The Pail Closet or the Rochdale System

Rochdale is famous for many things, for Gracie Fields and for the Rochdale Pioneers to name only two. However, it is with a less attractive but nonetheless necessary domestic institution that Rochdale gave its name, the Pail closet, also known as the ‘Rochdale system’.

There were a number of ways in which human waste was disposed of in the 19th century including the dry earth system and the midden or privy midden. By the 1860’s Manchester had 10,000 flush toilets but more than 38,000 middens which were sometimes no more than a hole in the ground, a dunghill or an ash pit. Sometimes called Lancashire middens, they held particular dangers to the public. Not only did they overflow and cause river pollution but they were one of the main reasons typhoid became a killer in society, particularly amongst the working class.  Developments such as ventilation shafts and deodorising mixtures made middens a little more hygienic and less of an immediate danger to public health but they were difficult to empty and clean so an alternative was sought.

Wealthier homes had flush toilets (usually outside the house) but the lack of effective water supply meant that for many working people in heavily built-up areas waste had to be dealt with as it was or ‘by dry conservancy’. Rochdale Corporation looked at the French Goux system which was used in Halifax whereby waste materials were absorbed by straw, grass or cotton mixed with a chemical compound which broke it down before land disposal or conversion into compost.  Instead, in 1869 Rochdale chose the Pail Closet system which was created in 1868 by Edward Taylor, a local pharmacist with a shop on Yorkshire Street who had a sense of urgency about the health consequences of poor water supply and the disposal of waste in the town. Furthermore, he had advanced ideas on how to turn human waste to profit. In his system, an outside toilet or closet contained a seat under which stood a wooden 10 gallon pail or bucket at the bottom of which would be left one sixteenth of an inch of disinfectant or ashes. An air-tight lid on the bucket made for ease of removal. According to records in 1871 the full pails were removed once a week.

By April of 1869 100 pail closets had been set up in Rochdale. The waste, sometimes known as ‘night soil,’ was mixed with half a pint of antiseptic fluid then taken away under the auspices of the Scavenging Department on a 24-bay wagon to a building near the railway station but later to a depot on Entwistle Road which became known as the Manure Works. A replacement pail was left behind in the closet. By 1874 Rochdale had five of these wagons collecting over 3000 buckets on a weekly basis across the town and by 1876 this number had grown to 5000 serving over 300 closets.

On reaching the depot the wagons would empty the night soil into storage tanks whilst the pails were washed and chlorinated. The dried waste was then either burnt or developed – with the addition of fine ash – into fertilizer which was sold to local farmers at £6 10 shillings a ton. This early process of re-cycling of human excrement for agricultural purposes had been discussed for decades but never implemented. Records show that 9000 tons of waste was removed from the toilets of Rochdale each year and whilst every effort was to make the system as hygienic as possible, Rochdale people often complained about the smells, especially in difficult winter conditions when the wagons couldn’t always get round.

Whilst we, with our modern drainage systems and our water supplies might blanche at such primitive systems, the Rochdale Pail system was an improvement on the middens and must have seemed quite hygienic compared with what had gone before. Opinions differed as to the effectiveness of the Rochdale system, Henry Roberts in 1873 writing that it failed the first sanitary laws in that it distributed rather than confined the smells. Others such as J R Heape, Rochdale’s Mayor in 1888, commented that the system had brought ‘comfort and health to the town.’  

Gradually Rochdale’s drains and water supplies were improved and by the beginning of the 20th century the Pail system or the Rochdale System was replaced by the water closet and flushing mechanisms. The Rochdale system is, however, still used in some parts of the world, notably in Australia where the ‘dunny’ has achieved something of comic celebrity.

Although Rochdale was visited by many from around the globe in the 19th century to evaluate the system’s effectiveness, it was not taken up universally possibly because of its substantial cost to small towns. Larger towns, however, such as Wakefield, Salford, Leeds and Huddersfield did take on the Rochdale system and whilst it had its faults and dangers to public health it was a step on the way to transforming the handling of human waste to the system we know today.

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