The risky business of making manure from raw sewage that took place under a Hastings beach

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Perhaps Southern Water could stop polluting the sea with sewage if it followed the example set in Hastings over 150 years ago: turn sewage into manure.

In 1869 the Native Guano Company in Leamington had invented such a system, producing baggable fertilizer by mixing raw human sewage with what were known as the ABC ingredients: blood from animals, charcoal made from animal bones, clay, alum and various sulphates. In March 1870 the well-known local businessman James Rock jnr, who ran a carriage building works at White Rock, formed the Hastings Sewage Manure Company (HSM), under the control of Native Guano.

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Hastings Council gave Mr Rock a 21-year lease to use the 1.5 million gallon sewage tank that had just been built in 1866-68 underground at Rock-a-Nore (and is still there). The manure works was constructed on part of the tank in just three months: a two-storey, 64 feet by 34 feet, red-brick building, with a 60 feet high round chimney close to the cliff. It was formally opened by the mayor on 3 June 1870.

Opening day of the Hastings Sewage Manure Company on June 3 1870Opening day of the Hastings Sewage Manure Company on June 3 1870
Opening day of the Hastings Sewage Manure Company on June 3 1870

Various steam-driven machines minced the sewage and mixed it with the ABC ingredients. This created a sludge which settled on the bottom of the big tank, allowing the clean water on top to be pumped out through a long pipeline which ended off Ecclesbourne Glen (about a third of this is still exists). The sludge was then lifted to the upper floor of the works, where it was heat-dried to become the manure that could be bagged and sold.

Hastings seems to have been only the second British town to have such a works, after Leamington. In the following months it attracted many representatives from other places which were considering a similar venture, although the ABC mixture was not considered perfect. But on 5 August 1870 there was a major disaster: three men working below ground in the tank died after being overcome by fumes. This prompted widespread complaints about the smell from the works covering a wide area.

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However, the sewage works was unsuccessful financially, and in 1874 the Hastings Sewage Manure Company was wound up by the Native Guano Co because it had received insufficient return to cover its capital outlay. Mr Rock said “I object to being skinned” by Native Guano, which had used him as their ‘fall guy’.

The manure works, centre-left. On right is the 1889 'Refuse Destructor'The manure works, centre-left. On right is the 1889 'Refuse Destructor'
The manure works, centre-left. On right is the 1889 'Refuse Destructor'

In 1877 Hastings Council converted the company’s building into a mortuary. It was demolished in the early 1950s and the clubhouse of the Hastings Motor Boat and Yacht Club now stands on its site.

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