Picture the scene.
It is a bitterly cold London November morning in – oh I don’t know, let’s say the year is 1847.
An elderly woman – her face cracked and wrinkled, every one of which is clogged with dust and fine ashes – hobbles along a rutted road to the north of the City of London. She wears a faded, ragged blue petticoat, the hue of which matches her blue nose perfectly. She supports herself with a gnarled wooden stick, which she carries in her left hand and which she digs into the earth to pull herself along as she struggles to make headway against the biting wind. Beneath her withered right arm, she carries a large, rusty iron sieve.
THE LOOMING MOUND
Suddenly, her screwed-up eyes squint upon a dusty, black mound that looms, menacingly, against the muddled-grey sky, and a faint smile cracks across her mouth, as she hastens her way towards it, her breath steaming on the winter air. With every step she takes, the sullen heap of dirt and ashes grows in stature until it towers over her, looking as if it might, at any moment, open up a set of ferocious dusky jaws and swallow her whole.
THE SCAVENGERS OF LONDON
But, instead, she hobbles onto its formidable slopes, takes the sieve from under her arm, stoops down and begins her daily task of gathering and sifting, whilst around her scores of similar women and men do likewise, shuffling like ants back and forth, up and down across the giant, looming mound, scrutinising every handful of ash and dirt for anything – old rags, bits of white linen, even dead animals – that might have some value, however minuscule, and which might be resold in order to pay for food and lodgings for themselves and their families.
Some of them are old, others just look old. A few have brought rag-clothed children with them to whom the ashen slopes are a huge playground. Dogs and cats, hens and other wild fowl scavenge amongst them battling their human rivals for any morsels that they can locate.
COMBING THROUGH LONDON’S DETRITUS
You see, that’s how these people scrape a living; by combing through the detritus that London’s better off classes have discarded, and they’ll do so tomorrow, just as they have done for as long as many of them can remember.
After all, to be down and out in Victorian London is to be like the ashes and the garbage that make up this massive mound, discarded and forgotten.
THE BATTLE BRIDGE GREAT DUST MOUND
The dust mound in question was located at Battle Bridge, more or less where King’s Cross Station stands today.
And Dust Heaps were, to say the least, big business in the mid years of the 19th century.
Indeed, Henry Mayhew, in his 1850-52 series London Labour and the London Poor, observes that the men who owned the Dustheaps of London – and of other major cities throughout the country – were “…generally men of considerable wealth.”
As the old adage goes, “where there’s muck there’s brass.”
MR BOFFIN’S INHERITANCE
In Charles Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend, Mr Boffin inherits several such mounds and visits the chambers of the lawyer, Mortimer Lightwood, to learn the value of his inheritance. It transpires that the value of his inheritance amounts to the princely sum of £100,000, or to put that amount into today’s value, in the region of a cool £10 million.
WHY SO PROFITABLE?
But how could that which seemed so worthless to so many be so profitable to so few?
A clue can be gleaned from the fate of the aforementioned Great Dust-heap at Battle Bridge. According to one historian it was “..removed in 1848 to assist in rebuilding the City of Moscow, Russia.”
In other words. many of the bricks that went into the rebuilding of Moscow, quite literally, came from the hearths of the citizens of Victorian London.
CASH FROM THE ASH
You see, London was heated by coal. Once burnt, the coals were reduced to cinders and ashes. These were then collected by dust contractors who had the land on which to discard the ashes, which became the Dust-heaps.
But, with so much building work going on, the ash could be converted into cash – mountains of it – since ash was one of the principle ingredients for bricks and the essential necessity for the building boom, aside from a bountiful supply of cheap labour, was bricks.
So, by setting yourself up as a Victorian dust contractor you could, quite literally, build a family fortune, as you could sell the ash to brick makers – Uxbridge, for example, was a major producer, providing some 5 million bricks a year to the building industry, for which fifteen or sixteen thousand chaldrons of cinder dust were required – and that cinder dust came out of the fireplaces of London. That’s why, if you look at the Victorian houses of London, the brickwork is of a dark, burnt cinder hue.
BRASS FROM MUCK, AT LEAST FOR SOME
Richard Henry Horner explained the process in an 1850 essay in Charles Dickens’s Magazine Household Words, entitled Dust: Or, Ugliness Redeemed:-
“The fine cinder-dust and ashes are used in the clay of the bricks, both for the red and grey stacks. Ashes are also used as fuel between the layers of the clump of bricks, which could not be burned in that position without them” (Read the full article here.)
The ash was also in demand by farmers for fertiliser.
So, as you can see, despite the fact they were, most certainly, a blot on the Victorian London landscape, Dust-heaps were a hugely lucrative business for their owners, and many a family fortune resulted from them.
But, as for the scavengers who eked out an existence by sifting through them, in the hope that they would find something useful to resell, well those Dust-heaps were often the difference between a few measly morsels of food, and starvation.
AT CLOSE OF DAY
And so,as the light of our 1847 November day begins to fail, our decrepit old woman shakes the dust from her sieve, digs her stick into the cinders, drags herself down the slope and shuffles off along the rutted road on which we first encountered her.
Did she, I wonder, glance up at the smoke, billowing from the chimneys on the rooftops of the London houses and ponder the fact that from that smoke would come houses that, 169 years, later, would be selling for sums of money that, to her, were unimaginable?
I suspect not.