‘Flanking one side of the yard were a score or so of upreared dustcarts, and on the other side, extending almost from the outer gate to the water’s brink, were great mounds of ordinary dustbin muck; and in the midst of the mounds – literally, so that in many cases part only of their bodies were visible, were thirty or forty women and girls.’
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 19: Recycling
The dust-trade made its profits from recycling. The great money-spinner was ashes and cinders, sold on to brickmakers around the outskirts of London. The cinders were used to keep great ‘clamps’ of clay bricks steadily baking; the finer ashes, scattered into the clay mix, also helped combustion. The demand for these relics of the hearth, in the first half of the nineteenth century, was vast. But the dust contractors also extracted some meagre profits from other recyclable materials, salvaged from domestic bins. Rotting food and offal (known as ‘soft core’) could be sold for manure; ‘hard core’, made up of broken crockery, oyster shells and the like, could be used in laying foundations; linen rags were re-used in the manufacture of paper; bread-crumbs as pig food. Virtually everything had some modest value.
The job of sorting cinders, ashes, and the rest, went to teams of ‘dust sifters’. These were women, generally wives of dustmen, who sieved through contractors’ dust-heaps. Larger items would be plucked from mounds of domestic waste by hand; the remaining filth was then shoveled onto the sifters’ heavy riddles. The labour was back-breaking and relentless:
The dust-yard was, as near as I could guess, about a hundred and fifty feet wide and seventy broad, one end opening on to the main street and the other to the Regent’s Canal. Flanking one side of the yard were a score or so of upreared dustcarts, and on the other side, extending almost from the outer gate to the water’s brink, were great mounds of ordinary dustbin muck; and in the midst of the mounds – literally, so that in many cases part only of their bodies were visible, were thirty or forty women and girls. In view of the canal, the surface covered with big slabs of yellow ice, with a rasping north wind blowing continuously through the yard, and with frost and snow everywhere to be seen, there sat the “hill-women,” girls of sixteen and old dames of sixty, each holding before her a sieve as large as the top of a small loo-table, in which she dexterously caught the huge shovelful supplied by the “feeder,” all as busy as bees …
Substantial boots, a large leather or sackcloth apron – against which they could bang the sieve – and fingerless gloves provided some protection against the rigours of the work. Contemporary writers tended to mock the rough, plebeian character of the sifters. One 1860s article ungallantly describes the average sifter as ‘so unsexed that you doubt whether she even be a woman’– and notes that bare-knuckle fights were used to settle disputes. Another portrays dust women dressed as if ‘having crawled through a bundle of rags, trusting entirely to chance as to the part of it from which their heads might emerge’. Yet it was the tireless labour of these uncouth females that – as long as the demand for ashes and cinders remained high – generated great wealth and prosperity for their masters.
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.