The Victorians were a sustainable lot, learns Patrice John as she talks to a social history expert.
Going green might seem to be a modern concern, but the Victorians were no strangers to recycling.
Traci Dix-Williams, manager of the Blists Hill Victorian Town in Ironbridge, Telford, says the Victorian way of life meant they had to reduce, reuse and recycle most of their everyday items.
This made them one of the most sustainable generations in UK history.
“Most of us dutifully recycle our waste by putting paper into one box, glass in another, plastic in a third,” Traci says.
“Councils collect the boxes which is a phenomenon of the 21st century, but there is nothing new about recycling.
“The Victorians were experts at it and they could teach us a thing or two about waste not, want not.
“From great public building projects to children’s toys, from industrial by-products to old clothes, if something was going spare there would be a use for it.
“Even the railway bridge that spans the River Tweed owes its existence to stone from nearby Berwick Castle. The chains which support the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, once did the same job at Hungerford Bridge across the Thames, so absolutely nothing was wasted.”
Being thrifty was a way of Victorian life according to Traci and everyone did it with great skill.
“In Victorian days thrift was something everyone practised as it was regarded as a public duty and waste was seen as being sinful,” she says.
“It was also a practical necessity to reuse as much as possible because a Victorian man’s wage barely covered rent and food, so there was nothing left for the luxuries we take for granted today.
“Everything that could be reused was recycled as a matter of course to the extent that women would leave their clothes to grateful relatives in their wills rather than let them be thrown away.
“Today, historians find it difficult to track down Victorian items of clothing because most of them were remodelled, then cut down for children and finally made into dusters.”
There is not much the Victorians left to waste and even dust from chimneys was highly valued.
Traci says dustmen collected it from homes to be reused and rag and bone men were a regular feature in Victorian society.
She says: “Dust itself was a commodity for Victorians and when you swept the floor or emptied the fire grate the dustman would come to collect your dust, but it was not tipped onto a waste site, it was reused.
“Shoes in Victorian times would include a layer of dust between the outer sole and the inner which would make them much more comfortable.
“Rag and bone men were a common sight, collecting and reselling anything people no longer needed and they continued their role right into the 1960s.
“In 1875 local authorities were compelled to make regular collections of waste from households, but this didn’t stop women sorting through piles of rubbish to find anything that might be of use or was worth selling.
“Items made of glass and metals were returned to merchants and ash was turned into building material.”
There was no such thing like today’s “throwaway” culture in Victorian times, according to Traci.
Everything from leaking kettles to thinning bedsheets were recycled and put to good use.
“Today, if a kettle breaks we throw it away and buy a new one and repair shops for small electrical goods have almost disappeared from our high streets,” she says.
“But a Victorian kettle with a leak would be resealed, thinning bedsheets would be sides-to-middled, worn collars and cuffs turned, and old coats and trousers which were threadbare transformed into rag rugs.
“People would go to bakers and brewers, begging for old sacks to form the backing for the rugs, which were made from short inch-wide strips of material.
“The brewers in turn would buy old clothes and wool which they dug into hop fields to improve the quality of the beer.”
Traci says she and other staff try to stick closely to the Victorian way of doing things – often opting to recycle rather than throw items away.
She says: “Old radiators are recast into decorative items such as doorstops and brackets for hanging baskets in our foundry.
“We also turn old clothes into quilts and rugs and old leather into key rings so nothing is wasted.
“We do our bit by 21st century standards too so much of the waste produced by the staff is recycled.
“In particular, there is a real satisfaction in knowing that we are preserving the best ideas from our Victorian pasts along with the future of our environment.”
* Most sites are open all week between 10am and 5pm. The museums are closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Call 01952 884391 or see www.ironbridge.org.uk