In Praise of all Dustbinmen

Yes, that’s right. If it’s not too early in the day, why not get out and thank the man or woman who empties our bins? Their work allows us to be civilised, clean, and tidy. They are necessary people. Their job has an interesting history too…and has also changed a lot from the days of Night Soil Men (singular Night Soil Man) or the earlier Night Men (singular Night Man).

In praise of all dustbinmen

Nowadays, we take much for granted. Using money in exchange for services has allowed us to distance ourselves from many of the tasks that we should not wish to do for ourselves. These include farming, growing vegetables, butchery, fuel gathering, extraction from the ground, and disposal of human and domestic waste products.

It isn’t written about much these days. People have forgotten about what a Night Soil Man did for us. As a young boy, I met one of these men. He was called James Heywood and he lived North of Manchester. He died in 1980.

He once recollected his work in detail for me and I listened carefully. As men who – as boys – had been denied secondary education of any consequence, they all enjoyed going to the secondary schools to empty the bins. This allowed them to look in the windows and watch the “young professors” as they called them, in the science and technical laboratories.

Interesting too that he referred to himself as an “Ash Man“. Locally, we called a dustbin lorry an “Ash Cart”  (typical vehicles here) and older residents called their dustbins “Ash bins” or “Ash cans“. The dry toilets were often referred to as “Ash pits“.

But it was more interesting when he talked about how the job had changed. “They don’t do what we had to do, raking out ash pits and night soil“, he said. I did not then have much idea about that which he spoke. Nobody was forward enough those days to enumerate the details.

Latterly, we lived in a terraced row in Lancashire. Down all the back alleys, there were gates to each private back yard*. In the back wall of each, could be seen where one or two small doors had been bricked up; one at ground level and the other about four feet above.

Then Mr Heywood’s words became clearer. The top door was for putting ash in a box or container and the bottom one was for the clearing of the waste which was (mostly) dry.

In other words, these were dry toilets and formed part of an important system of waste management and use. Here is how it worked in theory (and mostly in practice):

Every time the dry toilet was used, an amount of dry ash was dropped onto the detritus. The ash was sterile and came from the ash-hole (pronounced “essole”) which sat below the grate in the main coal range in the house. These “essoles” were about two foot six inches deep and were emptied about once a week. (This was a job that was often completed on a Saturday morning, when the grate was allowed to burn out. Cleaning the “essole” was often a child’s job in the house). When dry toilets were the norm, the contents of the “essole” were used to fill the dry toilet container.

Then, once a week and usually in the night, the night soil men would come along, rake out the detritus and take it away. In Lancashire, it was often taken by canal and railway to the Fylde where it was spread on the land and used as fertiliser to grow vegetables and salad, which were then brought back to Lancashire’s towns and cities (and elsewhere) to be sold. By the 1950s, mostly this work had disappeared – the Fylde greenhouses and market gardens also mostly long-gone.

The days of the ash men and their ash carts have changed too. No longer do they have to lift our metal bins out shoulder-high to the fronts of our houses; no longer is it a five-man-round (one driver, one each side of the street to get the bins out and then two to empty). I now see the bin man and the bin lady hurrying after the cart in all weathers but we mostly put our own bins out. Later in the day comes the recycling wagon to take our tins and glass away.

Recycling was always there but where once it became fertiliser, it is now industrially manufactured resources like glass, tins and plastics that command our attention – until recently that was and the opening of new power stations which are declared to be “poo-powered“. Well I never! It’s coming around full circle – but as ever, when things come back, they never come back the same – thank goodness!

*Back yard in England does not equate with the North American backyard, or back lot. In England, a back yard is a paved area, about 15ft by 10ft containing an outside lavatory and a coal house (mostly demolished these days as nearly all houses now have indodor facilities and coal no longer needed in such quantities). These buildings are rough built and each about 3ft square.  Some back yards were communal, meaning that they were much bigger and not walled off, one to each terraced house. Some of the back yard walls wer made of brick and some were made of slabs of flag rock, held together with iron plates and bolts.

In Praise of all Dustbinmen.


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