Quiz time. What’s the connection between a ridiculously healthy hydrangea, Gladstone pottery Museum, #food security and a blocked toilet?

Got it? No? OK, here’s the link for me.

On one side of the old house we live in is a hydrangea growing up the wall, on the other side of the house a clematis. The hydrangea grows like mad, it’s rude with health. And it appears to grow out of the tarmac that comes right up to that side of the house. The clematis just gets by. Many of its branches are dead and flowering is far from rigorous. It grows out of soil in the border by what passes for a lawn (its mostly moss and weeds, not grass).

Almost 10 years ago our toilet got blocked. The man who came to fix it was stumped. He couldn’t see why. In the end we had to get someone with a camera to come and send it down the drain to see what the problem was. Roots. Yes, it was the roots of the hydrangea. They’d found a crack in the drain, which ran under the tarmac, proliferating around it and through it until they finally blocked the drain. We had to have the tarmac dug up and the blocked drain part replaced.


And so to Gladstone Pottery Museum, in Stoke on Trent, last week while we were on holiday. This turned out to be a fabulous place – giving a fascinating glimpse into a vital part of Britain’s industrial revolution, the bone china and pottery industry, and the conditions working people had to suffer. The museum also has a great exhibition on the history of the toilet – from cesspit to the latest hands-free, water-cleansing, warm-air-drying Japanese loos.

And the connection? In the 19th century in Stoke-on-Trent about one third of the children died before they reached the age of five. There was little or no sanitation in the teeming, smoke-filled city where life expectancy was 47 – as so many workers died from the harsh conditions they worked in around the kilns and from the dust and chemicals used in the process of making and decorating fine bone china. Conditions only improved when employers were forced by various Acts of Parliament to improve things.

The Museum’s fascinating toilet exhibition traces the development of the water closet and sewerage system that helped remove the threat of cholera, dysentery and many more diseases spread by foul and insanitary cesspits and piles of faeces by houses that was eaten by the house pigs that were part of city life. The WCs were made of ceramics by many firms in the potteries. Indeed, the development of water closets and sewage systems saved – worldwide – countless millions of lives. And it was in the Potteries that they developed and made millions of these flushing toilets that have spread worldwide.


But there is a downside. It is one that requires rethinking our sanitary systems in the 21st-century. It is epitomised by a throwaway consumer culture. Just flush waste down the toilet and let it go. When human excreta are flushed away down the drain we are flushing a vast amount of nutrients – nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, the three main elements in artificial fertilisers – away too. Plants need these nutrients from the soil they grow in. And organic matter improves soil structure. With the majority of the world’s population now being urban – and projections for that to reach 75% by the middle of this century – we cannot afford to just throw away that vast amount of soil improving, plant nourishing “waste”.


Indeed, even in the 19th century, as one of the many informative panels around the museum’s exhibition explained, the Rev Henry Moule, who was offended both by the pollution of rivers and streams that discharging sewage caused and by the waste of so many nutrients, invented the composting toilet in 1859. By about that time, as another panel informed us, most towns had set up night soil collections. They gave households metal privy buckets and employed men to empty them regularly, with the sewage being sold to farmers to fertilise their fields.

Today, there’s a growing recognition that the input/output/waste, linear industrial model of the economy doesn’t make sense – any more than does throwing away this vast amount of potential fertiliser which should be recycled. Indeed, all the ideas of a “circular economy” and sustainability have to get to grips with the need to ensure that what goes into our mouths as food and comes out of our bodies as excreta ends up back in the soil as organic matter to improve its structure and its fertility. That is why my hydrangea, the Gladstone Pottery Museum, and a blocked toilet are linked to food security.


About geofftansey

I curate the Food Systems Academy, a free, on-line, open education resource to transform our food systems. I am also a member of the Food Ethics Council and chaired the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which reported in 2015.
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