Black History Month: Keeping Victoria Clean in the 19th Century

Point Ellice House Museum and Gardens

February marks both Black History Month and Heritage Week (February 15th to 20th) in British Columbia. With this in mind, we want to share the stories of a few Black workers featured in our current exhibit, Springs and Scavengers: Waste and Water in Victoria, 1842-1915.

For much of the nineteenth century, the garbage and sewage (also known as ‘night soil’) generated by the inhabitants of Victoria was removed from private property by “scavengers” – night soil and garbage collectors who operated under regulations established by the City of Victoria. Victoria’s Black business community included a number of draymen, teamsters, and contractors who possessed the required carts and horses to engage in scavenging. Several Black entrepreneurs played a prominent, if not leading, role in the city’s scavenging business – particularly John Jackson and William Jackson, and Arthur Strong.

John and William H. Jackson’s first advertisement, in October 1862, recorded their night soil scavenging and garbage hauling businesses and noted that they had at least two carts built expressly for the night soil business – that is, their carts had sealed tops. An attempt in November 1862 by “Mr. Jackson” to be appointed to the position of scavenger for the City of Victoria was unsuccessful, but by 1865, John Jackson had a contract from the City of Victoria to clean city streets.

John and William Jackson seem to have disappeared from Victoria after August 1865 and were largely replaced in the night soil business by Arthur Strong, a Black man from New York, who had come to Victoria around 1858 and become naturalized in 1861.

Strong owned land and apparently resided on the south side of Discovery Street, between Government and Douglas Streets.  A contemporary of Strong later described him as being “very strong” and “the chief man for scavenger work” (Colonist, 12 February 1933, p. 4).  Like the Jacksons, Strong also secured contracts from the City of Victoria to clean the streets of the city and his advertisement in the local newspapers recorded him “moving dust” on the same days of the week as the Jacksons.

The question of where to dump night soil and garbage was a problem for Arthur Strong and other scavengers – few Victorians enjoyed the smell of night soil that had been dumped in their neighborhood. In September 1875, several parties complained when Strong dumped night soil on a field near Roderick Finlayson’s house.  Despite the complaints, which provoked a city councillor to state that Strong was “all over the town very strong indeed,” he apparently did not remove the night soil, though the city council passed a resolution that he be notified that “night soil must be deposited outside the city limits.”  (Colonist, 23 September 1875, p. 3; 30 September 1875, p. 3; 1 October 1875, p. 3). The Colonist newspaper shortly afterwards noted that Strong had merely removed his night soil carts from the street where they had been left.

 In 1877, Strong was again in trouble for disposing of night soil—this time at Spring Ridge.  Strong claimed that he had done so by order of the Mayor, but the Mayor denied Strong’s claim and sent a policeman to examine the nuisance.  The policeman reported finding no nuisance and the matter was apparently dropped—though councilor Marvin, a member of the council’s Sanitary Committee, persisted in claiming there was a nuisance.

 In November 1879, Strong proudly—if not entirely accurately—advertised that he was the pioneer who had cleaned and made streets in Victoria, removed night soil, rubbish etc. and “thereby made the city healthy” (Colonist, 12 November 1879, p. 2).  The following August, Strong sold his scavenging business to William Smith and Leon LeClaire.  He apparently soon afterwards left Victoria with his second wife, Mary, a native of Richmond, Virginia, whom he had married in 1877 after the death of his first wife from lung disease.  His later life and whether he had descendants is, at present, unknown.

Arthur Strong’s departure from Victoria apparently marked the end of Black participation in the night soil scavenging business in Victoria—though it is possible that the Black contractor and house-mover Willis Bond worked occasionally as a scavenger.

To learn more about Black History Month and Black History in British Columbia, visit the Black History Awareness Society’s website by clicking here.

This blog post was made possible through research conducted by Chris Hanna.

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