Monday, May 27, 2024
HomeDemocracy in DecayA brief history of taking the p*ss

A brief history of taking the p*ss


‘TAKING the piss’ is one of those phrases in common use of which few people know the original meaning. As a crude remark, it is sometimes more politely reworded by journalists and commentators as ‘extracting the urine’. But like the misused raw version, making fun of someone is not really what ‘taking the piss’ means.

The east coast of England was, in the past, a busy route for merchant ships classed as tramps, colliers and coasters, taking cargo to and from the Tyne and Thames and points between. Enormous loads of coal from Consett and other Durham pits were transported by sea. The North East was rich in anthracite seams. In Sunderland, there was a colliery near the city centre, close to the old Roker Park football ground. ‘Taking coals to Newcastle’, another phrase from our industrial-maritime past, means the futile or foolhardy act of sending stuff to a place where it is already abundant.

Although coal was carried as railway freight, ships could carry more and were less prone to delays. At a typical speed of nine knots, the crew would spend more than thirty hours chugging along the coast before offloading on the Thames in London as far up as Wandsworth. A well-known firm was William Cory & Sons, whose ships had a black diamond on a white band on the funnel. Colliers had hatches designed for chute loading and grab discharge, the coal kept dry under a thick steel lid. The vessels were reloaded with products such as silica for the Tyneside glassmaking industry.

Also conveyed was urine, in a remarkable enterprise that explains ‘taking the piss’. This human waste was necessary for procuring alum, a translucent crystal found in the cliffs between Saltburn and Staithes. From 1600 until the 1870s, alum had unique value as a clothing dye, fasting colours to linen. It could be taken from the rocks only through a chemical process involving ammonia.

As described by Peter Appleton in A Forgotten Industry: The alum shale industry of north-east Yorkshire (2018), shale was dug from two large quarries and burned in mighty stacks. Calcined shale was then steeped in water to extract aluminium sulphate. Potassium and ammonia were added to the liquor, which was stewed for several days. After the complex chemical process the purified alum was taken to Whitby for dispatch by coastal cargo.

Initially the alum works relied on urine from local folk, and buckets were kept outside homes for the purpose. But with a small and dispersed population, the task of collection was time-consuming. Higher-volume supplies were organised from Newcastle and Hull, and eventually the capital city was tapped. As Ed Conway describes in his Material World (2023), Material World ‘coal ships from Newcastle would return north laden with stinking wee from the lavatories of London’. Urine from the labouring class was preferred because of its higher alcohol content!

By the 1850s new dyes had been developed and the alum rocks were abandoned. The entire coastal shipping commerce declined in the second half of the twentieth century, mainly because the demand for coal reduced. The railways converted to diesel and electric power (although the latter needed coal-fired power stations), and gas heating replaced open fires. More significantly, factories were closing as Britain came to rely on imports. There was less need for coalmining, and less need for the cargo ships, also made on Tyneside and Wearside.

In its heyday Britain had a huge internal distribution of heavy goods, but now it is a post-industrial country, with a demoralised working class. Sadly, a succession of global corporatist and neoliberal administrations in Westminster has presided over the asset-stripping of this former powerhouse, as with the recently announced closure of the Port Talbot steelworks and Grangemouth fuel refinery. For too long, our leaders have failed to fulfil the potential of the ordinary people, instead replacing our produce and our population with foreign imports.

Pardon the expression, but they have been taking the piss. 

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