Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Rubbish! A Short Muse on Why Dustbins are so Called

Refuse in on my mind a lot at the moment, because over the Christmas period our dustbin has not been emptied. When the dustmen come tomorrow, it will be a full 4 weeks since their last collection. Not great.

Dustbins are funny things. For instance, have you noticed how they have "No hot ashes" stamped into the side? This seems rather peculiar given that so many households rely on central heating now, and no longer have a hearth and a real fire. Even stranger when you think about it is the term "dustbin". (In fairness this is largely supplanted by "wheelie bin" but I'm of an age to still refer to a bin as a dustbin.) Have you ever wondered how they got this name?

There's an old saying: Where there's muck there's brass.
Would it surprise you that dust was once a valuable commodity? In fact, in the 19th century the demand for dust was so great that dust-collectors paid the householder for the privilege of taking away their dirt, and then sold it on for a profit to brick manufacturers and for fertilizing poor soil.

So where did all the dust come from?
Coal fires.
White ash, cinders, and fragments of unconsumed coke were waste products from the coal fires used to supply heat, hot water, and cooking facilities to domestic houses. In the 1850s it was reckoned an average household burnt 11 tons per house, with poor people consuming around 2 tons. All of which created a considerable amount of dust and ash.

If this dust was simply emptied onto  the street, the roads would have quickly become submerged beneath grey powder and filth. The answer was for each household to keep a bin in which to store the ash (a dust-bin), which was collected by a designated dust-contractor. The later needed the equipment to handle the waste, such as a horse, cart, baskets, shovels, and a buyer for the ash, or a plot of land on which to dispose of it.

The trade was so lucrative that dustmen paid for the privilege, and recouped outgoings by selling the dust on. However, as city's expanded, there was less and less land that needed fertilizing, and more and more households producing dust. Thus the market changed and it was no longer made business sense to pay for a dust-round. Instead, positions were reversed and parishes had to pay dust-contractors to take the rubbish away – a situation similar to today.

When Henry Mayhew wrote in 1851 about the dust-men of London, he reckoned there were 90 contractors, servicing around 300,000 houses – each looking after around 3,333 properties.

Speaking personally, I'd settle for less fascination and an empty bin. So let's hope the dustmen call tomorrow…

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