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How Londoners reused and recycled their junk down the centuries 1

a photo of drinking glass stems repaired crudely with metal

Drinking glass stems (C) Museum of London

The Museum of London reveals how for centuries the capital’s inhabitants have re-used and recycled

In relatively recent years we have become accustomed to breaking up and sorting out all sorts of material and household goods for recycling. But for centuries, Londoners have followed the same process, breaking down items into their constituent parts to give them a second life.

The Museum of London’s latest display of curious objects, Junk, reveals some these ingenious alternative uses and the creative repairs to be found in everything from Roman pots mended with lead, iron wires and adhesive made from tree bark and resin to the 18th century porcelain plates fixed together with great iron staples.

Among the 16th century solutions for the inevitable problem of broken drinking glasses was ‘an excellent cement’ of wax and aqua vitae and another combination of lime, flour and egg white. 17th century methods included moulding lead or gilt-wire braces to your glass.

Elsewhere, decorative 18th century plates show repairs with ugly rivets, a sure sign that people were prepared to tolerate an awkward-looking item if it meant prolonging its life.

a photo of a porcelain plate with a crack across its centre

Repaired 18th Century porcelain plate (c) Museum of London

Lead plugs used to repair porcelain. (c) Museum of London

The fascinating finds come from right across the museum collection and range from archaeological excavated objects to chance finds that reflect the full gamut of what people have broken, chucked out and re-used over the last millennia – or so.

Holes in mediaeval pots were filled with molten lead plugs; and early 18th century women’s shoes were made entirely from re-used materials – with fabric from 100 years before and all elements worked and tailored to reflect the style of the day.

But far from lauding the good old days, when necessity made recyclers of seemingly everyone, the exhibition offers a few heartening parallels with today.

Of the 209 million tonnes of waste that entered final treatment in the UK in 2014, an encouraging 44.5% of it was apparently recovered (including recycling and energy recovery).

In 18th and 19th century London, dustmen who were responsible for many dust heaps, were similarly busy – sorting and removing anything that could possibly see a profit, including coal dust for making bricks, and, in turn, brick dust made into a cleaning agent. Dustmen were well off as a result.

a photo of the underside of plate with staples in it repair a major crack running across its centre

Repaired 18th century porcelain plate (c) Museum of London

a watercolour of a man leering at a woman on a backstep as he pours brick dust into a bowl

Watercolour from Cries of London by Thomas Rawlandson 1798 (c) Museum of London

An old print from the popular Cries of London series shows a brick dust seller selling his wares to a servant girl, who would have used the dust for cleaning the doorstep and scouring the pots and pans. A pair of hawkers are also shown selling and buying metal, old spoons and scraps.

“Similarly the mudlarks of the nineteenth century picked up hemp, cord, bits of metal for recycling from the foreshore – anything they could find that they could sell on for profit,” says Curator Hazel Forsyth. “Recycling was endemic because of the poverty of people in the past.

“Anything recycled by one person could be used by another – either in a partially reconstructed state or in a new guise, so recycling is certainly nothing new, but our attitudes to recycling are really rather different now.”

Forsyth tells the story of how Lord Lisle, who was the King’s deputy and Governor in Calais in 1533, played host to the FrenchElector Palatine (who was helping to negotiate the betrothal of Anne of Cleves to Henry VIII) . Lady Lisle noticed how the French noble used a pin to clean his teeth after dinner, so she later sent him a letter and enclosed her own tooth pick, which she proudly told him: “I have used it myself for seven years”.

an etching of a couple walking with their wares including a basket and bellows

Etching from Twelve Cries of London, 1760, by Paul Sandby (c) Museum of London

“We’ve no idea whether the Elector was grateful,” adds Forsyth, “but this idea of recycling is really quite extreme and I think it was totally pervasive through all levels of society – from the courts down.

“It was an enduring part of people’s lives until after the Second World War and by the sixties it becomes a throwaway society. It’s only now again that people are becoming acutely conscious of waste and waste management and environmental risk and damage. For centuries prior to that there had been concerted efforts to recyle and re-use.”

One thing that emerges from the display is how Londoners of old were much more prepared to tolerate quite awkward-looking repairs. Aesthetics, it seems, always came second to function in people’s pecking order.

Junk runs at the Museum of London from July 30 – October 1 2017. Admission is free.


Museum of London

London, City of London

Step inside Museum of London for an unforgettable journey through the capital’s turbulent past. The Museum of London tells the story of the world’s greatest city and its people. It cares for more than two million objects in its collections and attracts over 400,000 visitors per year. It holds the…

One comment on “How Londoners reused and recycled their junk down the centuries

  1. Twyla Whitmer on

    At last someone has found a great use for the internet and museums and it doesn’t require using foods I shouldn’t get near, and there is no violence or clashing opinions requiring harsh words or weapons of destruction or having to be right all the time. What a refreshing attitude. Unfortunately, you may have ruined my life since I can’t stop by reading just one article. I want to read on and on. What will become of my house and my husband and my garden. Well it’s always something, isn’t it? Whoever came up with this idea has helped the planet as far as I’m concerned. Keep up the good work. I love museums!!!! We have an International Teddy Bear Museum here in Iowa out in the middle of nowhere.


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