Toshers, bone-pickers, sewer-hunters and pure-finders. These are just a few of the many different kinds of scavengers who flourished in Victorian England as it transformed itself into an industrial powerhouse. In mid-19th century London, they constituted a workforce of perhaps as many as 100,000 men, women and children, or about 5 percent of the city's population. All made their “living” by scavenging the waste produced by Londoners and their factories.
Each kind of scavenger had his or her specialty. Toshers, for instance, waded through the Thames River mud at low tide, filling their pockets with stray pieces of metal and other salvageable items. Charles Dickens' last complete novel, “Our Mutual Friend,” opens with a description of toshers going about their business. Central to the novel is the inheritance of a “dustheap,” or dump, which guaranteed a fortune in scavenged recyclables to the lucky heir.
Bone-pickers gathered animal carcasses, while sewer-hunters slogged through the tunnels underneath London searching for useful discards. They carried kerosene lamps to find their way through the underground. Every now and then, a lamp would come into contact with a large pocket of methane gas, causing a deadly explosion.
“The Ghost Map,” by Steven Johnson, details these jobs and more as it describes living conditions in London during the Industrial Revolution. The waste overwhelming London wasn't what we now so quaintly label “municipal solid waste.” No, London was overwhelmed by cesspools of human and animal waste and the carcasses of work horses and other animals.
Making matters worse, public health authorities believed disease was caused by “miasma,” or bad air. According to this theory, foul-smelling air — which Victorian London had plenty of — contained poisonous, decomposing particles. Eliminate the odors and disease would be conquered.
London's last cholera epidemic, in 1854, provides the focal point for Johnson's book. He details how a doctor and a parish priest proved that cholera was caused by contaminated water, not bad air. The priest actually set out to prove the doctor wrong, but as he mapped the connection between cholera fatalities and one public water pump, he realized the doctor was right.
Today, we find it hard to believe that little more than 150 years ago, people believed that noxious smells caused disease. But we should keep in mind that the existence of germs would not be verified for another two decades. Germs? Bacteria? Who in 1854 could possibly believe in the existence of things too small to be seen? Bad air could be smelled. The real culprit had to be something in those noxious vapors.
Johnson's book is a reminder of how far we have come in creating a clean environment. Our current crusades, such as municipal recycling and zero waste, are possible because we have won the public health battle of managing wastes. Should we rest on our laurels? No. The worst thing we can do is relax and forget that safely collecting and disposing of garbage protects public health. Instead, we must continue to make protecting public health the first duty of solid waste management companies and managers and to provide those protections in an economical and efficient fashion.
And, if you want to know what pure finders found, read the book!
The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.
Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org.