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History: Talking rubbish in 2019

PUBLISHED: 17:00 03 January 2019

Historian Sylvia Kent writes about the memories of one resident who remembers rubbish being collected by horse and carriage.

Historian Sylvia Kent writes about the memories of one resident who remembers rubbish being collected by horse and carriage.

Sylvia Kent

For her first column in 2019, historian and vice-president of the Brentwood Writers' Circle Sylvia Kent talks rubbish - literally.

How quickly passes the Christmas season!

Those crumpled sheets of festive wrapping paper and cards are now all in the various waste bags, ready for the doughty refuse collectors to pick up this week in Brentwood.

And it’s not only at celebration times that they’re geared up for extra work.

The problem of perpetually increasing household refuse (domestic waste amounts to more than 10 times our body weight annually), street litter, roadside dumping and landfill, concerns every one of us, particularly as the government has now entered the scene.

Looking back to the early days of Brentwood Borough Council’s rubbish department, many people remembered how the bin men would pick up full dustbins and carry them to waiting lorries to empty them. No plastic bags then.

When interviewed, one older lady remembered: “not so long ago before the age of the black plastic bags, rubbish collectors would arrive every week to empty our dustbins.

“The bins must have been very heavy and, unlike today, there were no mechanical hoists to help them.

“The men wore strange-looking hats with leather straps hanging down the back,” she recalled.

“I can also remember the days when I was very small, when horse-drawn carts would come every week and the dustmen would clear a bin if it was left out for collection.

“It was easier then, as there wasn’t much in the way of product packaging that is all around us today.

“We rarely threw away glass jars, neither tin cans.

“We used all containers for other things.

“Clothes were mended and metal utensils were made to last as long as there was life in them.

“Boots and shoes were repaired; items weren’t binned just because they were broken.

“People learned how to mend their own paraphernalia or seek out travelling tinkers to repair leaking pots and pans.

“Houses had open fires or solid fuel ranges and only small amounts of combustible waste were burnt.

“Food was very rarely thrown away.

“Any leftovers or organic kitchen waste, including tea-leaves and eggshells would be put in a separate pig-bin.

“These were either to feed chickens (which many people kept in the back garden) or composted and used as fertiliser for the veggies they also grew on any piece of garden.

“It was a different world then.”

Every town had their totter and Brentwood residents knew old Charlie who kept a yard off Kings Road, near the station.

He would drive slowly around the town, ringing his bell and shouting “Rags, bones and old iron”.

People brought out unwanted items and he would pay them maybe sixpence.

He sorted everything into piles in his yard.

Clothes and household materials would be recycled, iron found its way back to the foundry to be melted down and recast, bones went to the superphosphate factory to be dissolved in sulphuric acid and turned into fertiliser. Nothing was ever wasted!

Now that we have reached 2019, the pendulum seems to be swinging back to a more natural way of living and pig-bins and compost heaps are enjoying a renaissance with recyclable sorting becoming essential.

However, that ubiquitous black plastic bag looks – for the moment – as if it is here to stay!

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