This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 18th November 1996 (p.5), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)


Memories are fading of the once regular rounds of the rag-and-bone men and the younger generation may ask why anyone would want to buy tatty rags and smelly bones. The answer is that the former were recycled for paper making and the latter for glue, gelatine, fertiliser and pottery manufacture. (In 1799 Josiah Spode founded the Minton works at Stoke on Trent, using bone ash for his 'natural soft paste' porcelain - i.e. bone china.)

Animal bones have been used for land improvement for hundreds of years and demand grew alongside the agricultural revolution. Bones, and the bony cores of ox-horns, were crushed at water-powered grinding mills between iron wheels or rollers. Sometimes the bones were first boiled in cauldrons to extract the grease, otherwise bone manure attracted vermin, birds and insects. Farey refers to bones also being pounded under forge hammers.

Tanyards were a good source of bones and horns. More unusually, Sheffield knife-handle makers sold their horn trimmings direct to local farmers, as did horn and bone button manufacturers. Strutts of Belper asked their workpeople and their children to save bones for which they were paid 1s.6d. (7.5p) per hundredweight, taking wheelbarrows full at a time. Strutts had the bones broken up at Makeney forge for spreading on their own pasture land.

Farey noted that 'several Ship Loads of the Bones, collected in London (some from the churchyards as I have heard) find their way to the interior of Derbyshire annually and are there ground by mills.' He listed nine bone mills in the county, including one at Ashford with iron waterwheels powered by the Wye, and one described as the slag mill rollers in the Via Gellia at Bonsall Dale. The Ashford mill later became a saw mill and that in Bonsall Dale was taken over by Cromford Garnetters.

Mills commonly adapted to changing times and new uses. A former corn mill on the Manifold at Longnor was used for grinding bones before being converted to a saw mill. Conversely, a lead smelting mill at Lumsdale, near Matlock, was replaced by a bone mill. Powered from a mill pond fed by a leat from Bentley Brook, this mill ground calcined or burnt bones for fertiliser and for use in pottery manufacture. A mill on the Mill Brow stream at Ludworth, originally built to grind corn, is believed to have been worked by two men as a bone mill before the building was washed away in a flood of the early 1920s.

A bone and madder grinding mill was established around 1780 at Turf Lee near Marple. Known as Springwater bone mill, it also supplied Strines Printworks with red-madder dye extracted from the roots of the madder herb. In July 1833 the premises were advertised as to let, with mention of a two- storey building, a 10 h.p. engine and a spring water supply of 40 gallons per minute. The business was put up for sale in 1865. Trading as the Marple Bone-Dust, Glue and Size Company, it was described as a nearly new plant on the canal near the Goyt aqueduct, equipped with a disintegrator, bone-dust sieving machine, wooden boiling cisterns and a large number of glue coolers. Glue and size was still being sold from the premises 20 years later, under the name of Marple Chemical Company. Its proximity to the Peak Forest Canal was presumably a useful asset when subsequently converted to a calico mill.

In the late 19th/early 20th century, James Frost operated as a bone crusher at Bakewell field, Sheldon, near Ashford. About 90 years ago a knacker's yard and bone mill was in business between Middleton by Wirksworth and Brassington, on a site eventually developed by Magnesium Elecktron Limited.


Bone manure was considered particularly good for turnip crops, bettered only - according to Farey's sources - by privy soil, i.e. human waste. The practice of adding small quantities of lime to privies to absorb the stench was observed at Peak Forest. This was considered less satisfactory than adding earth, since that produced a valuable manure in a dry state ready for spreading.

Privy soils were combined with 'town dung' to produce an effective manure on fallow land, used at Belper with soap suds and 'other produce of the sewers'. Some towns had a communal dung-hole for receiving dung, weeds etc. Improved versions were kept well wetted to produce liquid manure for extraction from beneath the pile. Town dung consisted largely of horse and other animal droppings swept off the streets by the town scavengers, a recognised trade. It was sold either by the cart-load or by weight to local farmers; in 1808 the price at Ashbourne and Matlock Bath was seven shillings (35p) a ton.

Farmers also recycled the output from their own livestock and often constructed 'yard dung' collection points to their own design. On some large farms, soakage from cattle stalls and dung yards drained into storage tanks. Farey describes how Mr Joseph Gould of Pilsbury had taken care to prevent the dung yards of his new premises from becoming drenched by rain by fixing launders to his outbuildings. Obviously roof gutters were not normally a priority.

The farmyard dung heap is still good farming practice but other rural methods of fertiliser production have passed into history, taking with them the bone crushers, town scavengers, privy soil collectors, rag-and-bone men and - thankfully - communal dung-holes.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 18th November 1996
Updated 15th April 2004.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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