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"Litter" and "Littering" are relatively new phenomena in Western culture. You and I are in the process of creating its meaning.


According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the word "litter"goes back to Proto-Indo-European *legh-to-, from *legh- "to lie down, lay". With a deep grounding in beds and bedding, and ultimately in straw bedding as used for horses, its sense of "scattered oddments, disorderly debris" is found only as recently as 1730, and "to scatter in a disorderly way" in 1731. By the 19th century it "had come to mean both the straw bedding and the animal waste in it after use" (see "pooh bag" in Glossary). Its meaning as an "act of dropping disordered waste matter" is as recent as 1900; and put together, although our forebears have been losing and discarding objects in rivers and along the road from time immemorial, "litter" and "littering"  appear to emerge in the course of the Industrial Revolution, and really burst into flame during the course of the 20th century (see Timeline, below).

In particular, in relation to litter in the rural context, "litter" and "littering" appear to be a function of the urban colonisation and use of the countryside as a place for beauty, retirement and leisure (see Fees, 1988).

In other words, "litter" explodes conceptually during the 20th century through this 'reframing of the rural', acquiring both terminology and then organisations and legislation through which discards and detritus are reframed as (illegal; anti-social) intrusions, whose proper place, if there is one, is outside the rural "frame". "Litter" marks the transformation of a local and working rural environment into one which is conceptually reserved for "the other": for their, or my, leisure, appreciation, and pleasure; and in that context litter can be seen, in some instances, as an act of rebellion (conscious or unconscious) against incomers and second-home owners, and in some instances as an eruption of an earlier, pre-litterent rural culture.

The explosion of single-use plastics and the proliferation of pets in the countryside have given a further nudge to the meaning of "litter" during the late 20th and 21st centuries, highlighting the damage that litter can do both to health and to the environment. Therefore "litter-picking", the removal of litter from roadsides and public spaces, although it has retained its aesthetic dimension, is now properly seen as an expression of social care and concern. Alongside its contribution to the local leisure and tourist economy, grounded in late 20th century understandings, litter-picking in the 21st century is rightly seen as a frontline contribution to the health and well-being of the community at large.


20th Century Timeline

The Timeline is a work in progress, and currently favours readily accessible late 20th and early 21st century sources. It is far from exhaustive.

The "Discovery" database of The National Archives shows a rich life of litter in local, regional, and national concerns from very early on. For example: 



1872: Parks Regulation Act 1872 {Source: Parks Regulation Act 1872",, accessed 1/4/2020] [See "Royal Parks: summonses under the Parks Regulation Act 1872 for depositing litter",, accessed 1/4/2020]


1893: Society for Prevention of Disfigurement in Town and Country (SCAPA) [Source:, accessed 1/4/2020]

"SCAPA was founded in 1893 by Mr Richardson Evans with the object of focusing public opinion on the disfigurement caused by outdoor advertising. It promoted statutory and voluntary regulation and the former was partly secured by the Society through the passing of the Advertisements Regulation Act 1907 and 1925. As these Acts did not themselves restrict advertising but merely empowered Local Authorities to make bye-laws for that purpose further campaigns were undertaken to ensure all Local Authorities used their power to the full. The Society also maintained an interest in the siting and design of petrol filling stations and the litter problem and expanded its title to the 'Society for Prevention of Disfigurement in Town and Country' but continued to be known by its abbreviated title."


1920  Women's Institute: "The issue [of litter] was first raised during an AGM in the 1920s" [Source: "1954: Keep Britain Tidy",, accessed 1/4/2020]


1926: Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) established. [Source:, accessed 1/4/2020]

"The Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) was established in 1926. The Council saw itself as the guardian of the countryside, campaigning against threats to it. The CPRE had constituent and affiliated bodies, as well as county and local branches throughout England."


1928: Surrey Anti-Litter League formed. [Source: "A Surrey Anti-Litter League", West Sussex Gazette, 29/11/1928, p.5]. [See reproduction in footnote [1]]

"A Surrey Anti-Litter League was formed this summer to create throughout Surrey and among the picknickers who visit the county, a public opinion determkined to keep the beauties of the countryside unspoiled by litter.


1930: "West Riding County Council by-law as to litter 1930", in Shitlington Parish Council Papers [Source:, accessed 1/4/2020] [For "Shitlington" and an associated note on graffiti, see footnote [2]]


1936: Bristol Bye-Law: Fouling of Footpaths by Dogs, 1936. [Source:, accessed 1/4/2020]


1947 "Litterbug". Term coined for the American Ad Council by New York copywriter Paul B. Gioni. [Source: "litterbug",, accessed 1/4/2020]. See also Online Etymological Dictionary entry: "1947, from litter + bug (n.). According to Mario Pei ("The Story of Language," Lippincott, 1949) "coined by the New York subways on the analogy of 'jitterbug' ...."" [Source: "litterbug",, accessed 1/4/2020]


1954  Women's Institute. "Keep Britain Tidy" campaign [Source: "1954: Keep Britain Tidy",, accessed 1/4/2020]

  • "With its roots in rural life, protection of the countryside has always been important to the WI. The issue of littering was first raised during an AGM in the 1920s; however, it was a resolution in 1954 that brought about one of the WI’s most significant initiatives.

    "This resolution; proposed by Northumberland Federation’s Executive Committee, called for a campaign to ‘preserve the countryside against desecration by litter,’ and subsequently led to the formation of the Keep Britain Tidy group.

    "The 1958 Litter Act was attributed largely to Keep Britain Tidy, and MPs thanked the WI for the role it played in transforming litter policy."


1955 "Keep Britain Tidy" organisation formed, with Women's Institute at core. Detailed Timeline of organisation, legislation and campaigns at "Keep Britain Tidy",, accessed 1/4/2020.


1958: UK Parliament passes first Litter Act, Litter Act 1958.


1971: Dangerous Litter Act 1971. Maximum fine for littering, £100.


1975 "Clean World International" (CWI) formed [Source: UIA Open Yearbook,]

  • Aims: "Unite national organizations in the fields of: protection and improvement of the environment and quality of life; litter prevention, tidiness and beautification; re-use and recycling of resources; encouraging individual and community responsibility for the environment. Provide for exchange of information between member countries, acting as a clearing house for such exchange."
  • History: "14 Nov 1975, Berlin West (Germany FR), following agreement reached at 'Keep Europe Beautiful' International Conference, Oct 1974, London (UK). Constitution formally approved 10 May 1978, Paris (France); amended 17 Aug 1982, London and 8 Oct 1992, Gothenburg (Sweden). Ceased to exist. "

 1983:  Litter Act 1983, "to consolidate the Litter Acts 1958 and 1971 [which were repealed], together with section 51 of the Public Health Act 1961, section 4 of the Local Government Act (Development and Finance)(Scotland) Act 1964 and section 24 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 and related provisions of those Acts" [Source: "LLitter Act 1983",, accessed 1/4/2020.]

  • 1 Penalty for leaving litter

    (1)if any person throws down, drops or otherwise deposits in, into or from any place in the open air to which the public are entitled or permitted to have access without payment, and leaves, any thing whatsoever in such circumstances as to cause, or contribute to, or tend to lead to, the defacement by litter of any place in the open air, he shall be guilty of an offence, unless that depositing and leaving was authorised by law or was done with the consent of the owner, occupier or other person or authority having control of the place in or into which that thing was deposited,


1990: Environmental Protection Act 1990. [Source, "Environmental Protection Act 1990",, accessed 1/4/2020]


1991: The Litter (Animal Droppings) Order 1991 [Source: "The Litter (Animal Droppings) Order 1991",, accessed 1/4/2020]

2. The provisions of Part IV of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 which apply to refuse shall apply to dog faeces on land of the following descriptions which is not heath or woodland or used for the grazing of animals...


1995: The Litter (Dog Faeces) Order (Northern Ireland) 1995 [Source: "The Litter (Dog Faeces) Order (Northern Ireland) 1995",, accessed 1/4/2020]


2004: The Litter and Dog Fouling (Fixed Penalty) (Wales) Order 2004 [Source:  "The Litter and Dog Fouling (Fixed Penalty) (Wales) Order 2004", accessed 1/4/2020]


2005: Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005. [Source: "Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005",, accessed 1/4/2020]

18 Extension of litter offence to all open places

In section 87 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (c. 43) (offence of leaving litter), for subsections (1) to (4) substitute—

“(1)A person is guilty of an offence if he throws down, drops or otherwise deposits any litter in any place to which this section applies and leaves it.

(2)This section applies to any place in the area of a principal litter authority which is open to the air, subject to subsection (3) below.

(3)This section does not apply to a place which is “open to the air” for the purposes of this Part by virtue of section 86(13) above if the public does not have access to it, with or without payment.

(4)It is immaterial for the purposes of this section whether the litter is deposited on land or in water.


2018: The Littering From Vehicles Outside London (Keepers: Civil Penalties) Regulations 2018. [Source: "The Littering From Vehicles Outside London (Keepers: Civil Penalties) Regulations 2018,, accessed 1/4/2020]





1. The article below, "A Surrey Anti-Litter League", was published in the West Sussex Gazette, 29/11/1928, p.5.

westsussexgazetter 1928 11 29

The Bray family have been the Lords of the Manor of Shere for many centuries, and though Miss Bray and Surrey Anti-Litter League are not mentioned in it, the current Lord of the Manor, Handa Bray, gives context for Miss Bray's campaign in a 2011 talk to the Albury History Society. It is titled "The History of Shere Manor Estate, and its achievements", and is illuminating in the history of litter and tourism generally:

"The great British public were becoming motorised. London Transport was actively encouraging them to come out from the suburbs and explore the beauties of the countryside - and in the process they set fire to hundreds and hundreds of acres of the Hurtwood. Uncle Reggie was devastated - as he described in an anguished letter to the Secretary of the Commons & Footpaths Preservation Society.

"I wonder if your very useful society can do anything to make the general public think not only of their rights, but of their duties in respect of the Commons. At present, they come only to disfigure and to destroy.

"The so-called Beaauty Spots at times, with their litter of paper and broken bottles, resemble Peckham Rye after a Bank Holiday. But much worse than this, by their reckless carelessness in throwing down lighted matches and cigarettes, or by lighting fires to boil water, they are steadily devastating the Commons. During the last few years, they have burnt over 600 acres, most of which was covered with young trees which have either been planted or protected at considerable cost. The last of the fine trees on the south slope of Holmbury Hill are dying as a result of fire in 1921, and will have to be cut. Pitch Hill has already been laid waste, and the work of destruction is proceeding northwards. Reynards Hill further to the west is now being gradually burnt, and the fires are invading the plantations on the private lands adjoining. In a relatively short time, the lands will be bare of trees, and in the state they were 100 years ago when planting first began. I am afraid we regard the general public as destroying angels who arrive in motor cars.", accessed 2/4/2020.

2. Shitlington, Bedfordshire, now "Shillingdon", formerly "Sethlingdone" according to the report of an 1861 visit by the Bedfordshire Archaeological Society, where comment was also made on inscriptions/graffiti in the church. From  "Bedfordshire Archaeological Society/Shitlington", The Bedford Times & Bedfordshire Independent, July 16, 1861, p. 5:

"The eastern end of the Chancel is carried up to a good height, and has turrets: between these there is a cornice, on which appears the rebus of the name Matthew Assheton, whose brass, dated 1400, is in the chancel. The rebus consists of bas-releifs of the initials M.A., in rosettes, and an ass with his tail twisted into something like a true lover's knot, and a wine tun. This, like all other kinds of punning, appears to be infectious. In the chancel there is a slab to perpetuate the virtues of another worthy of the place, who rejoiced in the name of Handscomb. On this slab there is incised a hand bearing a small-toothed comb. Beneath the chancel is a fine crypt which had been long in disuse, but was discovered a few years ago. It is beautifully groined: the ribs spring from a central column, which is unusually massive. On the columns and ribs the village mind has been allowed to expend itself, and one worthy with his pencil directs our attention to the central column, which to his excited imagination appears to have borne some similitude to the pillar of salt, for he exhorts all who look at it to "Remember Lot's wife." Another local genius seems to think this the proper place to record great events, for his pencil informs us that "Mr. Poulter's barn cott fire in July 1835." On the parts of the white Clunch the names swarm like gnats, and evince much misapplied industry, paltry ambition, and very bad writing."