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Miscellaneous Housing and Facilities


Recycling in the past


Recycling was a way of life in Victorian times through to the early 20th Century, even though it wasn’t called that. This page explains why there was so little waste and describes the waste disposal of what little there was. It provides food for thought for us today with our emphasis on global warming and reducing greenhouse gases.


By the webmaster based on the memoirs of FEC (1906-2002), discussions with older people and additional research

My interest in old recycling methods began when I read my in mother's memoirs on waste disposal and refuse collection that people carried their dustbins out to the pavement for the dustman to collect.

This struck me as strange because full dustbins are heavy: During the 1940s and 1950s when I was growing up, dustmen came into side alleys and back gardens to collect dustbins, and householders did not have to carry them out. Even today, when householders do have to take their bins out to pavements for collection, thy are wheelie bins with wheels.

In the past there must have been much less rubbish. Why?

Why less refuse in the past: lessons for today

metal dustbin

In the past, society actually had very little to dispose of. Here is why:

How were ashes 'recycled'?

Ashes are worth a special mention because they were and still are heavy; and households in the past produced far more of them than we do today. This was because of heating water in coppers having the various fires mentioned above.

Disposal of ashes in the past

In my family in the 1930s and 40s, the coal ash and wood ash never went into the dustbin. We saved it and spread it on the garden. This was thought to improve the heavy London clay while also keeping the slugs at bay. We also took sacks of ash to our allotment to be dug into the soil, and this was common practice. Even soot from the chimney was saved for a year so that it lost its sulphur content and could be used for spreading around plants. People had done this for generations. Families who were not interested in gardening would knock on our door or come to the allotment to buy fruit and vegetables, or eggs from our hens in the back garden.

Peter Johnson

Of course there must have been a few families who wrapped their cold ashes in newspaper and disposed of them in the dustbin for the dustman to collect, but this was by no means the norm.

More ways that minimised waste

So what went into dustbins for refuse collection was minimal; and very little went into landfill. If a large item had to be disposed of, the first preference was the rag and bone man because he would pay us something for it. Dustmen would always take things away for tip of a few coppers. This was a source of income for them because they invariably knew how to dispose of most things profitably. In my own lifetime, when black plastic rubbish bags came in, there was industrial action by dustmen who considered that they were losing a source of income by not being able to pick over the refuse. I think they got a salary rise.

In summary, most waste for collection in the past must have been made up of only miscellaneous incidentals. No wonder householders could carry their dustbins out to the pavement for collection.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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