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‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’: Salvation and Salvage at the Turn of the Century

‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’: Salvation and Salvage at the Turn of the Century


‘I saw pieces of paper, hardly recognisable for the dirt that clustered around them…transformed and made into that which would be good and of use.’

Most people in modern Britain, and no doubt across the globe, are familiar with the sustainability catchphrase ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. Over the past few years, social media campaigns, overflowing recycling bins and a growing popularity in sustainable products such as bamboo toothbrushes, are reassuring signs that people are beginning to listen to environmentalists and strive to reduce their impact upon the earth.

However, despite this relatively recent surge in environmental concern, the concept of recycling is not a new one; and a little investigation into The Salvation Army’s social work records reveals that in the 1890’s William Booth was enthusiastic towards this endeavour in a period when recycling was not popular or commonplace. With industrialisation and widespread urbanisation in the early Victorian era came new methods of technological waste disposal, such as incineration, which became favoured as a process that was widely believed to be more efficient and less polluting than recycling. In 1890, William Booth published In Darkest England and the Way Out - his blueprint for The Salvation Army’s many social schemes in the late nineteenth century; designed to feed, shelter and provide employment for those in need, due to his belief that economic salvation was an essential accompaniment to moral and spiritual salvation. Contrary to pervading trends, one important scheme was the waste paper mill or ‘salvage’ centre’.

In Darkest England and the Way Out

Title page from In Darkest England and The Way Out [Rare Books/40a]

Between 1891 and 1899, several Salvation Army waste paper depots sprang up across London. They were attached to institutions called ‘elevators’. The ‘elevator’ was intended to rehabilitate homeless and destitute men through providing them with work in the salvage industry, which would also recycle unwanted paper and raise charitable funds for The Salvation Army’s social enterprises.  Therefore, the positive environmental impact of Booth’s ‘salvage’ social scheme was a natural by-product of Booth’s ambition to afford dignity, purpose and salvation to London’s poor.

‘I propose to establish in connection with every Food and Shelter Depot a Workshop or Labour Yard, in which any person who comes destitute and starving will be supplied with sufficient work to enable him to earn the fourpence needed for his bed and board. This is a fundamental feature of the Scheme, and one which I think will commend it to all those who are anxious to benefit the poor by enabling them to help themselves without the demoralising intervention of charitable relief.’

William Booth, In Darkest England and the Way Out (London: McCorquodale & Co., 1890), p.104 [Rare Books/40a]

Spa Road Waste Paper Centre

Spa Road Waste Paper Centre, undated [MSW/2/2/1]

One of these ‘Labour Yards’ was Spa Road Elevator in Bermondsey, which opened on 12 March 1899. When it first began, the Spa Road site catered for 50 men, who fulfilled various roles in the process of recycling waste paper, from collecting and sorting, to pressing and wiring into bales. By 1911, the centre at Spa Road alone had swollen to accommodate 600 men in the waste paper industry. By this point a further 200 men were also employed at a northern London site at Whitecross with a combined output of approximately 500 tons of recycled paper per week.

Whitecross Labour Yard

Whitecross Street Waste Paper Centre, undated [MSW/2/2/1]

As well as producing his original volume, In Darkest England and the Way Out, Booth also wrote detailed instructions for his officers in his Orders and Regulations for the Social Officers of The Salvation Army to ensure that the schemes operated properly, to fulfil his vision.

Orders and Regulations

Orders and Regulations for the Social Officers of The Salvation Army. William Booth. (London: International Headquarters, 1898) [Rare Books/166]

Furthermore, this later article from Brigadier George Holbrook from The Officer magazine in June 1927, demonstrates the continuing impact of Booth’s ambition for these depots to be places of spiritual comfort and compassion (for humans and working animals!) as well as productive work spaces.

The Officer

‘The Waste Paper Industry. Notes for Young Officers’. Brigadier George Holbrook. The Officer, June 1927, p478

Prior to this, in 1882, long serving Salvationist, George Scott Railton, produced a pamphlet comparing The Salvation Army’s conversion work to the workings of a recycling paper mill. He wrote:

‘In God’s great Mill I saw that some rough and dirty refuse had been collected and turned into clean paper. That refuse of drink, and poverty, and crime, that refuse of degraded men and women, who lived in and died in sin, had been gathered up and successfully sent through the great “Salvation Mill”.’

The Salvation Mill

The Salvation Paper Mill. George Scott Railton. (London: The Salvation Army Book Stores, 1882), pp1-2 [Pam/R.8]

A mere nine years later, William Booth had combined these two methods of salvation in his waste paper scheme to help both man and society through transforming the ‘once dirty and filthy to the now beautiful and clean’.

Liverpool Waste Paper Centre

Liverpool Waste Paper Centre, undated [MSW/2/2/1]

The paper recycling system was truly a physical metaphor for William Booth’s vision of the spiritual transformation of Britain’s poor, as well as an efficient method of fulfilling his ambition to aid people economically. He sought to take people from the ‘rubbish heap of society’ and provide them with the opportunity to earn a wage and in so doing, regain their status as working members of society. Thus, Booth’s endorsement of reusing and recycling, despite being seen at the time as a ‘backward’ method, was very much a response to the societal conditions of the late nineteenth century and was closely wedded, both metaphorically and practically, to his spiritual philosophy.  


October 2019