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Promoting corporate environmental sustainability in the Victorian era: The Bethnal Green Museum permanent waste exhibit (1875-1928)

Pierre Desrochers
Associate Professor of Geography, University of Toronto


Due to a widespread belief in the environmental carelessness of early industrialists, historical scholarship on business-environment interactions has side-stepped the study of corporate innovations that had both economic and environmental benefits. A more nuanced perspective on the issue is offered through a discussion of the permanent waste products collection that was on display from 1875 to 1928 at the Bethnal Green Branch of the South Kensington Museum. Through several hundred examples illustrating the profitable conversion of polluting industrial residuals into profitable by-products ranging from fertilizers and animal feed to construction materials and dyes, its organisers demonstrated that the interest of business was often compatible with environmental remediation.
Figure 1 - Illustration to the chapter 'On Waste' from Edwin Lankester, The Uses of Animals in Relation to the Industry of Man; Being a course of lectures delivered at the South Kensington Museum (London: Robert Hardwicke, 1860), 140.

Figure 1 - Illustration to the chapter 'On Waste' from Edwin Lankester, The Uses of Animals in Relation to the Industry of Man; Being a course of lectures delivered at the South Kensington Museum (London: Robert Hardwicke, 1860), 140.

Historical scholarship on the impact of industrial activities on the environment has largely ignored the study of innovations that had both economic and environmental benefits. Indeed, the dominant perspective on the issue has long been that job creation in the industrial age could only be achieved at the cost of increasingly severe pollution problems and the depletion of non-renewable resources. To a large extent, this view can be traced back to Victorian coal-powered mills, factories and mining operations that darkened the sky, polluted rivers and severely damaged the British countryside.

While the undesirable environmental side-effects of some past manufacturing activities are undeniable, much evidence suggests a more nuanced perspective needs to be taken on the subject. First, environmental and public health problems, from deforestation and indoor air pollution to lack of basic sanitation facilities, were severe long before the 19th century. (1) Second, as in developing economies today, many individuals were willing to trade some environmental degradation for a higher standard of living. As one commentator observed in 1876, removing the chemical works of East London on account of their ‘unusual [but] not necessarily injurious’ smells would entail ‘a great deal of sickness as a result of shortness of bread consequent on want of employment’. (2) Last, much progress in terms of developing innovations that had both economic and environmental benefits, most prominently valuable by-products such as fertilizers, building materials and dyes out of what were previously polluting emissions and production residuals, was achieved at the time. Considerable efforts were devoted to promote the latter endeavour, including a permanent exhibit on the topic that was on display from 1875 to 1928 at the Bethnal Green Branch of the South Kensington Museum (discussed in detail by Ann Christie in this issue of the V&A Online Journal). Indeed, a case can be made that the individuals involved in this effort, most prominently the chemist and politician Lyon Playfair (1818-1898) and the journalist and publisher Peter Lund Simmonds (1814-1897), not only anticipated concepts and debates now at the heart of the modern sustainable development literature, but also that their work questions some fundamental premises of this discourse.

Background to the waste products collection

Figure 2 - Lyon Playfair, with kind permission of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Figure 2 - Lyon Playfair, with kind permission of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Lyon Playfair’s sustained interest in the creation of lucrative products out of industrial pollution can probably be traced back to his days as a manager in the Primrose calico print-works in Clitheroe (Lancashire) in 1841 and 1842, but his contribution to the Bethnal Green waste exhibit can be more directly linked to his role as commissioner of the 1851 Great Exhibition and in his later influencing of the management of its financial surplus (fig. 2). (3) Be that as it may, the Scottish chemist never had the inclination to become a full-time populariser and was apparently happy to leave this task to the Danish-born Peter Simmonds.

Although now mostly remembered as the author of the first detailed global study of human foods, (4) Simmonds’ main works were essays, pamphlets and extensive works of synthesis on the development and use of natural resources. (5) While the origins of his interest in by-product development are unclear, the topic was a logical extension of his previous writings. His work on waste products was first sponsored by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce to whom he dedicated the first edition (1862) of his 430-page 'Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances; or, Hints for Enterprise in Neglected Fields.' In his best-seller, he observed that the creation of wealth out of industrial waste was already ‘too extensive in its scope to be discussed successfully in detail’ in a single book. (6) He discussed several hundred cases, such as the various products derived from cattle horns. He described how the lower portion was made into combs and the remaining clippings of this process sold for manure. The middle portion was split into thin layers used as a substitute for glass in cheap lanterns, with some leftover material cut, painted, and used as toys and the rest sold for manure. The horn tip was turned into knife-handles, tops of whips and other such related articles. The core of the horn was then boiled in water. The resulting fat was used by yellow soap producers, and the remaining liquid purchased by cloth dressers for stiffening. The insoluble substance was then ground down and sold as manure. In light of the dynamism of the British economy, he added, new industries were constantly appearing, along with new problematic wastes from which commercial wealth had yet to be extracted.

As he would readily admit in later editions, Simmonds was overcommitted when he wrote the first version of his book and was displeased with the result. Fortunately, he produced a better compendium when the authorities of the Vienna International Exhibition of 1873 decided to devote a significant portion of their event to the topic. Because of his prominence on the issue, Simmonds was asked to form a representative collection to be shown in the British section of the exhibition. This endeavour also gave him the opportunity to begin developing an even larger exhibit on behalf of the Science and Art Department which would eventually be displayed at Bethnal Green. He used these opportunities to publish thoroughly updated versions of his book, first in 1873 and again three years later as an entirely new 491 page third edition which he concluded by observing that the topic was certainly not exhausted ‘since every day furnishes new instances of what has become one of the most striking features of modern industry – to let nothing be lost, and to re-work with profit and advantage the residues of former manufactures’. (7)

The Bethnal Green waste products collection

Figure 3 - P. L. Simmonds, Descriptive catalogue of the collection illustrating the utilization of waste products (London: HMSO, 1875)

Figure 3 - P. L. Simmonds, Descriptive Catalogue of the Collection Illustrating the Utilization of Waste Products (London: HMSO, 1875)

The permanent waste exhibit formally opened to the public in 1875. It was described as follows by a contemporary:
'A department has been added to the Bethnal Green Museum (London) which promises to be highly instructive. In all manufactures, and, indeed, in all dwellings, there is a great deal of waste, some of which is noxious. Art and science are continually trying to discover uses for this waste, and have had much success; and in the new department above refereed to, there is a large collection of articles manufactured from waste. Waste silk, cotton, and wool are now converted into clothing or articles of domestic use. Beautiful dyes and exquisite perfumes are obtained from waste coal-tar; cork-clippings are manufactured into floor-cloth; and many other articles are now “on view,” as auctioneers say, at Bethnal Green. Anyone who discovers a way to utilize waste (old corks, for instance), may reckon on an ample reward'. (8)

According to another observer, this ‘very large and comprehensive’ collection was intended to ‘show the importance and practicability of utilizing what have been considered ‘waste products', rendered more necessary year by year in the face of increasing competition’. (9) It was originally accompanied by a seventy-nine page catalogue (originally priced three pence) that summed up its content along with Simmonds’ earlier observations on the widespread nature of recovery practices and the importance of the profit motive in driving their development (fig. 3).

On the latter subject, he observed that as

‘competition becomes sharper, manufacturers have to look more closely to those items which may make the slight difference between profit and loss, and convert useless products into those possessed of commercial value, which is the most apt illustration of Franklin's motto that “a penny saved is twopence earned”’. (10)
Figure 4 - Popular Science Monthly 1:1 (1872), with kind permission of The American Museum of Natural History, New York

Figure 4 - Popular Science Monthly 1:1 (1872), with kind permission of The American Museum of Natural History, New York

The number of substances displayed - in each case with an explanatory label written by Simmonds - was said to have been very large at first, but the exhibit seems to have grown slowly afterwards. No new additions were reported in 1877 and 1881, while thirty-three new items were added in 1880 and eleven in 1883. (11) The collection was removed from the north to the south basement of the Bethnal Green building in 1883. It was rearranged, relabelled, and benefited from better light, thus reportedly resulting in increased interest by visitors. (12) Perhaps not coincidentally, what seems to be Simmonds’ last essay of significance on the topic was published that year in the Popular Science Monthly Journal, a publication for which he had written many times since its inception in 1872 (fig. 4). (13)

The surviving records indicate that he was retained on an ad hoc basis until the Autumn of 1891, as Ann Christie discusses in her article. He might have been employed as much for his expertise as for charitable purposes by then, as he had fallen on hard times. Indeed, his work seems to have been plagued by much delay and judged somewhat unsatisfactory, but he was paid despite these problems. He died in 1897 aged 83, but his waste exhibit survived him by another 31 years after which it was destroyed after years of neglect. (14)

Impact of waste exhibit

The impact of the waste exhibit is somewhat difficult to assess in retrospect, but it is nonetheless possible to get some idea from contemporary sources. Regarding the relative overall success of the Bethnal Green Museum, it can first be observed that more than nine million visits were recorded during its first decade and a half. (15) While other exhibits were more popular, Simmonds, a man usually extremely modest in his writings, described his waste products collection as having attracted ‘much attention and interest’. (16) As to its educational value, perhaps the most informative assessment can be found in Thomas Greenwood’s 1888 survey of British museums and art galleries.

'In the lower part of the building there is, in a series of long wall-cases, a very comprehensive series of products illustrating the utilization of waste. These might be most interesting and useful, but in a dark corridor, and without a scrap of printed matter respecting them for the visitor to carry away, either by purchase or otherwise, their utility is considerably lessened. And yet there is no part of the whole Museum so calculated to produce solid lessons on the mind of the visitor as this section. Here in proper form there are specimens of products, arranged by that veteran in the utilization of waste products, Mr. P. L. Simmonds, of cotton, jute, nuts, straw, wood, barks, leaves, oil, silk, glass, metal and other substances'. (17)

A decade earlier, one anonymous reviewer had similarly remarked that ‘the utility of any museum is undoubtedly much increased by the publication of a catalogue of its contents’ which helped visitors remember exhibits in a more productive way, especially in terms of their value and commercial relations. Simmonds’ ‘affordably priced’ booklet was then available and ‘even those who have not the opportunity of visiting Bethnal Green Museum may learn a good deal by [its] perusal, which we may unhesitatingly state is one of the most useful of its kind that we have seen’. (18) As another reviewer observed, since most of the inhabitants of the museum’s vicinity were engaged in some branch of trade and were earning their daily bread by manipulating some of the very articles displayed, ‘the mere fact of seeing them elevated to a position of importance in a public exhibition will no doubt inspire them to seek further information on the sources of the materials which are constantly before their eyes, but of the origin of which they know but little. (19) The reviewer further suggested that this result would be considerably assisted by the Descriptive Catalogue of the Collection. According to the 1877 annual report of the Science and Art Department, the booklet was selling ‘moderately well’, while the 1878 edition reported that 110 copies had been sold. Only one badly-damaged copy now remains (fig. 3). (20)

In the end, however, it is probably fair to say that while the Bethnal Green permanent exhibit might have played a valuable role in educating a broad audience and influencing specific individuals, it is doubtful that it was absolutely crucial in promoting by-product development among British industrialists for, as both Playfair and Simmonds commented, widespread behaviour in this respect predated their writings. This was certainly obvious to William Crookes, the editor of The Chemical News, who observed soon after the publication of the first edition of Waste Products that the ‘progress of our great chemical manufactures during the last ten years, as exemplified in the International Exhibition of 1862, appears chiefly to have been directed towards the utilization of waste substances’. (21) Indeed, none other than Karl Marx considered industrial waste recovery as ‘the second great branch of economies in the conditions of production’ after economies of scale. (22) It can also be observed that by-product development was simultaneously becoming widespread in locations where people had never heard of these writers and did not benefit from a permanent by-product display, and that books similar to Simmonds’ Waste Products were later published in Germany, France, the United States and the United Kingdom without any apparent knowledge of his contribution. (23)

The fact that resource recovery was still going strong after the deaths of Playfair and Simmonds is also attested to by the launch of Waste Trade World: The Journal of the Metal, Cotton, Woollen, Paper, Rubber, and other Waste Trades in 1912. It was the first British periodical devoted to the business of scrap and waste products.  Interestingly, in 1918 one of its editors contemplated the creation of a detailed bibliography on waste recovery and came across a reference to the 1875 Bethnal Green Waste Exhibit catalogue in an edition of William Stanley Jevons’ Principle of Economics. Upon contacting the museum, T. A. Lehfeldt, the employee then in charge of the exhibit, informed the editor that the catalogue had long been out of print, but that a copy could be found in the Science Library of South Kensington. (24)


The several hundred win-win examples collected by Playfair, Simmonds and others suggests the necessity to rethink some of the intellectual foundations to the now dominant approach to sustainable development. Admittedly, by-product development was never able to eliminate pollution problems completely, but it seems undeniable that such activities were triggered on a large scale by profitability considerations and very often resulted in drastically reduced environmental impact.

All this is not to say, of course, that Playfair, Simmonds and some of their contemporaries were denying the severity of environmental problems created by profit-seeking businesses in various locations. It is, instead, to say simply that their contribution is better understood as an attempt to promote the development of win-win practices through creative problem-solving rather than through the reduction of manufacturing output and living standards. In a world where widespread poverty and famine were still the norm for most of the human race, and where people were much less sheltered from the vicissitudes of nature than they would later become, these authors were surely better able to appreciate the trade-offs between economy and environment of their day than are 21st century writers so often prone to indict Victorians for their lack of environmental concern. In the end, it may be that the rational interest of business has never been as opposed to the environmental interest of society as is currently supposed.

This essay is drawn from the author’s article 'Victorian Pioneers of Corporate Sustainability: Lyon Playfair, Peter Lund Simmonds and the Society of Arts’ Waste Products Initiatives. Business History Review. 83:4 (2009): 703-729.


(1) See, among others: Lomborg, Bjørn. The Skeptical Environmentalist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Indoor air pollution, especially when individuals are exposed to smoke and particulates in poorly ventilated houses where low quality fuels (wood, dung, etc.) are burned in traditional stoves and open air fireplaces, is still responsible for millions of deaths per year in less developed economies. See, among others:  Duflo, Esther, Michael Greenstone, and Rema Hanna. 'Indoor Air Pollution, Health and Economic Well-Being', Survey and Perspectives Integrating Environment and Society (SAPIENS) 1 (February 2008): 1–9. http://www.surv-perspect-integr-environ-soc.net/1/1/2008/sapiens-1-1-2008.pdf

(2) Glenny Crory, William. East London Industries. London, 1876: 72.

(3) Playfair’s two most important writings on the topic are 'On the Chemical Principles Involved in the Manufactures of the Exhibition as Indicating the Necessity of Industrial Instruction' in Royal Society of Arts, Lectures on the Results of the Great Exhibition of 1851. London, 1852: 157-208, and 'Waste Products Made Useful'. North American Review 432 (1892): 560-568. He also discussed the topic incidentally in several other essays and articles and probably authored a few anonymous pieces on the topic.

(4) Davidson, Alan. Introduction to The Curiosity of Food, by Peter Lund Simmonds. London, 1859; reprinted Berkeley, 2001.

(5) Simmonds’ publications include The Commercial Products of the Vegetable Kingdom. London, 1854; Tropical Agriculture. New York, 1877; The Commercial Products of the Sea. New York, 1879; and The Animal Food Resources of Different Nations. New York, 1885.

(6) Lund Simmonds, Peter. Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances; or, Hints for Enterprise in Neglected Fields. London, 1862: 2.

(7) Lund Simmonds, Peter. Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances. (third edition). London, 1876: 477.

(8) Anonymous, 'The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature'. Science and Art 23:1(January 1876): 124.

(9) Liversidge, Archibald. Report Upon Certain Museums for Technology, Science, and Art, also upon Scientific, Professional and Technical Instruction and Systems of Evening Classes in Great Britain and on the Continent of Europe. Sydney, 1880: 11.

(10) Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, Descriptive Catalogue of the Collection Illustrating the Utilization of Waste Products. London, 1875: 4.

(11) Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, Report of the Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education. London, 1876-1878; 1880-1881.

(12) Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, Thirtieth Report of the Science and Art Department, with Appendices. London, 1883: 532.

(13) Lund Simmonds, Peter. 'The Saving of Science'. Popular Science Monthly 33:2 (1883): 798-811.

(14) From various internal documents available in the Victoria and Albert Museum Registry’s Bethnal Green Museum, Waste Products Collection 1874-1928 file.

(15) Greenwood, Thomas. Museums and Art Galleries. London, 1888: 266.

(16) Black, Barbara J. On Exhibit: Victorians and their Museums. Charlottesville, 2000: 33-34. See also Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances. (Third edition), iii.

(17) Greenwood, Thomas. Museums and Art Galleries. London, 1888: 264.

(18) Anonymous, Review of 'Descriptive Catalogue of the Collection Illustrating the Utilisation of Waste Products'. The Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions 6:3 (1876): 598.

(19) Anonymous, Review of 'Descriptive Catalogue of the Collection Illustrating the Utilisation of Waste Products'. The Gardeners’ Chronicle 4 (1875): 427.

(20) Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, various Report of the Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, with Appendices. London, 1876-1878.

(21) Crookes, William. 'Chemical Products - The Application of Waste'. Popular Science Review 5:2 (1862): 58.

(22) Marx, Karl. Capital, A Critique of Political Economy. vol. III. Chicago, 1909/1894: 95.

(23) Koller, Theodor. The Utilization of Waste Products. Third Revised Edition. New York, 1918 (original German edition, 1880); Razous, Paul. Les déchets et sous-produits industriels. Paris, 1937/1921/1905; Kershaw, John B. C. The Recovery and Use of Industrial and Other Waste. London, 1928; Lipsett, Charles H. Industrial Waste and Salvage: Conservation and Utilization. New York, 1963/1951. For a more detailed survey of the past literature on the topic, see Desrochers, Pierre. 'How did the Invisible hand Handle Industrial Waste? By-Product Development before the Modern Environmental Era'. Enterprise and Society. 8:2 (June 2007): 48-374.

(24) The original query (June 6th, 1918) and Lehfeldt’s reply (June 12th, 1918) can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum Registry’s Bethnal Green Museum, Waste Products Collection 1874-1928 file.