Archive for November, 2016|Monthly archive page

‘One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure’….


On November 1st about 70 villagers were treated to a fascinating and highly entertaining talk in the village hall by Dr. Tom Licence, Director of the Centre for East Anglian Studies and Senior Lecturer in History at UEA, on the subject of ‘What the Victorians threw away’

Tom revealed how everyday minutiae dug from old rubbish heaps representing three levels in society during the period 1875 to 1914, – a labourer from Kent, a postman from Shropshire and a clergyman from Norfolk – contribute to the story of how our great grandparents built a throwaway society from the twin foundations of packaging and mass consumption, which illustrate how our own throwaway habits were formed.

In 1933, the Society for the Prevention of Disfigurement in Town and Country published a study concerning the disposal of domestic refuse in rural areas.37% of replies indicated there was no organised waste disposal with most refuse dumped in the corner of lanes or over neighbours’ hedges. In the 1870s polishes, pastes, sauces and beverages were confected at home and very little was thrown away. A book on household hints, ‘Facts and Hints for Everyday Life’ became the bible in thousands of households and gave methods for the preparation of products for household use, preserving foodstuffs and methods for removing stains and repairing stoneware and  glassware etc. for re-use.

Richer households could afford to purchase ready-made products which were becoming ever more affordable during the nineteenth century. With colourful labels and recognisable brands they became a feature of shopkeepers’ shelves, their sales boosted by advertising. Of particular note was the availability of Judson’s dyes which enabled a new lease of life for old clothes and hats using a relatively inexpensive and simplified labour-saving process for the hard-pressed housewife compared with the previous complex method requiring homemade dyestuffs. The wealthy households also used readymade blacking, polish, condiments and boned toothbrushes to apply fine-perfumed toothpaste. Their social inferiors used homemade products and toothbrushes carved from marshmallow root to apply coal ash for their oral hygiene. Evidence of luxury goods e.g. anchovy paste, Russian caviar and Devonshire clotted cream brought to London by steam locomotives to be sold on the Strand, was found in Essex, the dumping ground (then as now) for refuse brought up from London by barge.

In 1888, Bovril had become popular as a beef tea beverage. Bovril became a staple for the rural population even during WW1 because the price remained static and most rubbish heaps revealed a number of the characteristic brown jars.  In the 1890s glassware became disposable and the rich would discard bottles even if unbroken, whereas the poorer families would scavenge through rubbish to collect unbroken bottles to redeem the farthing deposit by selling on to street buyers who patrolled Victorian cities, purchasing old clothes, rags, skins, bones and bottles. The poor were more likely make their own lemonade and ginger beer re-using vessels which they cleaned while to the rich, vessels were disposable. The poorer families would also scavenge through rubbish to collect jam jars for preserving foodstuffs.

The period around 1905 revealed machine-manufactured vessels and fruit juice crystals were used to make beverages, essence of anchovies for gravy browning. Evidence of literacy was found as ink wells were uncovered, as well as alphabet cups and nursery rhyme mugs indicating that children were being educated. Further evidence of childhood was seen as ceramic toys were found in heaps.

Differences in rubbish was evident in the three levels of society represented by the case studies mentioned earlier. Compared with the labourer’s rubbish, the postman ‘s heap showed more evidence of readymade products and cleaning products, ink wells and returnable beer bottles that had not been returned due to the rural location. The rubbish from the rectory revealed a much larger disposable income with decanters, a very fine wine jug,  candlesticks, Mellins Infant food (2s 6d) a china doll’s head, a doll’s plate with gold leaf and fine imported Limoges oriental tableware. Food packaging also indicated fine dining occurred with lobster, relishes with spices, Colman’s mustard and potted meats. The discovery of 28 bottles of fruit juice crystals and two cups bearing the name of a confectioner from Norwich suggested that these may have been supplied by party caterers. This was substantiated by a newspaper entry indicating that a party was to be held at the rectory.

Excavation of the rubbish also gives an insight into what medicines were used. Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was commonly used to soothe teething babies. The preparation contained morphine and became known as ‘the baby killer’!

In the 1900s local chemists often had their own preparations but from 1910 the emergence of brand names was seen e.g.  Timothy White’s, Boots. The wealthy also used potions from a health spa in Bohemia -Carlsbad Sprudel Salts -the universal laxative, diuretic, cure for rheumatism, diabetes, kidney problems and more! Poisons were commonplace in Victorian houses and were kept in ribbed hexagonal bottles – probably a safety feature to indicate the product should not be consumed if picked up in a poorly-illuminated room.

Our Hoxne community dig in 2013 revealed that there is a lot of Victorian rubbish buried in the gardens around Hoxne. We are also aware of 6 Victorian rubbish heaps around the village. Next time you dig up an old bottle or tin with a label spare a thought for what this tells us about how these people lived.

More information can be found in ‘What the Victorians Threw Away’,a small illustrated paperback written by Tom about this fascinating project.