hand carts were employed to keep the streets clean, as the number of horses decreased the quantity of general litter increased so people continue to be employed on these duties. As traffic increased in the 1970s this kind of work became increasingly dangerous and by the mid 1980s people with hand carts were generally confined to pedestrianised areas. The carts and style of brushes have changed little, however since the later 1970s high visibility jackets have been provided to staff as a safety measure. The example shown below left would be valid from the 1920s through to the 1960s, the example on the right is a photo taken in 2005.

Fig___ Road sweepers

 road sweepers

There were also electric 'perambulator' street cleaning vehicles, equipped with a spade and a brush tucked into brackets on the rear. These usually had one or two red oil lamps hanging on the rear and in warm weather the operators 'donkey jacket' hanging on the front (donkey jackets were black thick woolen jackets with a waterproof patch across the shoulders). The upper part of the body was a dull metal (possibly aluminium) with two sliding hatches on each side, the lower part of the sides was wooden panneling and the whole contraption had a wooden frame. These machines may have been associated more with the parks department than with street cleaning, but I am not sure on that. The sketch is based on a description given by Phillip Holmes of units he remembers from the early 1960s in Manchester.

Fig___ Electric street cleaners perambulator

Sketch showing a 1960s electric street cleaners perambulator

Street sweeping machines were in use by the mid 1920s, as far as I am aware all were motorised (I have seen no references to horse drawn units). The example shown below left was built in about 1912 by the British arm of the French firm Lacre. It was designed by James Drewry, later one of the partners in Shelvoke & Drewry (est 1922, well known for their range of rubbish collection vehicles and fire engines). This vehicle was used by Motherwell and Wishaw Council in Scotland until 1952. The example shown below right was a similar vehicle, dating (I think) from the 1940s and used by Manchester Corporation. Three wheeled vehicles of this type, I believe, were produced into the 1950s. There were many variants on the idea, mostly smaller vehicles, but all had a large rotating brush mounted on the under side. These machines carry a tank of water, sprayed on the road ahead of the brushes to keep down the dust and help lift the dirt, in operation they left a broad wet strip on the road behind them.

Fig___ 1912 and 1940s road sweepers

1920s and 1940s road sweepers

The machines I remember from the 1950s and 60s tended to be quite large four wheelers combining the under-chassis wide brush with smaller rotating flat brushes at the side to clear the gutters. The rear of the vehicle had a large retention tank and often these machines were also equipped for gully emptying with a counterweighted arm supporting an eight inch diameter hose and drop-pipe. Up to the 1970s these machines (at least in my area) were all over bronze green with red and yellow shaded lettering and the council crest. In the 1970s the horizontal transverse brush was replaced by a simple vacuum system, at about this time diagonal black and yellow chevrons were added, usually to the ends, mainly the rear, and often in a narrow band. They retained the water sprays but only on the flat rotating brushes, leaving a single streak of water on the gutter side as they proceeded along the road. By the early 1980s these machines were (again in my area) all over yellow. The picture below is taken from a rather poor quality photograph taken in 1984, as I remember it the lettering was sans serif in unshaded red and the service was still council operated and vehicles carried the council crest.

Fig___ 1984 street sweeper

1984 street sweeper

Not all machines were this large, there were some very small versions in use from the 1940s equipped with a small cab just large enough for the driver and with only the small flat rotating brushes with a vacuum inlet on the underside. By the later 1970s the smaller machines were generally confined to pedestrianised areas where they can work around the benches and other street furniture. They come in various designs, the example shown is typical although there are also miniature versions of the modern road sweeper shown below.

Fig___ 2006 pedestrian area sweeper

2006 pedestrian area sweeper

Generally for sweeping the actual streets larger vehicles are favoured, the example shown below was photographed in 2006 but is typical of the kind used in urban areas from the late 1990s to early twenty first century. These machines are rather smaller than the lorry based designs.

Fig___ 2005 road sweeper

2005 road sweeper

Lorry based vehicles are still required where large areas are to be dealt with, they are the more common type in more rural areas, the example below was photographed in 2006 and is typical of the type.

Fig___ 2006 lorry based road sweeper

2005 lorry based road sweeper


Recycling is often regarded as something rather new, in fact it has been a normal part of life for thousands of years (scrap metal was being recycled 4000 years ago). Recycling has been a significant part of British life since before the advent of the railways, by the early days of the industrial revolution, with so many people crowded into the new cities and towns, many people made a living by sorting through rubbish. On the river banks of the coastal towns 'mud larks' collected washed up materials (never a very profitable living). Meanwhile in the sewers men called 'toshers' made a good lifing recovering bits of metal, ropes, occasional coins and sometimes even jewellery. Dog dung was collected and sold to tanners for purifying leather (by the 1930s we were importing the stuff in bags from Persia, now Iran).

Public Health Act 1848 began the proper regulation of waste processing and included several elements for promoting recycling. One rather profitable option for the local corporation was to process the material from dry toilets to be sold as fertiliser as discussed above.

The 'dustmen' collected waste domestic and industrial sources, the carts were taken to dust yards where people (including children) sorted through the heaps of rubbish and sivied out the coarse ashes. This was used both as fertiliser and to make bricks, as everyone relied on coal fires there was plenty of this material being produced. Also scavenged in these yards were other valuable materials such as materials such as glass, metal, leather, feathers and down, and textiles. Scavenging was finally banned by the Public Health Act 1936, because it tended to scatter waste about, this act also outlawed dumping of waste and empowered the authorities to prosecute people for it. The act introduced a prohibition on building on 'contaminated land' (such as former gas and coal tar works) and introduced rules on land fill management (this latter being largely ignored for many years thereafter).

When Britain began importing guano as fertiliser in the 1840's the scavengers working in the dust yards lost interest and by the 1850's people had to pay to have their household rubbish removed. Obviously some people saw fit not to bother paying for the service and the Public Health Act 1875 required local authorities to arrange the removal and disposal of waste. This law required every household to keep their waste in a 'movable receptacle' (the origin of the dustbin) which was to be emptied weekly (the Authority being liable to pay compensation if this was not done). In 1907 there was a change in the law allowing the authorities to collect trade waste as well, this act also authorises local authorities to levy charges for waste collection.

On the commercial side the The British Paper Company was established in 1890 specifically to make paper and board from waste paper obtained from organisations such as the Salvation Army and rag-and-bone men. The Financial Times and the Sporting Pink are printed on pink paper because it was not possible to get a really clean white from recycled paper. In 1921 The British Waste Paper Association was established (initially as the Association of London Waste Paper Merchants) to help develop the trade in waste paper for recycling. Local corporations became involved and some even operated waste paper trailers which could be towed by bin lorries (I think this may have been during World War Two, I beleve the lozenge reflectors on the white triangle were invented in the later 1930s).

By the late 1930s the lorries in at least one area were rear loaders, which must have made access difficult when towing the trailer. The ilustrations below are based on photos, possibly as early as the late 1930s showing a rear-loading bin lorry of the type used with (at least one Corporation's) waste paper trailers. The text on the bottom of the poster on the paper trailer was unreadable as the photo was low resolution and taken at a steep angle.

Fig___Waste Paper Collection

Mid 1930s domestic waste  collection lorry and crew

In more recent times, particularly since the 1970s, waste paper collection has again become popular (not least because it can be profitable).

Using waste for power and heat is not a new idea, the first 'destructor' was set up in 1874 in Nottingham to supply hot water. A high pressure steam generating plant was set up at a 'destructor' in Lancashire in 1899 and Councils took up the idea as they could use these to generate electricity for their street lighting, tram systems, water pumping stations and the like. These plants burned a mixture of coal and waste to make steam to generate the electricity. By 1900 there were about 250 'destructors' in use, although many were opposed as they released a lot of dust and charred paper fragments onto the surrounding neighbourhood. By 1945 incineration was at an all time low but re-emerged in the 1960s and gained favour in the latter 20th Century although concers were expressed about the release of dioxins (produced in small concentrations when organic material is burned in the presence of chlorine, common souces being waste burning, especially where plastics are involved.

Food is valuable stuff and pigs were often used as an efficient method of disposing of food waste, during the Second World War there was an organised system to collect food waste from schools and other institutions to be fed to the pigs. This was still in practice into the 1960s but foot and mouth disease brought an end to the practice. The wate food was collected in 'slop wagons', by the 1940s these had purpose designed bodies.

Fig___Mid 1940s Corporation 'slop' wagon

Mid 1940s Corporation 'slop' wagon

Council operated recycling facilities, simple skips into which people could deposit sorted waste such as paper and glass bottles, gained some favour in the 1970s but were rare until the mid 1980s when the provision of these facilities rapidly expanded. They were typically located in the corner of a suitable large car park and the nature of the facilities has evolved over the years. In the 1970s most of the paper recycling was done by schools and organisations collecting paper to raise money for charity, by the later 1980s the standard approach in South Manchester was to use a specially built container transported on a hook-on-loader lorry. By the 1980s the 'bottle bank' (first introduced in 1977) was usually part of the facilities, in my area this consisted of a series of fibreglass dome topped containers in brown, green and white for coloured and clear glass.

Fig___1990 recycling point facilities

1990 recycling point facilities

The collections were (in my area) on a Sunday morning. The paper container usually had a few newspapers sticking out of the slots in the upper sides, and usually by the time it was collected there were plastic carrier bags full of papers that would not fit in the overflowing container. The dome topped bottle bank containers were emptied through bottom doors, they were lifted by a hydraulic crane mounted on the collection lorry.

By about 2000 the old paper banks and bottle banks were getting rare and (in my area at least) there was a shift toward using large wheeled bins, emptied by lorries fitted with lifting arms.

Fig___ 2006 recycling point

2006 recycling point

The collection of recycled materials from houses has seen something of an evolution, in the early days (from the mid 1980s) only paper was collected, usually thrown onto a roof rack on the standard bin lorry. By the early 21st century specialised lorries were in use, operating a separate round from the normal bin lorries. In my area the recycling lorries have side access, the example below was introduced in about 2005.

Fig___ 2006 recycling lorry

2006 recycling lorry

Go to top of page

International Good Guys ~ Making the world a better place since 1971 ~ Site maintained by Disabled Access to Computing
All material Copyright © Mike Smith 2003 unless otherwise credited