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A journey through the waste of time

By john workman  |  Posted: December 27, 2012

Victorian nightmen at work.

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This is a story about rubbish, or is it a rubbish story? Whichever way you look at it, the stuff has been ever present since the day our nomadic ancestors decided to put down roots and remain in the same place for long periods of time.

In those distant days of our social development the amount of waste generated was insignificant, due to a low population and only minor exploitation of natural resources. Common waste was mainly ashes and human waste, which released back into the ground had little environmental impact. Before the widespread use of metal, wood was used for most applications, a natural resource that could be recycled quite easily in a number of ways. But even after metal had become part of life, there is enough evidence to suggest that ancient civilisations were recycling what they could.

As populations increased, so did the amount of waste, and because the management of waste wasn't high on the list of priorities, the medieval period, especially in Europe, became a torrid time for every inhabitant of a large town or city. It was common for human and domestic waste to be chucked out of overhanging windows to rot in the street.

This inevitably helped spread disease, the most devastating of which was the bubonic plague or Black Death, that arrived in England in the spring of 1348, taking approximately 500 days to infest the whole of the British Isles. Ultimately it was to account for at least half of the 6 million population.

At this time England was still predominantly a rural and agrarian society, with London its biggest city boasting a population of 70.000. Here the plague took a great toll because the majority of the capital's streets were narrow and flowing with sewage.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, waste management became a critical issue as the population increased dramatically and there was a massive migration of people from rural areas to industrial towns and cities.

As a consequence there was a sharp increase in industrial and domestic waste and once again human health and the environment were threatened.

Vast swathes of open pasture and woodland became festooned with slag mountains from countless collieries, and in the towns nightmen were introduced to collect the ‘night soil’ (a euphemism for the human excrement collected at night from cesspools and privies).

They were the days before the introduction of enclosed drains and an efficient sewage system, when the toilet for the vast majority of people was nothing more than a wooden bench with a hole in it over a brick built ash pit, invariably shared by the neighbours.

In the 1840s the Police Act specified nightwork should not commence before 12 midnight, nor continue beyond 5 in the morning, which gave the nightmen five hours to do their dirty work. They usually worked in a gang of four and included a holeman, who filled the tubs from the cesspool, a ropeman, who raised the tubs when filled, and two tubmen, who carried the tubs and emptied them into the cart. The work was often severe; each tub could weigh up to 8 stone, and the stench must have been abhorrent. In the big towns and cities the night soil men usually announced their arrival by ringing a bell, presumably before the smell.

Once the tubs had been filled and any other rubbish collected, the carts were driven to the outskirts of town where the contents were dumped; the night soil re-used as farmland manure, and other rubbish sorted through to see if anything of value was worth recycling.

In January 2011 the Bugle accompanied Bryn Williams on a field walk in Oldnall, Cradley, a place that often reveals a few artefacts from the past, and after an hour in freezing conditions a plastic bag was filled with all manner of things. It was immediately obvious that probably over 100 years ago this particular field had been used for the dumping of household waste by the nightmen, and our final treasure trove included innumerable pieces of broken crockery and pottery, glass bottle heads, clinker from open hearth fires, over twenty bits of clay pipe, and ironically a broken-off section of a Victorian toilet seat.

These days human waste is dealt with by the flushing toilet and a system of pipes and drains that carry sewage away to treatment plants. But household rubbish is still collected by the dustman, with recycling a top priority for every local authority.

Every Black Country town also has a team of street cleaners who keep the pathways and roads clean and tidy, and in Cradley Heath/Old Hill Pam and Dave Cutting represent this worthwhile occupation.They are familiar faces to us here at Bugle House and ironically earn their crust from people's callous nature when it comes to dropping litter. But gone are the days when all the rubbish was collected in a cart and sent directly to landfill sites, as Pam explained to us one sunny morning in Old Hill: Recycling "These days we have to recycle as we go along, hence the number of plastic bags you see on the street corners ready to be collected later."

Society may have changed beyond all recognition since primitive man dug his first cesspit. But there is one thing for sure, as long as man walks the earth, rubbish will be left in his wake.

jworkman@ blackcountrybgule.co.uk

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