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Muck and Rubbish

Historical Profiles: NarrowBoat, Summer 2017

Christopher M. Jones

Chris M. Jones looks at how canal boats were once used to carry sewage and refuse from major centres of population, like Birmingham and London, and the legislation that had to be adhered to

Private contractors were hired by companies to dispose of rubbish. T. & S. Element’s Comet is moored alongside a factory and is gradually being filled up, like a floating skip. Once full, she would be towed to the tip and replaced by another craft.

Waterway Archives, Arthur Watts Collection 

The disposal of human waste and refuse has been a problem for generations and back in the days of working waterways, several major towns and cities successfully utilised canal boats as a means of taking away their unwanted substances.

Until the Public Health Act of 1875 there were no definitive rules about refuse disposal. Once the Act was passed, each local council had to decide, based on its own circumstances, how refuse was collected and disposed of. ‘Refuse’ included many different materials, including vegetable matter from markets, fish and various types of offal, street sweepings including animal excrement, shop refuse and manufacturers’ or trade waste. There was also slop water from cleaning streets of horse dung, mud and dust, and surface drainage water. On top of this, there was household rubbish to get rid of, which including the contents of ash or dustbins containing cinders and ashes (known as ‘breeze’), vegetable and animal waste, paper, straw, bottles, food tins, scrap iron, crockery, bones, broken glass and rags. All this was sorted before it was disposed of, as most materials had a value.

Another domestic waste was sewage, which was collected by two means. A dry system, where the council removed the faecal matter and urine from ashpits (actually a small building and not a pit or hole in the ground), earth closets, middens and cesspools, was a practice known as interception. The wet system is more familiar to us today, and was the process where human waste from water closet lavatories was carried away through underground sewer pipes, to become mixed with rain and drainage water. Fortunately, for areas with large concentrations of people, human waste was much in demand as a major constituent of fertiliser for the agricultural industry.

This classic image of H. Sabey’s wide-boats loaded with rubbish and being towed on the Paddington Arm illustrates several aspects of this West London traffic. Firstly, these craft and those operated by other contractors were often used as dwellings, whereas boats used elsewhere were day-boats. Secondly, during the 1920s and ’30s many were captained by women, as shown here in the nearest craft. After 1936 boaters started moving into houses and the boats fell into disrepair.


Collecting night soil

At Birmingham in earlier times, rubbish, including human excrement, was shovelled onto carts and taken to the nearest canal wharf, where materials such as broken bricks and old cans were removed by hand. The faecal matter was sold to farmers as fertiliser. It was tipped into boats, either hired especially or sent by farmers whose land was close to the canal, and taken out into the country. Waste left at canalside tips could be collected by nearby farmers, who paid for it by the cartload.

In 1871, the Birmingham Corporation created the Interception & Night Soil Department to better organise and deal with waste collected using the dry system. Pan closets and privies were slowly replacing the old ashpits and middens, and only a small amount of human waste went into the sewers as few people had water closets. The dry waste was collected in tubs, which were emptied into specially constructed vans fittedwith enclosed compartments, each containing galvanised iron pails. The contents were then mixed with various absorbent materials at a council depot. The faecal matter was known as ‘night soil’, as it was generally collected by the ‘Night Men’ or ‘Getters Out’ who worked from 11pm to 8am.

Over time the corporation increased the number of wharves in the town centre and tips in rural districts. The main refuse depot was Montague Street Wharf, situated on the towpath side of the Warwick & Birmingham Canal, between the River Rea Aqueduct and a viaduct carrying the Great Western Railway. A towpath bridge allowed access into a basin built at the depot in 1876.

Making manure

That year, there was an effort to improve matters by processing the night soil to create a concentrated manure to be sold for profit. It was dried at the Montague Street depot, then mixed with fine screened ashes by men with shovels, to create a crude manure product that was delivered to farmers by boat. This hand-mixing process gave way to a mechanicalmethod using a steam-powered pug mill, after which the manure passed down a pipe directly into a boat.

More scientific improvements came in 1879 when the screened night soil was mixed with sulphuric acid to fix the ammonia, then dried in a steampowered rotary cylinder mill using waste heat from burning dry refuse. The result was a dehydrated manure powder known as ‘Poudrette’, which was packed into bags and sold to artificial manure manufacturers, who added charcoal and gypsum to make a highly concentrated ammonia-rich fertiliser.

Manufacturing chemists Proctor & Ryland of Birmingham collected Poudrette from Montague Street Wharf in carts. In February 1880 the company had an old boat named Hannah registered at Birmingham and captained by Frederick Moss, which took the Poudrette from Birmingham to its works at Saltney in Cheshire, returning with coal loaded at Hednesford.

Over time the making of Poudrette became a profitable enterprise and the product was sold to many customers. However, as the use of town gas increased, fewer ashes were collected. More water closets were also installed, reducing the amount of night soil. Poudrette production ended in May 1906.

This view of Adderley Street Gas Works, alongside the Warwick & Birmingham Canal at Camp Hill, below Engine Lock No 56, shows an open boat of the Birmingham, Tame & Rea District Drainage Board loaded with eight boxes of screened ashes. These were taken to Trout Pool Basin on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal for onward haulage to Minworth sewage purification works. Adderley Street was one of several gas and electricity works in Birmingham served by the Drainage Board under their ‘Ashes Disposal Scheme’. Others included Walsall Wood and Aldridge.

National Gas Archive/John Horne/BDL 

Christopher M. Jones Collection

This late afternoon scene shows Wilburn Street Basin at Salford, just off the River Irwell. Built in 1864, the basin provided a refuge and moorings for craft on the river, and was accessed under a towpath bridge, which is just off the picture to the right. The wall behind the railings separates the towpath from the basin area.  At the time this photo was taken, probably in the 1890s, the site was a corporation yard for Salford, and was used for processing domestic rubbish and waste.  

This image shows an efficient means of loading what looks like manure down a chute into the wooden flat Frances below.  The boat was registered number 370 at Manchester in July 1879, the first year the Canal Boat Act came into force. Judging by the wheelbarrow, the vessel was unloaded partly by hand.  

The large chute is hinged at the basin wall and attached to the metal frame overhead by a system of ropes and pulleys. By turning a large wheel, positioned just behind the safety railings above, the chute could be raised and lowered via two geared shafts. The gas lamp positioned above the working area is there to provide illumination during the reduced hours of daylight in winter. Mooring rings are conveniently placed for tying up craft, and the steps on the extreme left go all the way down almost to water level. There was a similar set of steps on the opposite side of the basin where the boats are moored at the bottom right. In the distance, on the other side of the Irwell, is Manchester City’s corporation yard in Water Street, including the chimney of its refuse destructor, built in 1876 and the first in Britain.  

After the Manchester Ship Canal opened in 1894, waste from Manchester and Salford was taken by boat to Carrington Wharf near Irlam on the southern bank, then loaded onto a light railway to be transported away and dispersed over Carrington Moss. Frances’s registration was cancelled 30 years later in 1909, as by then Salford had built its own destructor at Wilburn Street, near the basin at the northern boundary of the corporation yard. The basin continued in use for many decades, and the yard was renamed the Cleansing Depot. Following a later period of dereliction the site is now part of a recent riverside housing development.

A Birmingham Salvage Department wooden day-boat has just left the second lock down of the Camp Hill flight en route to the Bordesley Depot. This photograph was taken in March 1964; traffic ceased a year later.

Weaver Collection 

Birmingham boats

In February 1873 Birmingham had five canal boats for carrying refuse and night soil; by 1880 this had increased to 34. Even this was insufficient, so in September of that year eight new boats were ordered to save hiring them from contractors.

Building and maintenance of the corporation’s boats was tendered out to Birmingham-based boat docks. In the 1880s, the Birmingham & Midland Boat Building Company at Tindal Street had a seven-year contract to build 20 boats, but these proved unsatisfactory – the boats leaked and had to be baled out while underway. The contract was terminated and awarded instead to Charles Finch, who also failed to meet the corporation’s expectations. William Clayton of Saltley then built 12 boats and took over the maintenance of the whole fleet. He was succeeded by Fellows, Morton & Clayton Ltd, which, in 1911, supplied three iron boats at £130 each to replace older wooden craft. Joseph Lovekin’s dock at Icknield Port Road, and Edward Tailby at Albion Dock, also carried out work for the corporation. Old boats were generally sold off, for example to Samuel Barnett & Sons of the Rattle Chain & Stour Valley Brick Works at Dudley Port, sometimes for just a few pounds.

During the 1870s some cities separated liquid and solid human waste when it arrived at the depot. The liquid waste, which was mainly urine, was stored in a tank and processed in a municipal incinerator known as a ‘destructor’. This process was first used in Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, then later adopted elsewhere. Any refuse and night soil that was not processed and recycled continued to be boated to corporation tips in the country. Night soil was transported along the BCN, Warwick & Birmingham, Worcester & Birmingham, Stratford-upon-Avon and Birmingham & Fazeley canals. The latter was a well-used throughroute, but had a reputation as an open sewer, with boatmen throwing human excrement into the canal to lighten their loads, resulting in frequent complaints from the canal companies and local residents. Apart from the foul stench, passage along the cut was far more difficult with loaded boats, and one boatman claimed it took him ten hours to travel just 5 miles.

Birmingham’s Salvage Department wharf on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Salvage Turn, looking north-west towards Worcester Wharf, sandwiched between Gas Street and Bridge Street. The canal here forms an aqueduct over Holliday Street; its brick parapet can be seen on the left. The Salvage Department’s wooden horse-boat No 15 lies part filled and is held in place by a chain fastened to the middle beam, a common way to moor such craft on the BCN. It dates from 1921 and was weighed by the BCN as No 125.

Richard Courtenay Lord Collection

Birmingham’s refuse department went through several incarnations between the 1880s and 1970s, but it appears that the Birmingham Salvage Department was created in 1918 from its predecessor, the Refuse Department. Here the department’s wooden boat No 17 is seen on the BCN New Main Line approaching Smethwick Junction, where it connects with the Old Main Line just beyond the iron towpath bridge on the left. On the right is Kingston Metal Works and in the distance Soho Foundry. The boat was weighed by the BCN at Smethwick in 1921 and its official number, 131, is painted on the stern.

Richard Courtenay Lord Collection

These two images illustrate a little-known aspect of Birmingham’s sewage treatment. During World War I the Birmingham, Tame & Rea District Drainage Board took on the disposal of ashes and clinker from the city’s public works, electricity supply and gas departments. This became known as the Ashes Disposal Scheme and a fleet of new day-boats, each designed to carry eight removable wooden boxes, was acquired. A new motor-boat, built by Joseph Lovekin in 1919 and fitted with a Gardner oil engine, and in 1920 a wheel-steered motor tug (shown here) were also used.

The tug was built by E.C.S. Backhouse of Birmingham for £2,000 and fitted with a twin-cylinder 30hp Gardner engine. This is very similar to tugs designed by James Pollock for the BCN, for which specifications were published in 1919. The boxes shown aboard one of the day-boats were loaded with coarse screened ashes from gas and electricity works in the authority’s area. These day-boats were horse-hauled from the various works to Trout Pool Basin near Salford Bridge, which was built in about 1866 on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal. From here they were towed by the tug to Minworth Top Lock, where the board had a winding hole built. The tug could tow about three boats, handled by a two-man crew of a driver and steerer. Passage from the top lock to Minworth Greaves Basin, built for this traffic in 1919, was by horse haulage. After unloading there, the 4-ton boxes were lifted out by an electric crane and loaded on to 2ft gauge tramway wagons. They were taken to a tip where they were later filtered for use in the authority’s sewage sludge drying area. In 1939 the authority had trouble retaining boatmen, who were leaving for better paid jobs in factories. In May 1940 the Ashes Disposal Scheme ended and the 56 open-boats, motor-boat and tug were put up for sale. Fifty-one open-boats, as well as the motor-boat and tug, went to boat-builders Worsey Ltd for £750, five more went to Ernest Thomas for £100, and the horse harness was sold to Leonard Leigh Ltd for £20.

Laurence Hogg

In 1881 a boatman was fined in court for throwing manure in the canal, and the following year the Warwick & Birmingham Canal employed a police inspector to deal with the problem, which was increasing dredging costs at wharves and on the navigation. In 1883 a set of rules was laid down by officials to cover the loading, boating and unloading of manure, and in 1884, after further complaints, the corporation employed a man to supervise the boatmen while the boats were in transit and unloading. Five men were sacked for breaking the rules in a case that went to court.

The boats and barges used for carrying offensive cargoes should ideally have had double watertight bulkheads to protect the cabins from ingress of liquids or matter from the cargo. This was a legal requirement under the Canal Boat Acts, but was not always adhered to. In 1888, boats inspected at Liverpool were found to be breaking the rule, and the following year even more were discovered. Summonses were issued against the owners in some cases. In 1889, a boat loaded with slaughterhouse refuse, including hooves and horns, was inspected in Sheffield, and gave off such an unbearable stench that the inspector ordered the owners to have it unloaded and disinfected. Boats carrying animal remains and bones often had both cargo and cabins infested with maggots.


Sludge and sweepings

Unlike many smaller towns and cities, London had its own sewage system, started in 1859, to dispose of human waste. However, even when the sewage was filtered through sand or fibrous material, a large volume of sludge was created that had to be disposed of.

In the early 1890s London County Council operated a fleet of barges to transport sludge out to sea. It was estimated that the so-called ‘Sludge Fleet’ carried 20,000 tons per week, or about 2,860 tons per day, from a population of around 4,221,000 people. However, night soil was still a smelly problem, as manure manufacturers in the capital’s East End boiled it to release ammonia.

London’s rubbish disposal contractors also made use of the canals. By the late 1870s the Vestry of Paddington, later known as Paddington Borough, had a ‘Dusting Department’ that sent out men with horses and carts to collect the ‘dust’ (rubbish). At the authority’s yards the refuse was sifted by machine and hand. Ashes and breeze were boated away to the Middlesex brickfields. Ashes were mixed with brick-earth to create the clays for brick-making, and breeze was used to fuel the brick-kilns.

Ordinary street sweepings contained sufficient horse dung to be commerciallyviable to sell as manure. Most towns cleaned their main streets once a day. Some authorities piled manure-laden refuse in regular heaps after sorting at the depot, which were sold to farmers and market gardeners. In large urban areas manure merchants acted as middlemen, buying in bulk and selling manure on to farmers in other areas.

Local businesses and residents often complained about conditions at Paddington Basin, where piles of stable manure were left for lengthy periods on wharves by those trading in hay, straw and manure. The latter was regularly boated to wharves in Middlesex and Hertfordshire, where it was dumped until needed by the farmers. Paddington’s ‘Slopping Department’ collected road sweepings and scrapings, which were also taken to the wharf at Paddington Basin. The waste was filtered in tanks before being boated away for disposal.

The tip was the usual destination for a town’s refuse, as shown here on the Paddington Arm in Middlesex.

Frank Ray 

Paddington Borough Council was not the only central London authority to use canal boats to transport refuse. St Marylebone Borough Council started purchasing its own fleet of wide-boats from early 1917, with many being bought second-hand. Later the council acquired new boats, including Swallow, built in autumn 1923 and registered at Paddington on 27th November 1923. She was sold to Thomas Clayton (Paddington) Ltd, which took over the rubbish disposal contract from 1st August 1939.

Waterway Archives

In some instances, for example on tidal river navigations like the Thames, owners could register their boats as Merchant Shipping to avoid examination by the Canal Boat Inspectors. Some Thames sailing barges carried offensive, unregulated cargoes until the Port of London Sanitary Authority enforced its bye-laws. In 1900–01, five crew members died in their sleep aboard barges, suffocated by foul gases from their cargoes.

Paddington Vestry

At Paddington, the Vestry had a small fleet of its own craft for carrying house refuse and soft core. Most were wideboats, with one new narrowboat being built in May 1880 by Morgan & Costin of Uxbridge for £125. After William E. Costin set up his own boat-building business at Berkhamsted in 1883, he regularly docked the Vestry’s boats.

Several of the craft had open holds, which seems to have become a problem by late 1904, probably because of the smell and the fact that the loose cargo could blow out of the boat in the wind. The two remaining boats in use at this time had light wooden frames erected over the holds, which were covered with tarpaulins, at a cost of £13 each. By 1907 the Borough relied wholly on contractors to transport refuse, and the last two boats were sold off in 1908.

In the 1870s, contractors paid to take away refuse by boat were awarded contracts if the Vestry accepted their tenders for the supply of sifted and unsifted gravel and hoggin: a mixture of gravel, sand and clay. These materials were quarried from pits in Middlesex and brought by canal to be used in construction and maintenance.

During the 1880s the tenders for gravel and hoggin and the contracts for transport of waste materials were gradually separated. In the 1890s the contracts for waste disposal were offered for longer periods, of one, three, five or seven years.

Annual tenders for the boating of all inbound materials and outbound waste products were advertised in newspapers in around November, with contracts starting in late March. Henry Odell of Hillingdon regularly tendered for the contract, as did William & Joseph Studds of Iver, both of which were boat-owners, brick-makers and gravel merchants. Studds also had along association with the Paddington Vestry for the supply of gravel.

Henry Odell had started out as a brick-maker and gravel dealer, later trading as Odell & Co of Irongate Wharf, Paddington, with extensive gravel works at Dawley. His business was taken over by Thomas Clayton in about 1894, and changed its name to Thomas Clayton (Paddington) Ltd in 1910. The firm was a major transporter of waste and rubbish in West London during the 20th century (Spring 2015, NB).

St Marylebone’s boats

St Marylebone Borough Council acquired its own fleet of wide-boats in 1917, to transport rubbish to Northolt. There a grab crane on rails, mounted on a gantry against the towpath, lifted out the cargo. The waste was deposited into a metal hopper mounted on legs, beneath which horse-drawn narrowgauge tramway wagons were loaded, then hauled away to backfill old brickearth pits.

The borough’s boats also carried ashes and clinker to various works and manufacturers involved in concrete, breeze block and brick-making, perhaps returning with a backload of coke from Southall Gas Works. Another carrier that dealt with refuse was William Boyer & Sons, which transported road sweepings to Yiewsley and dust to brick-makers at Langley Marish and other wharves on the Slough Arm.


Thank you to Martin O’Keeffe, Pete Harrison and Mike Clarke.

Loaded boats had to be gauged to find the loaded weight and therefore the toll due to canal companies. Emu, loaded with rubbish, has just been gauged at the Grand Union toll office at Delamere Terrace, Paddington. The toll clerk is standing in the doorway shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun, with his gauging stick propped up against the wall next to him. Emu was an open wide-boat built of iron in 1923 for William Boyer & Sons Ltd, and is being towed away by an unidentified tug.

Christopher M. Jones Collection