Audley Refuse Destructor​ | Witness Statements

An Overview by Joan Levet

In a bundle of legal statements deposited at Blackburn Library and recently transcribed by Joan Levet (The Arts Society Ribble Valley and Craven), emerged an account of how, in the late 1880s, Blackburn Corporation collected and stored human waste and effluent. These statements were prepared for an 'injury to property' case that was brought before the Liverpool Assizes in August 1888 by Joseph Booth against the Corporation of Blackburn. Whilst the statements were required for the legal proceedings they now provide fascinating social information about urban life in mid to late Victorian Blackburn.  For example, William Whalley, the Superintendent of the wonderfully named “Scavenging Department" gave a 7 page account of the work undertaken by his department, proudly describing in great detail the collection and disposal activities involved in dealing with 'old' ashpit collections, pail closets and 'modern' water closets.

As you will see from this article, the Plaintiff, Joseph Booth, was an entrepreneurial builder who complained that the Corporation's waste incinerator, the Destructor and the Small Pox Hospital caused the value of his property to decrease.  Further research carried out by Stephen Smith, (Blackburn Library Community History Volunteer) using press cuttings from newspapers of the time revealed that there was a lot of public concern and bitter complaints about the collection and storage of waste. The residents were so worried about the noxious smells, fearing it was the 'smell' itself which carried disease that there threats to pull down the Destructor.

The legal statements describe the views of local residents, employers and employees, and whilst conditions were grim and unpleasant, it is interesting to note that few actually agreed with the Plaintiff.  Perhaps the Plaintiff had hoped to have had greater support from his neighbours but, in the end, the case was settled out of court, without it going to trial and while Joseph Booth was awarded court costs, Counsel sympathy was directed towards the Corporation's “struggle with difficult sanitary questions."​

In February 1888, Joseph Booth, a joiner and builder from the Audley area of Blackburn sent the council a summons for damages for “injury to property," in respect of the Small-pox hospital and destructor, Damages were laid at £10,000.
The case came to court on the 7th of August 1888, at Liverpool Assizes before Mr. Justice Grantham. The council for the plaintiff being Mr. Bigham Q.C. and Mr. McConkey, instructed by R.L. Entwistle of Blackburn. For the defendant's council was Mr. Lockwood, Q.C, Mr. Collins, Q.C., Mr. Smyly and Mr Miles Matherson, M.P., instructed by W.E.L. Gaine the Town Clarke. Statements were taken by the defendant's council from people living in the area of, property owners, Doctors, members of the Town Council, and Engineers. These statements have been preserved and are given at the end of this article. I have used extracts from them throughout the article.

Joseph Booth was described in the 1885 Barrett's Directory as a Brickmaker and builder residing at 200, Pringle Street. In 1888, he had built 54 houses on Pringle Street; 52 of these let at between 4 and 5 shilling per week. They were not, however, regarded as being well built, by some, as this comment from the following statements show:
“I have visited and inspected the houses built by [Booth] in Pringle Street. They are badly built out of repair and damp and I am surprised to find they are so well let as they are."
Another commented:
“The houses on Pringle Street are very badly built and in fact have never been completely finished."
Whether these comments were justified or included to intimidate Booth we shall never know but some criticism of the houses given in the witness statements are very similar in content.

How the Town was kept clean
Blackburn in the nineteenth century was, like most other towns in the country, not very clean. The horse was the only form of transport and horses left a mess on the roads that needed removing! Only the wealthier households would have had a water closet (WC). The majority of people would have had to make do with a pail closet. The pail closet, or privy, was a shed in the back yard or court which, to put it bluntly, was just a board with a hole in it placed over a large tub. Ash pits or ash closets were another source of rubbish that had to be contended with; these would contain not only ashes, but also, effluence together with vegetable matter and other household waste. The town was moving towards a water closet system but this was a slow process and it would be many years before it was accomplished. The W.C.  or water closet system allowed the effluence to be flushed away into sewer pipes and removed to an area far from the town, with no need of a collection system.

 All this refuse had to be dealt with, and this responsibility fell on the “Scavenging Department." Their job was to keep the town clean by removing refuse which included night soil (human excrement) and ashes. They were also responsible for sweeping the streets. At this time people could be and were fined for leaving ashes or other forms of rubbish in the street. Waste materials like night soil and ashes were collected at night so as to inconvenience people a little as possible.

In 1888 there were about 11,000 pail closets in Blackburn which needed to be emptied once a week; this was done by 29 men and 9 horses and carts. The town was divided into two districts and each night the men would go out to collect the full tubs, leaving clean, empty ones in their place. Some of these full pails would go to a store yard on the railway to be transported to outlying farms. Other pails would be taken to the Audley depot where they would be loaded on to a barge ready for removal to Finnington in order to be converted into manure.  At the Audley depot there was a large concrete and stone store tank used to store night soil which could not be used at that time. The ashpits or ash closets, again about 11,000 of them, were emptied when required. For this operation, there were two teams of two men. One team would dig out the pits and divide it into two heaps, one containing the ashes and other refuse, and one containing the liquid effluence. Later carts would come to take away the two heaps with the effluence to be used as manure. All the refuse that could not be used as manure was taken by cart to the destructor; this would include all the road sweepings, diseased bedding from the hospital, contaminated meat, and any other disposable rubbish.

The Destructor
At a meeting of the Sanitary committee on the 24th January 1878 consideration was given to providing a destructor, for the town whereby rubbish could be burnt rather than dumped into open refuse tips. A deputation of Councillors was appointed to visit Birmingham in order to see a destructor in action. Birmingham had been operating theirs since 1876.

In May 1878, the Sanitary Committee agreed to purchase a “Four cell destructor to be erected on a 3-acre plot of land at Audley, with the canal on the northerly side, Bennington Street on the Easterly side, and unoccupied land to the south.
An advertisement for tenders to be submitted for an “Ashes Destructor, and 105ft chimney shaft, at Audley" was printed in the local newspaper. The tender was won by John Cunliffe, a builder and contractor of 75, Galligreaves Street. By July 188, the destructor was up and running.
The destructor itself was a Manlove, Alliott and Frier's, 4 cell destructor with a 105ft tall chimney. Each of the four cells could burn about 27 tons per week, in total 108 tons. 

Thomas Codrington of the Institute of Civil Engineers describes the destructor and how  Worked:
“The Destructor consist of a group of 4 furnaces or cells each internally about 9 feet long and 5 feet wide covered by a brick Arch 3 feet 6 ins high – The furnace has an inclination of 1 in 3 from back to front and the bottom consists of a Fire brick hearth for the upper 4 feet and a fire grate for the lower 5 feet – On one side of the furnace the upper end of the hearth is prolonged with a steeper slope under an opening for the admission of the refuse from above, and on the other side is a passage whereby the products of combustion pass downwards to the main flue, a wall in the Middle line of the furnace dividing the feedhole from the flue opening –
The Main flue is under the hearth and in the later Destructors is made of large size to form a dust chamber - The Cells are preferably placed back to back with the feed holes adjoining there being only one opening above for the two cells – A somewhat larger opening fitted with a cover is provided over the middle of one or more of the furnaces through which infected bedding, condemned meat can be consigned to the hottest part of the fire. The furnaces and flues are lined throughout with firebrick and corner pieces stays and the rods hold the brick work together – A furnace or cell with the enclosing brickwork forms a rectangular mass about 12 feet long, 7 feet wide and 12 feet high a group of 4 cells back to back measuring 14 feet by 24 feet and a group of 6 cells about 21 feet by 24 feet – A road is made by which the Refuse is carted to a Platform 2 feet 6 inches or 3 feet above the Destructor and another leading to the Ashpit floor for the removal of the unburned portion of the Refuse.
The feed openings at the top of the Destructor are kept filled with refuse which slides forward on the sloping hearth and is partially dried by the heat given out by the burning material and reflected from the reverberating Arch. It is helped forward by raking till it reaches the fire grate when everything combustible is burned to a hard clinker which is withdrawn from time to time through the furnace doors. The Clinker is removed about every 2 hours.  It is lifted from the fire bars and raised above the burning cinders with suitable tools, and raked out of the furnace with any other thoroughly burned refuse. The fire is then spread evenly over the grate, and dry refuse is raked forward from the back sufficient to cover the fire evenly with a thickness of about 4 inches – When the refuse is wet a less thickness is enough – If too much refuse be drawn down at one time the fire will become dead and black – At intervals of about 20 Minutes, another thin layer of refuse may be raked forward and spread over the fire but it is best to leave the fire undisturbed for half an hour before clinkering."

The destructor was in the charge of three men, a foreman and two firemen; one on the day shift and one for the night shift.  There was a printed set of rules hung up for the running of the destructor which had to be strictly adhered to.
A Fume cremator was added in 1886; this was a furnace added between the destructor and chimney so that gases passing through it were heated to such a temperature in order to destroy any unpleasant odours. However, after about three months it was removed, because the destructor, as it was then built, could not run in an efficient manner in conjunction with the cremator.

Small Pox Hospital
Mention must be made here of the Small-pox hospital which had been built on land in the Audley area in 1881. The hospital was built in response to Small-pox outbreak in the town. The hospital itself was a wooden structure which contained 30 beds and it was surrounded by a wall. The emergency was short lived and the hospital, no longer needed, closed its doors sometime before October 1881 and all the nurses were paid off. It was re-opened again, possibly in 1883 or 1884, when Small-pox returned to the town. In his statement (listed below) Dr. William Henry Stephenson, Medical Officer of Health for the Borough of Blackburn, gives the Small-pox figures for the years 1883 to May 1888 as; 4 cases in 1883, none in 1884, 4 in 1885, 28 in 1886, 42 in 1887 and 82 up to May 22nd 1888. Dr. Stephenson was the Doctor in charge at the hospital and he praised the hospital for its care of patients and the careful running of the establishment. There is, however, a note at the end of his statement which states “"This witness's opinion is that the local epidemic of this year [1888] has risen entirely from the Hospital …During the prevalence of the epidemic in the beginning of this year the wind was principally in the north and north east, consequently, the wind blew straight from the hospital over to the district in the south west and, in the latter district, the epidemic became violent and as a matter of fact was there localised…This information is given to Counsel to enable him to deal with the matter if it arises. If Dr. Stephenson is cross examined on the point he will have to admit to the above fact.
By May 1888, as said, there were 82 cases of Small Pox in Blackburn. The Hospital at Audley was not built to accommodate so many cases of Small-pox. The council did however, possess land with some disused buildings upon it at Finnington and they rapidly turned these buildings into a commodious hospital. The Council said it would be dangerous to attempt to enlarge the Audley hospital for fear of the builders contracting the disease. Gradually, patients were moved from Audley to Finnington and, by July 1888, the Small-pox Hospital at Audley had closed.

From the very beginning complaints were about the Destructor and the Small-pox Hospital. In June 188, a petition, signed by the inhabitants of Higher and Lower Audley, was submitted to the Council about the location of the Small-pox hospital but the Council was satisfied that it was in the best position, being located away from houses with restrictions of who could and could not enter. Alfred James Losbe, Inspector of Nuisances for Blackburn said in his evidence:
“No persons are allowed to leave the Hospital until fully convalescent and then only after their clothes have been thoroughly disinfected by heat, and every person whether a convalescent, nurse, or other person in the Hospital is required before leaving the Hospital to pass through a proper disinfecting box. No friends of patients are at any time permitted to enter the Hospital “

When the destructor was built the people of the area complained about the smell emanating from the works. The experts were confident that these noxious smells did not come from the storage areas nor the furnaces but from the chimney and this only under certain atmospheric conditions, or, if the material to be burnt was wet. Everything combustible was burnt at the destructor plant including infected bedding and household waste, contaminated meat etc. If there was too much refuse to burn then remainder was taken to tips. There were four of these tips at various locations around Blackburn; one was in the Chapel Street area, another at Fox Delph, a third near to St James's Church. I cannot find where the other one was.
Another complaint was that the chimney emitted a fine white dust which could travel a great distance before falling to the ground; this would, so some people said leave a white covering over things.
Not all councillors were happy with Destructor and small-pox hospital. At a meeting in August 1882, Councillor Beads said he believed all Audley was in a state of indignation with the nuisance caused by the destructor.

After a petition was handed to the council, signed by between 100 and 600 people,
an editorial in the Blackburn Standard of 16th September 1882 reported:
“It is really time something satisfactory was done to prevent the nuisance caused by the refuse Destructor in use by the Corporation at Audley. It is the duty of the Corporation acting as the Sanitary Authority to prevent nuisances, but if in the process of preventing same they create others the people are not much better off for their exertions or their expenditure. There have long been bitter complaints of the existing state of affairs. The Council was informed on Thursday [14th September] that steps were being taken to remedy it, and we hope that if the experiments now in progress do not abolish the nuisance, the suggestion of Councillor Taylor will be adopted, and the destructor itself-destroyed or removed to a safe distance from any populous neighbourhood."
A week later in 23rd September issue the Council had an advertisement in the Standard, which read:
“To the Inhabitants of Audley and District.
Persons having any complaints to make with reference to the Refuse Destructor at Audley are requested to communicate immediately with the Borough Engineer, Municipal Offices, Blackburn
By Order,
J.B. Mc.Callum, Borough Engineer."
1887, saw the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria, it was decided by the Council to build a Jubilee recreation ground in honour of the event. Land in the Audley area was given by the Ecclesiastic Committee for the project. The cost for laying the ground out was estimated between £5,000 and £10,000. Although the project was welcomed by all Council members, some thought that Audley was not the right place for the project because of “its close proximity to the Destructor and the Small-pox hospital." Councillor Taylor pointed out at a meeting of the Council that it would be a “great mistake to spend money on a recreational ground in Audley without the nuisance caused by the destructor being abated." He went on “It would be impossible to use the recreational ground six months in the year when the wind was in the west. However, as the land had been given there was no alternative and the project went ahead. The recreation ground was built and became Queens Park.
The Blackburn Standard reported on the 24th March 1888 that:
“We have made enquires generally in the Audley district as to the state of feeling with regard to the Refuse destructor and the Small-pox Hospital. The Audley population is nearly altogether working class. The distance of the destructor from the centre of the population—that is where it is thickest is about 500yds, and it is at the bottom of the hill upon which the Workhouse stands as a sort of New Jerusalem of poverty that cannot be hid. A most respectable inhabitant and one not likely to be carried away by popular feeling, when questioned by us on the subject said, he had himself known the destructor to be the occasion of a great many nuisances, and he believed it affected the health of a great number of people very adversely. As to the Small Pox hospital, there is a very strong feeling everywhere in the district that is removal should be at once insisted upon. Of course, our readers are aware that the Small Pox Hospital is in close proximity to the refuse destructor, so that both noxious institutions are so to speak as one focus."

Although the statements taken show that the Small-pox Hospital and Destructor had never caused a nuisance for the witnesses, one thing does come out, that is all the expert witnesses thought that the destructor was far from efficient. The fact that the chimney was not tall enough was one point. At 105ft it was unable to create enough draught for the destructor to work efficiently, another criticism was that there were insufficient cells to cope with the reuse. Plans were in hand before the case went to court to build a taller chimney at 300ft which would disperse smoke and dust particles. it was also decided to put in 4 further cells to make 8 in total these changes would allow a fume cremator to be added which would alleviate the problem of odour.

The Trial
The trial did not take long. The Blackburn Standard of 11th August 1888 reports thus:
“After a special jury had been called into the box to hear the case the council and various parties interested, with the sanction of the judge, commenced a consultation, which lasted nearly half an hour. At the end of that time Mr Lockwood rose and stated that he was glad that his learned friend and he had arrived at terms which were drawn up…The terms were: Judgement for the defendants on the claim, defendants undertaking within two years to build the new shaft and chimney contracted for in connection with the destructor; The defendants to pay plaintiff's cost; the amount of the counter claim to be charged on the plaintiff's interest in the respective properties, and not be enforced personally against him; interest not accrue on the amount as against the plaintiff on the counter claim.
 The case ended with the judge saying that he was “Very glad to hear that that which had been hanging over him like a cloud for the last month had now been put out of the way.
The 300ft Chimney and other improvements were eventually made to the destructor and it continued to work until the 1950's; the chimney being demolished in 1959. There were two other destructors built, one at Wensley Fold and the other at Greenbank. In the 1970's, the idea of using a destructor was once again put forward. It was built on the Roman Road industrial estate but did not exist for long before being abandoned. Now, there is recycling to try to reduce the amount or refuse taken to landfill sites but for how long can these sites be used and where are council going to find new ones? 
There are, today refuse incinerators throughout the country. They generally work in conjunction with recycling, they usually only incinerate only non-hazardous material which cannot be recycled, the resulting energy is used generate electricity. There was talk in 2008 of reintroducing an incinerator for Blackburn and Darwen but nothing seems to have come of it.

So the next time, on bin day, when you might experience confusion and perhaps mild irritation as to getting the right coloured bin 'out' for the weekly or fortnightly refuse collection perhaps may give a thought to just how far we have come in the Twenty First Century, in terms of effluent removal or 'scavenging '. How lucky we are!

With grateful thanks to Stephen Smith (Community History Volunteer)
Joan Levet, The Arts Society Ribble & Craven.  For more information about the Society please click here: The Arts Society Ribble & Craven

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