Throughout this month, in the run-up to publication of his new book in October, Lee Jackson reveals the background to Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth. The Victorians invented ‘sanitary science’ – the study of public health, dirt and disease – and were obsessed with sewers, sanitation and cleanliness. Why, then, did Victorian London remain so notoriously filthy?
Day 1: The Dustman
Household rubbish in the early nineteenth century was principally composed of ashes and cinders – hence dustman and dustbin. These domestic by-products, however, were not simply dumped; they were incredibly valuable to the economy of the burgeoning metropolis. They were sold to brick-makers and used as fuel for the slow firing of clay bricks, needed in their tens of thousands by builders. Wags joked that London was a phoenix, rising from its own ashes.
The collection of rubbish, in turn, became a vast profit-making enterprise, creating ‘golden dustmen’, akin to the fictional Mr. Boffin of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. Boffin was modelled on a well-known ‘dust contractor’, Henry Dodd, who died with an astonishing £111,000 fortune. Private contractors, like Dodd, were even willing to pay London parishes for the privilege of collecting and recycling household dust – sometimes several thousand pounds per annum – the rewards were that great.
The sharp end of the dust business, however, was the work of humble low-paid dustmen, working for the contractors, who patrolled the streets in pairs, with horse and cart. They emptied the capital’s fixed coal-bunker-style bins, situated in basement ‘areas’ and back-gardens, shovelling out the dirt into baskets, dumping it into their wagons. Dustmen’s wages were always fairly poor – it was, after all, the simplest type of manual labour. The men were, therefore, rather emphatic in demanding their traditional ‘sparrows’ (beer-money, a few pennies, given as a tip). This had some peculiar and rather unfortunate consequences.
Dustmen tended to ignore the slums – because the inhabitants could not provide ‘sparrows’. Such districts were known as unprofitable ‘dead pieces’. The dustmen’s perennial neglect dramatically worsened slum conditions. Rotting food and human waste were mixed together with ashes in the cellars and alleys which served as makeshift ‘dust-holes’. When cholera first came to London in 1831, the City of London surveyed the sanitary condition of the lower orders. Two problems were immediately discovered – lack of sanitation, and the vast, pestiferous accumulation of household refuse. Remarkably, the time-honoured custom of respectable folk giving tips to dust workers was a key factor in the deteriorating living conditions of the London poor.
Meanwhile, when the middle-classes refused to tip, there tended to be ‘accidents’ …
‘Mrs. Elizabeth Pierce, a lady who keeps a haberdasher’s shop, deposed that … the defendant called at her house to take away the dust, and when taking away the last basket, he opened the shop door and asked her for the price of some beer or something to drink. This she refused on account of his general inactivity, upon which he jerked the basket off his shoulder on to the floor, scattering the dust all over the place and seriously injuring many of the articles in her shop and window. His manner, on doing this, was exceedingly offensive, and he made use of some insulting expressions, but in so low a tone of voice that she did not distinctly hear what they were.’
Morning Chronicle, 25 April 1856
It was always unwise to cross a dustman.
You can find out more about Lee Jackson’s Victorian London from his website Victorian London or read more about the new book at Dirty Old London. You can also find Lee Jackson on twitter @VictorianLondon.
Lee blogs at The Cats Meat Shop.