Ever since Steve Coogan’s hapless radio host asked the question during an episode of I’m Alan Partridge, “Who invented the skip?” has become a catchphrase much loved by fans of the show.
AP repeatedly asks the question to one caller into his fictitious radio show, until the befuddled listener hazards a guess that the original inventor of skips might have been legendary footballer Bobby Moore.
Unsurprisingly, this is not the case. But the show never reveals the answer – which it is likely has its roots in the north-west.
The birth of north-west skip hire
In a letter to the Guardian’s Notes and Queries column, Stephen Jolly of Milton Keynes suggests that you can find the earliest origins of skip hire in the north-west in the 1920s.
Skips were already in use before then, particularly in the mining industry, but the concept of filling a skip and having it taken away by a lorry was a new one, at a time when motor vehicles were also still very new.
Mr Jolly writes that Edwin Walker from a lorry manufacturer called Pagefield had a meeting with a borough engineer from Southport.
The pair discussed the problem of transporting household waste to the nearest landfill site, as horse-drawn carts were struggling to keep up with demand.
Walker’s solution was a horse-drawn skip with a capacity of 300 cubic feet – equivalent to about 11 cubic yards or 100-110 bin bags.
Once full, this could be winched on to a Pagefield lorry and driven the longer distance to where it needed to be dumped out.
In 1926 the first system that did not require any involvement by horses was launched, and Mr Jolly’s letter also notes that demand for skip hire was increased over the years by uptake of DIY as a hobby and the continuing need to maintain Victorian properties.
Present-day skip hire in the north-west
Nowadays there is good availability of skip hire in the north-west and operators like J Dickinson & Sons are proud to continue to support householders in their DIY adventures, as well as the professional trades.
Skips still serve their original purpose – collecting large quantities of bulky waste materials in a convenient way, both on-site to keep things tidy and when it is time to transport them to an appropriate disposal facility.
One big change is that domestic and commercial skip hire waste is not just taken to landfill anymore. Instead it is transported to a suitable recycling facility where it is sorted and processed ready for reuse.
Materials that cannot be recycled are instead used in energy generating systems, helping to ensure that skip hire waste disposal is a closed-loop process.
Even more recently, the “Who invented the skip?” clip has found a new home as part of the Unsung Heroes feature on the BBC Radio 5 live Friday afternoon show hosted by Elis James and John Robins.
So if you’ve heard the question and never knew the answer – now you know who invented skips as we know them today.