Natasha Fenner

Assistant Curator

8 March 2016

A rubbish cake: a love story

Each year in February our attention is turned towards love, with the occurrence of Saint Valentine’s Day. In 2016 we used our temporary Show Space display to feature unique objects that reflect the love stories of Londoners across the years.

The objects, all quite new acquisitions to the museum’s collection, relate to pivotal moments in the couples’ relationships. They have been kept and treasured over many years, symbolic of the personal and unique ways in which love is expressed.

One of the items on display is an icing model of a liquid waste disposal truck that adorned the wedding cake of Eileen Rice and Reg Flavell. Married on 11 July 1937 at St Barnabas Church, East Dulwich the couple celebrated their reception at Pritchard’s Restaurant on Oxford Street.

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Reg and Eileen on their wedding day

The bride, reported as wearing crepe and silver, chose a wedding cake to match her colour scheme. The three-tier cake was decorated with delicate white and silver flowers and supported on an ornate silver base. It was topped with the finely detailed white and silver icing model of a gully emptier truck. These trucks, later known as ‘sludge gulpers’, were used to clean drains and suck up industrial and domestic waste, making the model a unique way for the couple to crown their cake. Their choice was a nod to the place they met; the Mechanical Cleansing Service in Burbage Road, Dulwich. Eileen worked in the office as a secretary and met Reg when he joined the business as an accountant.

The company, founded by Eileen’s father Alfred Rice in 1927, specialised in the removal and disposal of a wide range of liquid waste products for industrial, government, local authority and domestic clients. This included the clearing of household cesspits for which the advertising slogan ‘your business is our business’ was used! At its peak, the Mechanical Cleansing Service had a fleet of over 120 vehicles.

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The cake topper, photographer at the museum in 2015

The model on top of Eileen and Reg’s wedding cake depicted the pride of their fleet, an Albion petrol gully emptier. After the wedding the model was preserved under a glass dome which sat on a filing cabinet in Reg’s office. He went on to become Managing Director of the company, a position he filled until his retirement in 1972. The couple’s son, Den, recalls that after his father’s retirement the icing cake topper was moved to their family home and took pride of place in the dining room.

Now a part of the museum’s collection it is an enduring symbol of their love and of the importance of the family business in their lives. It also reveals a lighter side to the necessary work of cleaning the dirt from the metropolis of London!