The Garchey system

One problem the architects faced when designing the estate and getting down to the nitty-gritty was that normal refuse collection arrangements would require 100 collection points for specialised refuse collection vehicles. This assumed that we would be disposing of our waste down refuse chutes. Of course, in reality, we have defaulted to the much less modern system of someone simply collecting plastic bags from outside our flats.  However, they felt they had avoided the theoretical problem of the 100 collection points by adopting the Garchey disposal system in place of refuse chutes.

It all started with a Monsieur Louis Garchey, a Frenchman, who invented the eponymous garchey system just before the First World War.

The garchey is the mechanism in the original kitchen sink into which you are meant to put your wet rubbish – vegetable peelings etc. – and items like cans and bottles. If you look under your sink, you’ll see this bulb-like container (if you still have your garchey). This is where the rubbish gathers until you flush the system. Pipes run from the roof to the basement of each building throughout the estate. Each pipe has a number of garcheys connected into it. The original manufacturer was Matthew Hall Ltd.

When the garchey in a flat is flushed, the contents end up in one of the 150 ‘pits’ under all the buildings in the Barbican. They look a bit like traditional coal bunkers. (Just one is visible without going into an underground tunnel. It’s in the car park, level 5, below Defoe House). Apart from rubbish from residents’ garcheys, they also receive all the rainwater from the roofs of the buildings. This saved having to install a separate rainwater system and also provided a bit of extra liquid to flush everything through. If there’s a lot of rain, the pits can flood a bit through the metal doors, which you can see in the top section of the pit. These aren’t allowed to be air and watertight or else our unfortunate neighbours in first floor flats would suffer ‘blow back’ of waste through their kitchen sinks.

The pits are connected by two miles of tunnels running under the buildings. The main tunnel runs from the main garchey centre under Defoe House to the smaller one under Andrewes House. Between them they handle all the estate’s waste. There are five pipelines: two to Andrewes House, and three to Defoe House. The Andrewes House garchey system handles Lauderdale Tower, Seddon, Thomas Moore Mountjoy and Andrewes Houses, Brandon and Lambert Jones Mews. The Defoe House system serves Cromwell and Shakespeare Towers, Speed Gilbert and Defoe Houses, and the North Barbican houses (John Trundle and Bryer Court, and Breton and Ben Jonson Houses.

Every three weeks enough rubbish and water has accumulated in the pits and special lorries come to take it all away. The first step is that a vacuum is created in huge tanks in the control centres. The pressure – or lack of it – shows on a dial like this one connected to each pit. Then it is all sucked out. Lovely thought.

If your garchey has been removed, it should have been capped off properly. This does not mean sealed off – that would lead to blow-backs further down the building. The capping-off leaves a one inch diameter pipe opening to the garchey system beyond your sink’s U-bend.

It’s worth bearing in mind that some gases build up in the building’s garchey system. (If you think of the result of eating a tin of baked beans and then apply that to a 6 to 43 storey building, you’ll get the idea.) So, if pressure builds up in the system, gases can bubble back through the water in the U-bend and leave an unpleasant smell. There’s nothing wrong with your system – you just need to run the tap at least once a day to put fresh water in the U-bend occasionally.

When the estate was constructed, they assumed most household rubbish would go down the garchey and physical collections would be limited to one collection a week. In the early years, there was a team of 15 staff handling 24 tonnes of rubbish every week. Now it’s down to two tons every three weeks and a staff of three.

This reduction is not merely down to flat owners removing their garcheys, although that is a major contributor. (600 garcheys had been removed in 2004, leaving over 1,400 still in operation then.) It is also down to changes in consumer packaging. The system was designed to remove tins and bottles, not plastic and polystyrene.

When the Barbican was built, there were garchey systems in England: in estates in Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds and London. Now there are just two others in England – both in London – one in Enfield and the other at Spa Green Estate, Islington (or there were last time I checked, which was a long time ago).