5th March 1851. There was Money in Rubbish.
Dickens’ novel, Our Mutual friend centres on how Mr ‘Noddy’ Boffin inherits a fortune from old Mr.Harmon, who has made a fortune from rubbish, collected into giant dust heaps, then a valuable source of income.
Today in 1851 the magazine Household Words described the area near Kings’ Cross as a Suburb Connemara’.(1)
The Dust heap was removed to make way for Kings’ Cross Station for the Great Northern Line.
The huge dust-heaps of London were a feature of the Victorian age as more people lived in close communities and so generated vast amounts of rubbish, collected by private contractors ringing a bell.
Cinders, ashes, old bones, rags, tins, broken glass were potentially worth 1000s of pounds to the owner. Also such a site was also a source of cash for the scavengers, who went through the mounds in a classic case of re-cycling,
Bones went to the soap boiler, who boiled out fat and marrow, crushing the bones for manure. Rags were sorted into coloured for hop manure and white going for paper. Tins had the solder melted out, and then went as old iron. Brass and lead were separated. Broken glass was crushed and sold to old glass stores.
One never knew what would turn up, with finds of lost jewellery and silver, gold coins and even copper, worth scavenging for.
Material was divided into ‘soft-ware’ and ‘hard-ware’. The former was all manner of vegetable and animal waste which went for manure. Included here were the dead cats which dealers would buy paying 6d for a white cat and 4d for a coloured or black cat depending on condition.
‘Hard-ware’ was broken pottery, pans, oyster-shells; oysters were then eaten in large quantities by the poor. Crockery, earthen-ware went off to make new roads.
Bits of coal caused by the carelessness of servants, made good money, whilst the best and largest cinders went to laundresses or to braziers. The next sort of cinders, resulted in ‘breeze’, which was left over after wind had blown out the finer stuff from an upright sieve. These promptly went to the brickmakers.
The lighter work of sifting would be for the women and children, leaving the heavy bagging-up for the menfolk.
It has been suggested that household fecal remains would have been found in these piles but these would have been too valuable as a source of fertiliser to be contaminated with other sources.
Much wild-life benefited from the dust piles, with pigs and dogs rooting out anything eatable. Crows would scavenge the top areas, whilst sparrows and geese would be hard at work and all the ground infested with thistle, groundsel, whilst a good aroma would pervasively stifle the area.
Who thought recycling was a recent invention!
(1) Page 563 Household Words.
(2) The watercolour of Kings Cross heap is by C.H.Dixon 1837, Wellcome Library.
Ref: joankanichols.wordpress.com/victorian-great-recyclers. Pics of cart and children on heap.
Ref: From Dust; or ugliness redeemed. R.H.Horne Household Words, 13.7.1860.
Ref: Guardian, Chris Turner, 18.3.2011. Pic of Dust Heap.
Ref: Dust Piles and Damp Pavements in publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks.