Wednesday 26 January 2011

Where There's Muck

A reader asks about manure manufacture in Bermondsey, and how big a trade it was. I can't say for certain, but significant enough to warrant this court case in 1872:


MR. DAVID URQUHART, in one of his books, has predicted the ruin of his country if it persisted in eating three meals a day, and wasted its phosphates in the rivers. Mr. Urquhart will perhaps tale a more hopeful view of the destinies of England when he learns that the consumption of meat has been by no means so universal as he supposed, and that the high price to which it is now rising bids fair to make it a luxury of the upper classes; and also that a more profitable method has been discovered of turning our phosphates to account than draining them into the sea. It appears from a case which has just been tried that a gentleman, who was described by his counsel as a public benefactor, has for some years been carrying on a manufactory at Bermondsey in which he converts different kinds of filth and garbage into manure ; with one hand he relieves the city it of its refuse, with the other he supplies the country with a fertilizing substance of acknowledged value. Public benefactors, like prophets, are not always appreciated in their own neighbourhoods; and although the philanthropist of whom we are speaking finds a ready sale for his superphosphates in agricultural circles, he has not yet had a statue erected in his honour by the people among whom he lives. On the contrary, he has been the victim of a series of actions at law. The explanation of this is that the commodities in which he deals are said to be composed of old bones, rotten fish, the blood and offal of animals in a putrid state, and a variety of other articles of a similar kind, which are burnt up by vitriol, and which make "a very excellent manure, but it has a very horrible smell." It must have occurred to any one who has visited Bermondsey, or who has passed over its housetops in the train, that the inhabitants of this region are not likely to be morbidly sensitive or delicate in regard to smells. The whiffs that sometimes come through the windows of the railway carriage are not perhaps the best preparation for the whitebait dinner to which the traveller may possibly be journeying. Bermondsey is a highly perfumed region, but its perfumes are not " Sabaean odours from the spicy shore of Araby the blest." The local flavour is, on the whole, more akin to that of Cologne, except that the different smell's are not so numerous and well defined, but are rather of a blended character, the not unwholesome fragrance of tan being perhaps uppermost. It is certain, at any rate, that the people of that part of London are not very particular in regard to bad odours, and that they can stand a good deal in this way without grumbling, and possibly even—for use in such a case is second nature—without perceiving or being distressed by it. We should be prepared therefore to believe that when they rise up in protest against a bad smell it must be very bad indeed. It appears that the inhabitants of Bermondsey draw the line at Mr. Salmon's superphosphates and other artificial manures. The smell of these things is more than they can endure, and when we read the evidence on the subject we can hardly wonder at the resistance of the neighbourhood to the continuance of this manufacture.
    The nuisance is alleged to be of a twofold, or rather threefold, character. First, there is the accumulation of the materials of the manufacture, which are mostly rotten and foul-smelling ; next, there is the process of mixing and boiling them down with sulphuric acid; and then, after the manure has been manufactured, it is kept in great heaps, and an abominable smell is caused when it is dug up, and put into sacks for customers. It is asserted that the materials consist of the blood and refuse of slaughter-houses, stinking fish, putrid animal matter, and garbage of all sorts; and there is always a large stock of these things lying about the premises, while new supplies are frequently arriving. On "mixing days" —that is, days on which the materials are boiled down—there is said to be an escape of pestiferous gases, and a kind of heavy steam, which leaves mould where it falls, and is accompanied by an acrid sensation in the mouth and throat. " The fumes of the process," said the Inspector of Nuisances, " are particularly disgusting, and pervade the streets and gardens ; but the smell is worse in digging out the putrid mass, and putting it in bags, and taking it away." The premises of Messrs. Peek and Frean, the biscuit-bakers, adjoin the manufactory, and their workpeople, several hundreds in number, as well as other residents in the neighbourhood, suffer from the stench, which produces nausea, a burning in the throat, and other discomforts. Different kinds of manure are made, and some are less pestiferous than others. The worst smell is alleged by discriminating judges to be that given of by the superphosphate, which is made by pouring vitriol on the materials, the effect being " to raise a kind of white steam with a strong and pungent odour, smelling like lighted sulphur or brimstone, and catching the breath so as to cause the men at work to cough, and force them to cover their mouths with handkerchiefs." It was pleaded by the defence that there were "only three or four mixings" of this kind in a month ; but for people with moderate tastes in the way of asphyxiation it is more than can be agreeable to be subjected to this steaming once a week. Then there is "a pig and horse hair sort," the smell of which is also said to be very bad. In fact the whole description of the place, as given by the witnesses for the plaintiff, reminds one strongly of the "Sink of Filth " which Dante visited in the infernal regions, and in which all kinds of excrement and putrescent nastiness were gathered together to torment the noses of the wicked. Here, as one of the translators puts it
    Here we perceived a race who murmured low
    In the foul gulf, and snorted with the nose.
It is probable that Dante, who lived in a pre-sanitary age, and in a country which even now is far from particular as to smells, would be startled to hear it said that the abominations which he imagined to be appropriate in a fanciful and highly coloured sketch of hell are now reproduced on earth in the densely populated capital of a country which is under the impression that it is civilized, and which is supposed to have taken for its motto Sanitas sanitatum, omnia sanitas.
    It is perhaps not difficult to understand the reluctance of the jury to visit Mr. Salmon's place of business, as they were advised to do by the Lord Chief Justice; but at last they were persuaded to go. When a medical witness called the smell amonioniacal, the Chief Justice suggested that perhaps demoniacal would be nearer the mark. His lordship also observed that on his visit he was shocked at the horrible smells which proceeded from Rotherhithe, the parish which adjoins Bermondsey. Such atrocious stenches were, he said, a scandal to the sanitary condition of the country ; and he asked, not unnaturally, what was the use of Boards of Health and Inspectors of Nuisances if such abominable nuisances were allowed? Dr. Letheby, who is a Sanitary Inspector, appeared as a witness for the defence in this case. Dr. Letheby does not consider carbonic acid gas at all offensive; he had, indeed, "recognized" the effluvium from the manufactory, but he could not say that it amounted to a nuisance. In his opinion it was only "a slight annoyance." Dr. Letheby is a practical chemist, and spends a great deal of time among bad smells, but perhaps it might be considered desirable that a Sanitary Inspector should be more sensitive to the evils which afflict ordinary mortals. When the case commenced, the counsel, for the plaintiff offered evidence as to the effects of the nuisance on the health of people in the neighbourhood; but the Chief Justice decided that it was not necessary that the nuisance should be injurious to health; it was enough to show that it destroyed the comfort of the inhabitants. Soon afterwards the jury interfered to say that they had no doubt there was a shocking had smell, and the only question was whence it came. And, at it subsequent stage, the jury intimated that they had heard sufficient evidence from the plaintiffs on this pint, and the defendant was called upon to produce his case. His argument was in effect that he had, since 1868, when a judgment was given against him, made various improvements in his processes, by which the had smells were prevented; that the materials of the manufacture were by no means so bad as had been represented; and that moreover he had established himself at Bermondsey ten years ago, when it was comparatively open country, and that if people did not like his smells, they should not have come there. The people, he contended, had come to the nuisance, if it was a nuisance, not the nuisance to them. Upon this the Lord Chief Justice remarked that he could not allow that any neighbourhood was to be considered as given up to nuisances. "It was not to be endured that because people had the misfortune to live in a neighbourhood not over nice, and were in a humble position of life, therefore their existence was to be made wretched by the effluvia of foul materials brought to the place by some person for his own profit and advantage." One of the jury asked Mr. Salmon, junior, whether he thought the smell at a certain place offensive ; and the witness answered that he did not, upon which the juror lifted up his hands, and the Lord Chief Justice observed, that he did not wonder at the juryman's surprise, for the smell actually took one's breath away. De gustibus non disputandum, when there is a question as to the fragrance of manure between the person who manufactures it and the neighbours who have to inhale the odour. The jury, while holding that there was a nuisance, seem to have differed as to which of the materials produced it, and they exonerated the superphosphate of lime, on the offensiveness of which the plaintiff's had insisted most strongly. The Chief Justice accepted their verdict as one of guilty, and sentenced the defendant to a fine of 100l., unless he put his place in order before next Term. It will occur to every one that, if there is really a nuisance of this magnitude at Bermondsey, there should be some simpler and more summary process of dealing with it than an expensive prosecution. We can only echo the Lord Chief Justice's question, and ask what are the Inspectors of Nuisances about, and what has been done or is to be done with regard to the "atrocious stenches" at Rotherhithe ? It is to be hoped that the Public Health Bill will stimulate the energies of the authorities in this respect.

Saturday Review, 1872


  1. Fantastic, I've looked into Victorian Bermondsey a lot; what a great place to live...

  2. My great great grandfather was co-proprietor of Salmon's Manure Works in Drummond Road according to Kelly's Directory of 1895.