Event date

24th May 2010


Entity info.

I am writing the History of Waste in Luton from 1850 to 2009, which, of course, includes this history during WW1.  I was Head of Waste Management at Luton Borough Council from 1996 until I retired in 2009, having been employed in a wide variety of posts within the Cleansing Division since February 1974.

The aspects of of Luton's waste industry in WW1 that particularly interested me were:

  • The attitudes towards women and their employment in work that was traditionally the preserve of men
  • If women were conscripted as they were in WW2
  • If the very considerable efforts to recycle as much waste as possible during WW2 were replicated in WW1
  • How cleansing services coped with the impact of severe labour shortages

In brief my findings were:


The public's attitude and that of Councillors at the time was that women should not be employed to take over tasks such as street cleansing, refuse collection or driving refuse or street cleansing vehicles.  Seemingly it was tolerable to employ them in the very extensive munitions factories in Luton - as this was war work, which would end when the war ended.  The munitionettes or munies, whether they were sooties (in the gunpowder factories) or canaries (in plants where phosphorous was used), were fairly invisible, whereas they would not be working as street cleaners or refuse collectors.

Even though WW2 was declared a mere 21 years after WW1 ended, social attitudes had markedly changed.  Although there was some resistance to using women workers on cleansing jobs, by 1942 it was clear that if women did not carry out this work there would eventually be no cleansing services at all taking place in the town.


It seems that conscripting women into service industries was a step far too far in WW1.  My Mother was conscripted in WW2, and was sent to Letchworth to train as a universal milling operator, and she was then employed at the AC Sphinx Plant in Dusnatble and Commer Cars in Biscot Road (and narrowly avoided being killed in the V2 raid on that factory).

There is considerable evidence of women being employed in volunteering, charitable activities and generally seeking ways to "do their bit", in addition to the hundreds of women munition workers in the town.  There were also some women employed at the Commer Cras factory producing the Subsidy Type A 4 ton and wodden wheeled 3 ton army trucks for the War Department, but, again, far fewer than were employed at the factory in WW2.


Many of the local volunteer organisations in Luton appealed to the Council to increase its recycling or salvage efforts to help the war effort.  However, the Council seems to have been very compacent about utilising this resource.  The standard reply throughout the WW1 years was that the Council did salvage some materials and was doing enough, according to letters from the Borough Engineer in reply to these requests.

This was in marked contrast to the enthusiasm shown in many of the nrothern cities, including Liverpool, Manchester, Hull and Leeds, where large scale household salvage schemes were put in place well before the U Boat menace was at its height in 1917. 


The Council seemed to cope in the first years of WW1 with labour shortages, but then there was a marked deterioration in their position when conscription was introduced in January 1916.  In fact the Council made extensive efforts to represent some of what it considered to be its key cleansing employees at the Tribunals, and went as far as having the Borough Engineer appear before them to argue that chargehands, foreman, supervisors and other key workers should not be conscripted, or cleansing services could collapse.  Incidentally, the Army also had designs on requisitioning the Council's considerable number of horses, but the Council strongly resisted this.

The Council decided that its priority had to be public health and concentrated its efforts on trying to maintain a refuse collection service, although the frequency of collection dropped back from once a week to more like every three or four weeks.  Even to keep up this collection rate, all trade, industrial and commercial waste ceased to be collected, with very little notice. This was much to chagrin of local traders and business owners, to whom the Council struck a "do you not realise there is a war on" response.  The Council, as a concession, did allow the traders to deliver their own waste to the Luton Waste Destructor in Windmill Road.


The other issues I have found during my research include the fact that there were food strikes in Luton during WW1.  The distribution of food on the home front was haphazard in many areas, including in Luton (so they should have collected food waste and processed it for pig food after all!).

The Council agreed with the Army to collect the waste from the barracks and camps around Luton.  However, they wanted paying for this, and the Army only paid up with very bad grace.  In fact the rubbish from Biscot Camp was collected by the Army and taken to the Refuse Destructor - where they were charged for the disposal costs, but this was less than collection and disposal.  The Council's view was that, for instance, the Biscot Camp peaked at having 22,000 men stationed there - about half the then population of the town, and there was no reason why the burden of collection and disposing of the waste should fall on the hard pressed ratepayers.


Author: mickovercoat

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