1 September 2008
By Julia Shipperley
ALTHOUGH THERE may be little sign of bad eggs in Bermondsey today, back in 1915 the area was flooded with millions of rotten eggs for months at a time. In fact, the whiff got so bad, it got its own name and became known as the Bermondsey Bad Egg Boom.
Bermondsey was the centre of Britain's egg trade and the little ovals of protein arrived from France, Russia and the colonies to warehouses in Tooley Street. This central role was to come at a price with the outbreak of the First World War.
Prior to the war, the council had only to get rid of 10,000 rotten eggs a year. But the outbreak of war changed that and a huge number of the eggs could not be transported to their intended destination quickly enough, meaning that they sat tight in Bermondsey, sometimes for months on end. A crisis ensued.
Over six months in 1915, the borough council, which was then Bermondsey council, had the enormous task of getting rid of 25 and a half million rotten eggs. On one day in September, this amounted to 819,000 eggs at one time.
The resultant pong, caused by the council attempting to house the problem on East-lane Wharf, was bad news for local residents and businesses. Samuel Pearcy, landlord of the Bunch of Grapes pub, Bermondsey Wall, was not the first person to take the council to court and did so after his takings fell by £7 a week. Much humour accompanied the various civil proceedings with witnesses claiming that the smell had almost convinced them the "plague was back."
People who frequented the local coffee shop at 42 Bermondsey Wall gave testimony as to just how bad the smell had got. Arthur James Devereux, a labourer, said: "I have stood by dead bodies that have been in the water for seven or eight weeks. But I could not stand those eggs." Another visitor to the nearby coffee shop remarked that the smell was "bad enough to knock a dog down." A French doctor, tending a patient with gangrene, relayed how the patient had begun profusely vomiting after being exposed to the smell. Mr Pearcy himself said: "The smell made me vomit. I could not eat for three days."
The logistics of destroying the eggs presented big problems for the council, which had been using a machine known as a Destructor with limited success as the liquid from the eggs kept putting the fires out. Barges were employed to move the eggs but limited labour supply because of the war meant that many of the bad eggs could not be shifted. The volume of eggs meant that they also proved very resistant to physical efforts to smash them with shovels and forks and force them down drains. The eggs exploded when they were put in a dust destructor.
Mr R J Angel was the engineer for the council who had the thankless task of dealing with the surplus eggs. After his efforts with shovels and destructors culminated in frustration, in desperation he resorted to making his own crushing machine, modeled on a fruit-pulping machine used in Bermondsey jam factories. The machine was described at the time as 'a very crude affair' and it may have been this move that prompted Mr Giveen, for plaintiff Mr Bodfield of the Bermondsey Wall coffee house, to remark that the council had 'not used proper machinery and made pleasure of destroying the eggs.' The presiding judge remarked: "Not only a pleasure but an omelette." He then asked whether the case was likely to be a long one. Peals of laughter were heard in the exchange in court in which Patrick Hastings pleaded the council's case. He said: "The Borough Council wants the guidance of someone to tell them what they ought to do."
The council was ordered to pay costs and damages to Mr Bodfield and Mr Pearcy of £150 each after it was found that a nuisance was created and the best practical means were not adopted in destroying the eggs or dealing with their pungent smell.
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