Information In the interests of good health

Vehicles that deal with obnoxious materials and clean septic tanks may not make it into normal polite conversation, but they carry out essential duties in our society. Sludge tankers have been on our streets long before the motor vehicle.

Museum tokens
Why preserve
The collection
The Transport Museum’s vacuum tanker – originally a Killiney Merryweather
About the museum
Above: A Merryweather vacuum tanker with its attendant pump on a separate chassis

Below: A Leyland sludge tanker at Ringsend in September 1991. Nore the motto

One of the many essential vehicle types regularly seen but rarely noticed are the sludge tankers that remove the contents of septic tanks and other receptacles for obnoxious materials. And, like every other type of transport, their pedigree goes back a very long way before the introduction of motor vehicles – and is also entwined with the development of a most vital public service.

This writer has always been fascinated by the history of our public utilities, having worked for 24 years in drainage, a service absolutely indispensable to our health and wellbeing, but taken completely for granted. It is a subject often avoided in polite conversation, one councillor being famously quoted as saying “We pay fellows to look after this sort of thing.” To the question that may have crossed some readers’ minds about what transport has to do with all this an eloquent answer will be found among the municipal vehicles in the transport museum collection – again validating our tenet that every human activity depends on transport. In this instance, much of our progress in just over a century reposes in one horse-drawn vehicle.

A hundred and fifty years ago, our cities and towns were very unhealthy places in which to live. Most people were pitifully poor, barely existing in hovels or overcrowded tenements much worse than almost anything the Third World can throw up today. Healthcare was virtually non-existent, medical science was primitive; epidemics were both frequent and lethal. Water supplies were of dangerously poor quality, being, in effect, yet another source of terrible diseases and parallel with all this was the dearth of drainage. A highly fruitful alliance of engineers, doctors and some conscientious public representatives changed matters considerably during the second half of the nineteenth century. High-pressure water systems and water borne drainage networks made inordinate contributions to eliminating killer diseases and improving both life quality and expectancy.

During the great Georgian building era in the eighteenth century, increasing numbers of new houses had cesspools into which domestic and human waste was deposited. These had to be cleaned out periodically, the contents being removed in carts for disposal, usually to the nearest watercourse. When sewer networks began to develop, there were several areas where the density of housing was so low or the attitude of the local authority so laid back, that cesspools – the unsophisticated, deadly predecessors of septic tanks – were permitted to proliferate.

Here a further aspect of social history comes into the picture, the situation in the Dublin area being again encapsulated in our horse-drawn vehicle. Up to 1900, Dublin was a compact city, its boundaries largely defined by the canals and the Circular Roads. Outside the municipal boundary, there were no less than nine other local authorities, originally established as Townships but elevated to Urban District Council status under the 1898 Local Government Act. Dublin’s massive 1900 boundary extension wiped out three of these, the others flourishing until 1930.

Among the post-1900 survivors was the Killiney and Ballybrack Urban District Council, with much low density or semi-rural upmarket housing in its area and virtually no main drainage system, but with numerous cess pits. To cope with these, the UDC purchased, at a date not yet established, a vacuum tanker from the firm of Merryweather, renowned for its fire appliances, and of which there is comprehensive range in the museum collection. In Hinton Sheryn’s excellent Illustrated History of Road Tankers (Ian Allan, 2001). The equipment depicted was available in the 1890s.

In the museum archive, there is an illustration from a Merryweather catalogue of a vacuum tanker of a slightly different pattern and later date, the vacuum pump in this instance being driven by an internal combustion engine. A feature of all these machines is a pair of shafts for the horse, but in later years, tractors or lorries probably hauled some of the tankers, which were massively built. These ancient vehicles were the antecedents of the sophisticated sludge tankers mentioned earlier and so much a part of the modern waste industry, and for several years people like me believed horse-drawn vacuum tankers to be extinct.

In 1930, a major re-organisation of local government in the Dublin coincided with another boundary extension. Rathmines and Pembroke became part of Dublin City, and the new Borough of Dún Laoghaire was created to take over the erstwhile urban districts of Blackrock, Dún Laoghaire (formerly Kingstown), Dalkey, plus Killiney and Ballybrack. Modernisation followed and the Merryweather vacuum tanker was gradually phased out and forgotten – until one memorable day in 1977, when a Dún Laoghaire Corporation official telephoned with an invitation to inspect a curious survivor in a shed attached to the Martello Tower in Killiney. It turned out to be the veteran Killiney Merryweather, shabby, bereft of some fittings, but otherwise in remarkably good condition. A preservation arrangement was negotiated and the vehicle duly took its place on the museum register.

None of us had ever seen anything like this before outside catalogue pictures. And, apart from its enormous and heavy construction, one feature immediately set it apart from both the catalogue models and the other horse-drawn vehicles in our collection. This concerned the draught arrangements, in the catalogue illustrations showing a pair of shafts for one horse. Most two-horse vehicles, and certainly those in our care, have a single pole fixed to the fore carriage, with one horse harnessed and pulling on each side. It was easy to see why two horses would be needed to pull a vehicle around the hilly areas that abound in Killiney, but in this case, instead of the normal pole, there were two pairs of shafts side by side. This has added considerable interest to the vehicle, particularly for connoisseurs of horse-drawn transport.

A vehicle incorporating a vast amount of social, technical and local government history, the Killiney Merryweather is not just a reminder of how cruel life was to our ancestors only four generations ago, but an excellent memorial to all those who worked, and continue to work, so hard to enhance the quality of all our lives.

Above: A 3000 series Foden sludge tanker at St. Stephen’s Green in the summer of 1998

Below: We have come a long way with this '99 DAF 85CF 32 tonne tanker

Musaem Náishínta Iompar na hÉireann