The following correspondence appeared in the pages of the Edinburgh Evening Courant in 1852 and 1856.
Some details may have changed in the years since, but the general problem and particular tone are unmistakably familiar to students of New Town waste disposal.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE COURANT.
Sir,—I beg to call public attention, through the medium of your journal, to a most reprehensible custom which prevails to a very great extent in this city, and more particularly in the New Town. I allude to the practice of exposing and scattering ashes and other refuse in the streets. By the police regulations, dust carts pass through the streets every morning between six and eight o’clock, and on the Saturday evenings between seven and nine; and the ashes ought to be carried out from the houses and deposited in the streets in dustboxes or backets, there to await the carts, when the boxes are emptied and the ashes removed.
It is evident that lazy servants do not like these regulations; they therefore allow their ashes to accumulate for two or three days, or till the Saturday evening, when they are carried into the street, and, as it generally happens that there are not boxes large enough to contain the accumulated rubbish, the surplus, and in most cases the whole, is deliberately tumbled into the street. This operation saves the servants the trouble of returning for the empty dust-boxes after the carts have passed, as well as the risk of losing their boxes. Some do this regularly every morning, some every night; nor do they give themselves much trouble to ascertain whether the carts have passed or not, their sole object being to get the dirt out of the house.
But this piece of domestic work is usually performed by deputy. To almost every family, in the New Town at least, there is attached one of a most disreputable and mischievous class called cinder wives, whose principal duty it is to carry out the dust-boxes; in return for her services she has the privilege of the first overhaul of the dust-box. And in order to pursue her search with greater minuteness, she also coolly empties the contents of the box into the gutter. There are some, I admit, but I fear they form the exception, not the rule—servants and cinder-wives—who faithfully adhere to the police regulations, but their compliance avails little; no sooner is the dust-box out than it is pounced upon by a dozen of unattached cinder-gatherers, who very speedily scatter the contents over the causeway.
Nay, to such a pitch do those cormorants carry their audacity, that it is not an uncommon thing for them to go down the area stairs into the ash-cellar, carry off the dust-box, and empty their contents into the street, forgetting sometimes to leave the box! In fact, these boxes come to the hands of the scavengers unmolested only when they have been put out a few moments before the carts come up. The scavengers shovel as much as they can; but, even in broad daylight, this must necessarily be a very imperfect operation—much more so during four months of the year when the mornings are quite dark; and, as a sequel to this farce, one or two men follow in the course of the day with open wheel-barrows, under the delusion that they are to carry away what the carts have left. Of course they do little more than raise a dust; nor would any amount of scavenger power remedy the evil, which might prevented, but once done, can never be cured.
The consequence of this almost universal practice is, that a very considerable proportion of the rubbish which ought to be removed out of the city is left on the streets. The effect of the wind (of which we have had no lack this winter) may easily be imagined. The fine gritty dust, moistened occasionally by drizzling rain, is blown about in every direction; it penetrates even the closed windows, and in the mornings, when many of the windows are open, it finds a ready access into all parts of the houses.
Nor is this nuisance confined to the dwellings of the rich; as may be expected, if it is bad with them, it is ten times worse in the back-slums and second-rate streets; there dirt reigns supreme; not only ashes, but heaps of the most disgusting garbage, are every morning thrown out in front of many of the houses with perfect impunity. Does not this account for the filthy state even of our private streets? All these practices are contrary the Police Act. The police inform me that they are totally unable to put a stop to them. That they cannot suppress them entirely I believe, because there are far too few of them for any duty like this, but I do not believe that they do their best; indeed, l have good reason to suppose that many of them connive at the practice altogether, fearful perhaps, of incurring the displeasure of the nymphs of the area, or of provoking guerilla warfare with the redoubtable cinder women. But I do not blame the police nor any class in particular.
Even if there were no cinder wives, supposing that they emigrated in a body, and that servants complied with the police rules, the wind alone would scatter no inconsiderable quantity of this rubbish, as it lies exposed in the open backets, or is carried through the streets in the uncovered carts. I denounce the system as utterly absurd, and essentially inefficient. I ask any Commissioner of Police, or any of my fellow-citizens, to take a walk through the streets some morning between half-past six and half-past seven; or if his public spirit is not warm enough to induce him to brave the sharp morning air, let him interrogate the scavengers or the police, and he will find that, so far from my statement being exaggerated, it falls short of the truth.
Sir, I call upon the Commissioners of Police—l call on the inhabitants, were it only on selfish grounds for the sake of their houses, their furniture, or their goods, to put a stop to this abominable nuisance, which is a disgrace to the metropolis. I venture to say, that such a state of things does not exist to the same extent in any city of Great Britain A complete reform of the system is imperatively called for. I am aware that this is more easily said than done—such a thorough change could not be effected at once—but surely this is no reason why it should not be attempted, and surely a more efficacious and not more expensive plan than the present could without difficulty be devised and adopted. What can be more primitive or absurd than the existing mode, where the rubbish is removed from the houses only to be scattered over the streets?
In the meantime, I see no reason why the authorities should not take some steps towards checking the evil, by enforcing the penalties for contravention of their rules, not only against the poor cinder-gatherers or the servants, but against the householders themselves; and also by stopping the collection of rubbish on the Saturday nights, which causes the greatest nuisance of all, and appears to me to be quite unnecessary.
Nor is this the only one, there are others not so aggravated, but equally illustrative of inefficiency and want of management in the cleansing department, of which I may, perhaps, be induced to take notice in a future communication.
I am, Sir,
Your most obedient servant,
Edinburgh, 29th January 1852.
THE CITY DUST
TO THE EDITOR OF THE COURANT
Sir,—I observe that the last meeting of the Police Commission had under their consideration a petition from carriers and others employed in removing rubbish from the streets, praying that their hours of labour might be shortened on Saturday night as not to interfere with the sanctity of the Sabbath.
The Convener of the Cleaning Committee blames some of us for this undoubted hardship, and if the work were indispensable, I do not think we would grudge a small additional assessment in order to afford these hard-working men a complete day of rest. But why not put a stop to the dust-carts going through the New Town at all on Saturday night, and let extra men be employed in the other part of the city where it is still thought necessary to do so? If, as Mr Ford most truly remarked, it is the practice in many families of the higher ranks to allow rubbish to be accumulated during the week, and to be all thrown out on Saturday night, surely it can be no great inconvenience to keep a little rubbish from Saturday morning to Monday morning, and thus avoid the disgusting sights which one is now beginning to see on the Saturday evenings of heaps of ashes, garbage, &c., lying before one-half of the houses in the New Town.
According to the present system, we are ordered to send out our rubbish at certain hours; a tidy servant, when she is warned by that lugubrious bell (reminding one of Defoe's account of the plague in London), brings out her bucket and puts it on the street; but her back is scarcely turned before it is upset, and surrounded by half-a-dozen cinder-gatherers. A slovenly servant either saves these women the trouble by capsizing it herself, or, what is more common, has one in her pay who takes the entire management of that department.
The fault lies not so much with the inhabitants as in a system which, in point of fact, authorises them to throw everything they want to get quit of into the public street. It is quite true that there are severe penalties against the practice, but they are not, and, any police constable will tell you, they cannot be enforced, and it would be monstrous if they were. The irregularity prevails, more or less in two-thirds of the houses of the New Town, and are mistresses, to avoid the risk of being summoned before the Police Court and having to pay a fine, obliged to stand at their windows morning and night to see that the rubbish is retained within the four sides of a wooden dust-box?
To some extent the nuisance might easily be remedied. By far the greater proportion of the houses in the New Town have dust cellars below the area stair; let the Commissioners issue an order prohibiting all families who have these cellars against putting out their ashes at all, morning or night, and let an arrangement be made by which the dustmen can empty these cellars twice or thrice a-week. This plan would tend to make our streets cleaner, nor would it increase the labour of the men. It is not the emptying of the dust-boxes into the carts which makes the men so late on Saturday night, it is the shovelling up the enormous quantities of filth, which, in defiance of police regulations, are thrown by servants upon the streets. One reason of the weekly accumulation is, that servants in many families who keep late hours are not up when carts pass in the morning.
Surely some system might be adopted gradually, by insisting upon the erection of dust bins or otherwise, by which the deposit of rubbish in the streets would be altogether prohibited. This would also have the effect of ridding us of a class of women (by depriving them of their ostensible occupation), who haunt almost every private house in the west end, who do all the dirty work down stairs, aye, and up stairs too, and who, let masters and mistresses be assured, do not work for nothing. These women are chiefly Irish, or they have descended from bad to worse until they have been compelled to resort to this precarious mode of subsistence. Their moral character is not very high, and constant intercourse with such women cannot fail to corrupt and demoralise our domestic female servants,
I am, Sir,
Your obedient servant.
Edinburgh, 26th April 1856.
 Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year recounts his experiences in London in 1665. It was published in 1722. The bell man sounded a bell as he summoned residents to bring out their dead. The bodies would be carried away on a cart and buried in mass graves.
 The problem of accumulated New Town rubbish was not so easily solved. Some 30 years later, it was made punishable by a fine equivalent to a skilled labourer’s income for 6 days’ work.
 Sepia image: Spitalfields Life [bit.ly/3izEGzI].