Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth

Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth

by Lee Jackson

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In Victorian London, filth was everywhere: horse traffic filled the streets with dung, household rubbish went uncollected, cesspools brimmed with "night soil," graveyards teemed with rotting corpses, the air itself was choked with smoke. In this intimately visceral book, Lee Jackson guides us through the underbelly of the Victorian metropolis, introducing us to the men and women who struggled to stem a rising tide of pollution and dirt, and the forces that opposed them.

Through thematic chapters, Jackson describes how Victorian reformers met with both triumph and disaster. Full of individual stories and overlooked details—from the dustmen who grew rich from recycling, to the peculiar history of the public toilet—this riveting book gives us a fresh insight into the minutiae of daily life and the wider challenges posed by the unprecedented growth of the Victorian capital.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300210224
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/28/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Lee Jackson is a well-known Victorianist and creator of a preeminent website on Victorian London (www.victorianlondon.org).

Read an Excerpt

Dirty Old London

The Victorian Fight Against Filth

By Lee Jackson


Copyright © 2014 Lee Jackson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21022-4


The Golden Dustman

The humble dustman, the collector of household refuse, was a familiar figure on London's streets. In the early 1800s, he wore 'a fan-tailed hat, loose flannel jacket, velveteen red breeches, worsted stockings, short gaiters'. This traditional get-up was protective clothing and its key elements would not change during the century. The hat with a long reversed brim of canvas material, trailing over the back of the neck, prevented filth from shouldered baskets of rubbish entering clothes. Gaiters and/or straps and buckles offered similar protection to the legs and feet. It was a distinctive outfit which also served as the unofficial uniform of the trade, albeit supplied by the dustman himself, not his employer. The distributors of coal wore a similar working costume, including the fantail hat, but they were easily distinguished. Coalmen and their clothes were always black with coal dust; dustmen were uniformly grey, covered in cinders and ash, which formed the vast bulk of household waste.

Dustmen began their rounds early in the morning, working in pairs, driving a high-sided horse-drawn cart, announcing their presence with the loud toll of a handbell or a hearty shout of 'dust ho!' Collection was very much an 'on request' service. Householders or servants, if they wanted rubbish to be removed, were expected to catch the dustman's attention. This was partly a matter of age-old custom, and partly because domestic bins were not portable. They were typically fixed brick or wooden bunkers (known variously as the 'dust-bin', 'dust-hole' or 'ashpit'), situated unobtrusively in the basement area, backyard or back garden. Someone from the house, therefore, needed to be present, to provide access to the bin and generally supervise proceedings. This was particularly important when a property lacked a basement or side-entrance and the dustman had to walk, back and forth, through the main hallway, to bring out several loads of filth. This troublesome progress was rarely accomplished 'without leaving some trace of his visit on the wall-paper or floor'.

There were some cases of street collection. In the crowded, central areas of London, especially in areas like Soho where shops and houses had no basement area at the front of the house, and little in the way of gardens or yards, rubbish would be left outside the front door in 'wooden boxes, tin pails, zinc bins and every conceivable vessel'. Nonetheless, most London homes retained an old-fashioned static bin until the turn of the twentieth century, emptied on a rather ad hoc basis. The practicalities of emptying such bins did not change. At the dust-hole itself, one dustman would act as the 'filler', shovelling the dust into a large wicker basket. His workmate would act as the 'carrier', shouldering the basket and carrying it out to the open cart. Some bins had a sliding panel, allowing the contents to spill out on to the ground, to facilitate shovelling; and the dustcart was usually equipped with a ladder so that the carrier could climb up high enough to deposit his load. When their cart was full, the dustmen would go to 'shoot' the rubbish at their employer's 'dust-yard' – essentially a recycling centre, where refuse was stored by the contractor, to be sorted and sold on. A pair of dustmen could usually manage to fill four or five cartloads in a day.

In theory, this process was straightforward enough. There were, however, several recurring, long-standing sources of friction between householder (or servant) and refuse collector.

First, getting the dustman's attention could prove difficult. The onus was on the household to avail itself of the dustman's services. Arguments over houses being missed out were commonplace, particularly as dustcarts often came at unexpected hours, no more than once a week (often considerably less frequently). To avoid confusion about calling, some areas introduced 'cards of request' – nothing more complicated than a large 'D' neatly printed on a piece of card. These were to be placed in windows, to let the dustman know that his services were required. Residents, however, complained that these were ignored. Vice versa, dustmen grumbled that, if they called too regularly at a house – particularly when large bins could hold a month's worth of refuse – they would be rudely dismissed and told that their visit was 'not convenient'.

The use of open carts, which persisted well into the twentieth century, was another source of complaint. Ashes were constantly being blown out of the carts, peppering the road, neighbouring houses, passing vehicles and unwary pedestrians. This was a perennial problem. A contract between the Commissioners of the Clink Pavements and a contractor, made in 1799, specifies (one suspects more in hope than expectation) 'fitting carriages with covers, ledges, or other conveniences to prevent the dust ashes and filth and soil from blowing shaking or falling out'. In practice, few contractors went to such trouble. A hundred years later, the London County Council was still attempting to enforce the use of covers.

By far the greatest bugbear for the householder, however, was the dustman's insistence on tips. Providing 'beer money' for labourers was an old tradition, which dustmen exploited to the full. Before taking his leave of a premises, the dustman would request either beer or a tip for his trouble, quaintly known in the trade as 'sparrows'. To ignore this demand – even if it was only a hint, a cough, or an open palm – was a dangerous business. At best, it was likely to result in the house being conveniently 'forgotten' during the next collection; at worst 'clumsiness' or 'accidents' as the dust was conveyed through the kitchen or hallway. The customary gratuity was two or three pence. Anything less was not taken kindly. Occasionally matters came to a head, and individual cases went to court:

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.

Tips were not seen as an optional extra by the dustmen, but their right. There was some justification for this attitude. If we look at figures from the 1850s, quoted by the journalist Henry Mayhew, dustmen would be paid by the cartload at eightpence per load; or, alternatively, they might receive a flat salary, on condition they fill a certain number of loads per day. In either case, this could amount to as little as ten shillings a week, a low wage for a manual labourer. Tips could add another several shillings to the weekly income. Small wonder, then, that dustmen were quite zealous in demanding their 'sparrows'; not least because many dust contractors systematically underpaid their workers, on the grounds that tips would inevitably boost their earnings.

This insistence on gratuities, however, was not merely an irritation for the middle class. It had wider unintended consequences for where and how often rubbish was collected, particularly in poor districts. If the bin of a disgruntled middle-class householder was not emptied, he might make peace with the dustmen with renewed 'sparrows'; or he might attempt to obtain some redress from the vestry or the magistrate. Those living in poverty had nowhere to turn. The poor were unlikely to tip or to complain, and suffered as a result. Slums and poor areas were referred to as 'dead pieces' by dustmen, and treated accordingly. It was not unknown for the tenements and crowded courtyards in East End districts not to see the dustcart for weeks on end, conveniently overlooked in favour of more remunerative portions of the parish. Such wilful negligence created a vicious circle as miscellaneous rubbish accumulated, making collection even less appealing.

Contractors regularly promised to stem the practice of taking tips. The London County Council would make it an offence in the Public Health (London) Act of 1891. Whitechapel had 'No Gratuity Allowed' painted on the side of dustcarts. None of these measures seems to have made much difference. Charles Booth, the late-Victorian social investigator, was one of many who noted the dustmen's implacable determination to retain their time-honoured perquisites: 'though gratuities are almost in every case forbidden, she is a bold woman who risks the cleanliness of her house by neglecting to tip the dustman, and it is of course notorious that the rule is systematically broken'.

The underlying thread running through all this discord was the dustman's healthy disregard for authority and the general public. Dustmen would be somewhat harshly characterised by Henry Mayhew in the 1850s as part of 'the plodding class of labourers, mere labourers, who require only bodily power and possess little or no mental development', but they did possess a certain rough-hewn independence and solidarity, which enabled them, amongst other things, to demand gratuities and, if thwarted, to exact their messy revenge with some degree of impunity. The Builder would damn them for this conduct, as coming from 'a class of men so brutal and degraded that their very presence in a decent household is an offence'. Yet their lack of anxiety about 'customer satisfaction' reflected the nature of the work. Dustmen, employed by private contractors, were in no sense public servants, or part of a 'public sector' – a concept which barely belongs to the Victorian era. Collecting dust was a profit-making enterprise and the individual dustman's wage depended on how many loads he could shift in a day. The convenience of the public was of little concern.

The profits for contractors lay in recycling. Our ancestors were adept at converting all sorts of refuse into cash. Numerous articles from contemporary periodicals describe with relish the thrift and ingenuity of the dust trade. Food, offal and bones could be sold for manure; linen rags to manufacturers of paper; 'hard-ware' or 'hard-core', consisting of broken pots, crockery and oyster shells, could be crushed and used as a foundation for roads; old shoes could help 'making the fiercest of fires for colouring fine steel' or, more commonly, be used by bootmakers as stuffing; bread scraps might serve as pig food; old iron utensils, empty meat and biscuit tins could be melted down and used by trunk-makers for clamping the corners of their trunks. Even dead cats were a valuable commodity, once sold to furriers ('sixpence for a white cat, fourpence for a coloured cat, and for a black one according to her quality').

All the above, however, played second fiddle to ashes and cinders – the great bulk of household refuse – which could make the recycling of rubbish a potential gold mine. Ashes had always had some value to farmers as fertiliser, and could be profitably mixed with the dung of road sweepings, but the great market in the early nineteenth century was amongst the brickmakers, whose works ringed the ever-expanding capital. Fine ash was mixed with clay in the manufacture of bricks, and the larger cinders or 'breeze' – coal that was incompletely burnt in household fires – were used as fuel. These cinders were placed between layers of clay bricks in the great open-air 'clamps' of the brickfields. Once fired, the cinders both kept the bricks separate from each other and provided the slow combustion necessary for brick-making. As London grew at an unprecedented rate, the construction industry's demand for bricks – and breeze – was insatiable. The profits for the dust contractor were commensurate. Wags joked that London was a phoenix, rising again from its own ashes. In fact, this was doubly true. It was common to use hardcore as a foundation not only for roads but for new houses.

There were large sums to be made – and the wealth of certain contractors would become notorious. Mr Boffin of Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (1865) is Victorian literature's famous dust contractor (the 'Golden Dustman') having inherited Mr Harmon's King's Cross dust heap, together with £100,000 (earned from the dust business). Dickens's portrayal of Boffin's new-found wealth – he can suddenly afford a West End mansion and all the trappings, although it does not suit him – would not have struck his readers as an exaggeration. Boffin was most likely based on Henry Dodd, a successful contractor from Islington, whom the great author met while both were involved in an attempt to set up a charity for retired actors. Dodd reputedly began his working life as a farmhand. When he died in 1881, he left a thriving business in London and a renovated Jacobean manor house in Essex, with his personal estate worth an astonishing £111,000 (in comparison, Dickens's estate, in 1870, was worth £93,000 – both men would have been millionaires by modern standards).

The sheer scale of Dodd's wealth was, in fairness, exceptional; but his background was typical. Contractors were, as a rule, working-men-made-good – with the 'plain-speaking' typical of the type. Thomas Rook of Gibraltar Walk, Bethnal Green, for example, was brought before the local magistrate by his neighbours in July 1859, in the heat of the summer. They complained of the stench from rotting material in his dust-yard. Rook merely turned to the judge and replied insouciantly: 'It only smells when it's stirred.' The verbatim minutes of an interview between the Chairman and Directors of the Southwark and Vauxhall Water Company and a certain Mr Covington (a contractor whose dust was blowing into the company's reservoirs), preserved in the London Metropolitan Archives, reveal a similar native truculence. During the entire meeting, Mr Covington repeatedly and doggedly demands £200 to help him to amend his working practices, whilst the company's chairman grows increasingly exasperated by this unwarranted insistence on compensation: 'It is all very well to laugh over it, but there will be another summons taken out against you ... But you see the sentiment of the thing? Dust!! And we drink the water and must stop it!'

Not only were contractors intransigent, but they jealously guarded their privileges. In 1793, the Contractor for Cleansing for Holborn, a certain Mr Haygarth, expended £200 – a sum which might have paid the annual wages of half a dozen of his dustmen – on various court cases, trying to obtain redress from other scavengers who had infringed his exclusive contract to remove household refuse within the parish. Contractors would distribute handbills informing inhabitants of their right to collect dust and ashes 'in preference to any other Dustman'. The great object was to defeat 'flying dustmen' – for the value of dust was such that it was even worth stealing (i.e. removing before the official parish contractor could acquire it). In 1822, two men were caught, having been 'in the constant habit of creeping down into the area, and removing by stealth ashes from the dirt-hole', from a house in Downing Street. They confessed that they 'sold the cinders for 4d. or 5d. a bushel, and disposed of the small dust to the brick-makers'.

Fictionalised versions of Dodd and his bluff contemporaries remained of interest to the public throughout the Victorian era, appearing repeatedly on the stage, both in adaptations of Our Mutual Friend and in plays like The Dustman's Belle (1846) and Our Party (1896). The former play is particularly interesting, prefiguring several aspects of Dickens's plot. A simple dustman is left a fortune by 'Thomas Windfall' a wealthy contractor; predatory 'friends' attempt to covertly rob him of the money; and the audience learns the moral, 'people aint always happier because they're richer, specially people that haven't been used to it like'. Our Party, on the other hand, a 'musical absurdity' written by and featuring the music-hall star Arthur Lloyd, revolves around a retired dust contractor named Marmaduke Mugg – again, the archetype of a 'self-made man'. Keen for his heiress daughter to marry an aristocrat, he cannot quite shake off his working-class roots and his belief in the power of hard cash. Talking of his daughter's happiness, he opines:

'Nothing as it were – squelches her.'

'Squelches her?'

'I mean nothing puts the kybosh on her.'

'Don't talk like that, dear. I've often begged you to drop those slang phrases, I think you might oblige me. You know how people stare at you when you make use of such language.'

'Let 'em stare. I ham as I ham and – as the song says – I can't be any hammer. Never mind, old girl; I've got the coin, the dinari. That's wot licks 'em. They may say wot they like. Money makes the man.'


Excerpted from Dirty Old London by Lee Jackson. Copyright © 2014 Lee Jackson. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction, 1,
1 The Golden Dustman, 7,
2 Inglorious Mud, 27,
3 Night Soil, 46,
4 Removable Causes, 69,
5 Vile Bodies, 105,
6 The Great Unwashed, 134,
7 The Public Convenience, 155,
8 Wretched Houses, 181,
9 The Veil of Soot, 212,
Epilogue, 238,
Notes, 244,
Bibliography, 270,
Illustration Acknowledgements, 284,
Acknowledgements, 285,
Index, 287,

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