Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Unsentimental Journeys; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, by James Greenwood, 1867


   WHAT becomes of them all ? Assuming that the weight of an animal's skeleton is a twentieth of its entire carcase, and that the weekly consumption of beef, pork, and mutton, in London, averages 10,000 tons, the question is a little more puzzling than at first appears. It is a question, however, that concerns womenfolk rather than men, and womenfolk answer it. " It is easy enough to explain what becomes of the nasty things," says the mistress; "they are Betsy's perquisites." Betsy experiences no difficulty in advancing the inquiry another stage, and in a way equally lucid and satisfactory as her mistress.
   "They goes to the rag-shop," says Betsy. So they do, O paragon of all-work! That, beyond dispute, is a phase of their career, whatever else may happen to them. They may be hoarded by the thrifty, thrown into the dust-bin by the improvident; they may come to the dogs, even; but to the rag-shop they are inevitably carried. Who cares what becomes of them after that? With the "picking" of a bone its existence as an article of utility is popularly supposed to terminate. Nothing of the kind. Its career is, as it were, but just commenced; it had not even attained its proper growth till the day when it ceased to be a sheep's leg-bone and became a leg-of-mutton bone, and the basket into which Betsy casts it is not its coffin but its cradle. Don't despise the unwholesome, mildewed-looking thing should you by accident encounter it a month after it entertained you at dinner. You can't afford to despise it. You may meet it again under very different circumstances. In a gorgeous brown crackling coat it may yet grace your dining-table; you may be under obligations to it for the exquisite flavour of your next spring lamb. You will, moreover, be pleased not to regard this resurrectionist warning as a low and greasy attempt at funny writing, but as a serious fact, and one vouched for by chemists and philosophers of all schools and classes. Bone manure is, of course, at the bottom of the secret.
   However, the preparation of bones for manure was not the commencement of the business-that is, of the business I saw transacted at the factory I visited. It is not often a public scribe gets the chance of a subject all to himself; but, from some unaccountable reason, a popular description of bone crushing, and dissolving, and boiling has not hitherto been written. Perhaps the inodorous nature of the business may have to do with it. Well, I confess that, as I approached the waterside premises, and was greeted by a remarkably high-flavoured breeze, and saw looming in the distance the grimy chimney-shafts and the long row of waggons and carts waiting their turns to be delivered of their osseous burdens, I began to feel faint-hearted and inclined to retreat. I may here state, however, that in this case, as in many another of a like kind, beyond the unpleasant smell, there is nothing objectionable. Dr. Wynter informs us that men and women employed among the apparently pestilential heaps in dust-yards enjoy even more than ordinarily good health; and that twenty tradesmen called promiscuously together, compared with twenty "sewer-flushers" (the reader has doubtless seen these fellows with high boots and big lanterns who descend into the bowels of the City through iron-capped traps in the pavement), the flushers were found to be sounder and healthier as a body than the shopkeepers. In the case of this bone-factory at Lambeth, the proprietor for more than twenty years has lived and brought up a large family in a house at the end of the yard, and surrounded on all sides by crushing-sheds and boiling- sheds, and immense ranges of buildings where the raw material is stored. Some years ago, when this factory- owner was indicted as the perpetrator of a public nuisance, he triumphantly brought forward a blooming flock of big and little boys and girls who had breathed the factory atmosphere from their birth. The workmen about the premises fare no worse than the resident proprietor. I have it from the lips of the men themselves-and many of them have laboured at the mills and the boilers for ten and fifteen years-that illness is extremely rare amongst them, and that during the last terrible visit of cholera- nowhere so destructive as in the low-lying parts of Lambeth and Vauxhall-not a single "hand" at the bone-mills was affected. An ignorant man, however, averse to scientific explanation, and led by the nose, might be pardoned for entertaining an opinion at variance with that to be deduced from the above facts. Entering the factory-gate, the evidence offered his visual organs might reasonably lead to agreement with the verdict already arrived at by his nose. The place is paved with bones, walled with bones; there are mountains of them to the right and to the left, and breast-high they hedge avenues leading to the various departments. One of these departments is devoted to cookery. It is a long, low shed, and may be called the kitchen of the establishment. The cooking utensils are a row of immense coppers capable of containing, I am afraid to say how many gallons, and the cooks are big, hairy-armed men, in heavy woollen frocks and coarse sack aprons. Ladles and spoons are dispensed with, and their place supplied by pitchforks. As I stand at a respectful distance, and, peering through the rank mist that fills the kitchen, see the great cauldrons foaming, pitchy black, and their heavy lids heaving and stirring uneasily, I find my faith in the innocuous quality of the business flagging,-staunch Dr. Wynter even serving as an imperfect comforter. I am not reassured by the proprietor; for, says he, "Don't go closer; you may find the ammonia too much for you." Yet there were the cooks as contented and as cheerfully busy as bees in a hive.
   Another department was the mill-room, where the bones, after their gelatine had been extracted in the boiling process, were reduced to atoms. Here there was nothing to offend the nose, for the material divested of its fatty matter is as innoxious as wood chips; but the ears suffer dreadfully. The mill is simply an arrangement of toothed iron rollers, among which the bones are swept by a man who stands by a sort of slanting stage above, on which the bones are heaped, and from which he scrapes them with an iron scraper. Nevertheless, the unfortunate particles of skeletons, in passing through the revolving teeth, emit a sound of crushing, and crunching, and grinding, impossible to anything but bones, and terribly suggestive of corporal suffering, the extraction of firmly- bedded molars and incisors not to be forgotten.
   The value of bone as a manure, although discovered more than a hundred years since, has only been taken full advantage of since about 1815, when bone-mills were established in Yorkshire. Previous to that, on estates where bone manure was used, the material was reduced to handy bits by the application of a hammer, or else it was strewn in the cart tracks to be crushed by the action of the wheels. How it is that the chief substance that enters into the composition of bone is good to fatten the land is easy of explanation. The principal chemical ingredient in bone is phosphate of lime - fifty-three in a hundred of its parts are so composed. Vegetable life is largely dependent on phosphates for its growth and maintenance: so largely, indeed, that should the soil become exhausted of that principle, the crops raised thereon are sickly and weak, and scarcely worth the harvesting. This was the case in Cheshire at the end of the last century, and was doubtless occasioned by the constant and long-continued drain of the soil of its phosphorus in shape of corn and dairy produce. The rich red sandstone loams of the district were worn out--sucked dry, as farmers say. More by way of experiment than as a certain remedy, the exhausted pasture land was dressed with bone manure at the rate of a ton to the acre, and in less than three years the value of the said land was doubled, The turnip hungers for phosphates more than any other vegetable. It has so small a seed that the quantity of phosphates stored round it for the nourishment of the roots and leaves of the young plant is in a poor soil by no means adequate to the demand; hence the necessity of concentrating by artificial means the vital element about the tiny seed, else those other essentials to turnip life -carbonic acid, water, and ammonia-may abound to as little purpose as a windmill without wind. So it comes about that your discarded mutton bone of to-day nurses and comforts next spring's vegetation, and the ox eats thereof-the tender grass, the matured hay, and the juicy turnip-and waxes sturdy and stout of limb, and fat enough to be brought to market, and to be bought by Mr. Brisket, your butcher, who sends you a joint of the beast, and you are afforded an opportunity of renewing acquaintance with an old friend.
   In 1839 Liebig suggested that the efficacy of bone-dust as a manure might be vastly increased if it were dissolved in sulphuric acid. A part of the Lambeth manufactory is set apart for this purpose. Here is sunk a deep pit containing a great iron tank, in which the mixing takes place, 15 cwt. of the acid being added to every ton of bone- dust. The result of the incorporation is a heavy slate- coloured soft powder, worth from five to eight guineas per ton As, however, the animal matter still remaining in the bone-dust is a hindrance to the blending of the acid with the earthy matter, there is mixed with it a considerable proportion of bone-ash from which every particle of gelatinous matter has been extracted, and which materially assists the sulphuric acid in its action. Bone-ash is obtained by the complete combustion of bones in an open furnace, where the oxygen of the air burns away the organic matter, and leaves the earthy constituents as a white friable mass. If, on the other hand, the bone-say a shin-bone-be immersed in an acid sufficiently diluted to prevent its injuring the animal membrane, and yet strong enough to dissolve the phosphate of lime, the remaining matter will still retain the exact figure and dimensions of the original bone, and yet be rendered so flexible that it may be tied in a knot.
   It must not be supposed, however, that all the bones that pass through the gates of the Lambeth factory are either ground or melted as manure. Some of them are much too valuable to be so used; as, for instance, the leg bones of the ox. I was shown tons of these with the knobs at the ends sawn off, some in cisterns sunk in the floors and still undergoing the bleaching process, and others stored in great barrels, as beautifully white as ivory. Large quantities of these are sent to France and other parts of Europe, and converted into handles for tooth and shaving-brushes, children's gum-rings, knife handles, and cheap combs.
   A considerable portion of the Lambeth bone-works is adapted to the manufacture of soap from the fatty matter obtained from the bones. Did space permit, much interesting matter might be written concerning the various processes; of the coppers, broad and deep enough to drown a dozen men, and of the mysteries of "mottled," and "yellow," and "primrose," together with their comparative merits. One little bit of information that I gleaned concerning soap may be of value to the thrifty British matron, and she is heartily welcome to it. Beware of cheap soap, however proper its appearance may be.
   "This," said the worthy soapmaker, handling a "bar" of unexceptional "yellow," "is as good as the article can be. This "-he took down another sample, seemingly of equal quality--"is cheaper by at least a third."
   "Inferior material, of course." "Nothing of the sort, sir! The same material exactly, with this difference- the cheaper sort (people will have cheapness, you know) contains a compensating amount of water. It is so full of it that it is a difficult matter to cut the great block into bars, but the bars are immediately subjected to such a heat as dries the outer surface and cakes it hard, giving it the sound and substantial appearance it now wears."