‘Though the dustmen may come regularly once a week and empty the dustbin, if it is carelessly filled with wet, decaying and putrefying things, the mere periodical clearing away of these things does not leave the dustbin clean. The damp and filth soak into it, are absorbed into its walls, and gather into its corners. It never is, and cannot be, really pure.’
Throughout this month, 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 10: The Dust Hole
The Victorian domestic ‘dustbin’ (better known as a ‘dust-hole’ or ‘ash-pit’) was typically a large brick or wooden bunker, capable of holding several weeks worth of household refuse. In larger houses, the bin might be located in the basement ‘area’ at the front of the premises – which made collection relatively easy. Dustmen would climb down the area steps, and shovel out the contents into baskets, which they hoisted onto their cart. In smaller terrace houses, however, where there was no front basement, the dusthole was typically at the rear of the house in the yard or garden – and dustmen had to tramp through the hall to empty it, with the inevitable mess, smell and inconvenience one might expect.
In theory, there should have been no smell. The contents of Victorian bins were supposed to be exclusively cinders and ashes, and other dry matter (e.g. broken crockery). Local authorities, the writers of household guides, sanitarians et al. always advised that the remainder of household waste should be burnt or buried. There were, however, no penalties for households that dumped all their waste into bins; and the removal and recycling of ‘soft-core’ (principally food scraps), along with the ashes, was standard practice. In fact, virtually anything could find its way into the bin. Is it worth nothing, for example, that the pelts of dead cats were recycled in the capital’s dust-yards (‘sixpence for a white cat, fourpence for a coloured cat, and for a black one according to her quality’).
Here is a typical 1890s guide to what should go in the dustbin, and what should stay outside. How many households actually followed this advice is another matter:
1. Never to put into the dustbin (that is, when it is a brick dustbin) any vegetable or animal matter whatever. Potato pairings, cabbage stalks, and all such vegetable refuse, bones, fish entrails, and everything of a like nature should either be burned in the kitchen fire or put in an open box in the back yard and well covered with fresh lime. If they are put into the fire when the fire is a large strong one, they will be quickly burnt away with hardly any unpleasant smell. If they are thrown on top of a low fire, they will smoulder slowly and, of course, give off a very disagreeable odour; this should be avoided. The box can be emptied into the dustcart.
2. Never to put into the dustbin soiled rags of any kind; these should always be burnt.
3. Never to put into the dustbin damp or musty tea leaves, or refuse of any kind that is damp or mouldy.
By preserving these rules the brick dusthole may be prevented from becoming what it will surely be if such rules are disregarded – namely a source of contamination to the air around and a hotbed of “the poisonous particles” which, sooner or later, are likely to bring disease into the house … Though the dustmen may come regularly once a week and empty the dustbin, if it is carelessly filled with wet, decaying and putrifying things, the mere periodical clearing away of these things does not leave the dustbin clean. The damp and filth soak into it, are absorbed into its walls, and gather into its corners. It never is, and cannot be, really pure. The metal “sanitary dustbins” which are now being sold are excellent – or rather, would be, if the metropolitan system of dust removal was a daily one – but as most of them would be filled in a day or two by the refuse of a large house, they cannot come into as general use as they deserve to do.
The purifying influence of lime must not be forgotten; the brick dusthole should be periodically washed out with fresh lime and water, and occasionally (of course, oftener in hot weather) sprinkled with chloride of lime.
Bow Bells, 10 March 1893
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.