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Dustbin Day

While looking at things underground and specially in the last two posts regarding the job known as Toshing, I came across references to several strange occupations. Within the list there was Dustman, which I somewhat disregarded as being a bit banal. However, I found another text that when I read it cast the role in a more interesting light that I had at first thought.

Back in the late 18th century the removal of refuse from houses within the city was the responsibility of the various parishes. As an example, Lambeth in south London was estimated to have 40,000 rateable properties which required collection. Each house on average was thought to contribute three loads (a medium size cart pulled by a couple of horses) per year. Think of the contents of your own dustbins over the course of a year, multiply that by 40,000 and you will see that the disposal of waste like today was a major undertaking.

The major difference between the rubbish back then and ours now is the nature of it and the clue is in the term Dustman. Back then there was no packaging to speak of apart from probably paper, so unlike today most of the waste was made up from rotten fruit and vegetables, kitchen scraps,rags, bones, fragments of tin and other metals, old boots and shoes and of course dust. The term itself denotes a mixture of materials, mostly ash from the many thousands of open fires and general floor sweepings, however even this was graded into two categories Fine dust, used in making bricks and also sold to farmers as a soil improver and coarse dust known as “breeze,” used in the firing of bricks and also as a cheaper replacement for sand used in the building industry.

Formerly the parishes employed contractors to remove the waste but it seems that there was a widespread discontent from the ratepayers about the service in general and the Dustmen in particular. There seemed to be no sorts of checks on the frequency or quality of the collections, the Dustmen, paid a weekly wage did as much or as little work as he deemed necessary. Servants were regularly sent out to solicit the aid of a Dustmen when the amount of rubbish stored in the house became unmanageable. The problem does not seem to have just been with the elusiveness of the collectors, once you found one, or one called as a matter of course your problems were far from over. Due to the nature of the material collected the dustman would probably have had a continually dry throat and in most cases would let it be known to each household that he could not continue with his work unless a draught of ale was provided or an even better alternative was the furnishing of copper coins to allow him to buy some ale later on. If the householder relented then the waste material would be removed without further delay. Should they refuse then one of two things may have occurred. Either the Dustman simply refused to make the collection or he did it with such bad grace that most of the detritus was left strewn within the house. There are many instances I found of disgruntled households complaining to the parish councils for “the spoilage of rugs through contamination of noisesome materials” or ” scuffing of wainscoting to an extent to facilitate the repair thereof“, many of which fell on deaf parish council ears.

Most parishes realised that this system wasn’t working but always trying to keep costs down stopped short of employing a contractor, instead they employed an overseer who they paid and he was responsible for hiring and managing a team of collectors from the money he received. If anything this system was more open to abuse than the previous one as the overseer would hire men on the cheap and keep the numbers of collectors low to enhance his profits.

As to what happened to the rubbish that was actually collected is again open to the diligence of the Dustmen. It appears that some would wait until their carts were full and then just dump the contents on piece of unused ground, although there are instances of some loads being dumped in residential streets. The canny Dustmen would usually know the worth of the load being carried and if it’s value was not worth the journey to a specialised sorter who would pay for the load, then it was easier just to dump it. It appears that the usefulness of the fine dust and the breeze diminished in the early 19th century and so these instances of fly tipping increased. Spots for dumping the waste became well known to the collectors and if there was no interference from the authorities they continued to dump their loads on the same spot, which soon would lead to a rather common sight in the 19th century capital, London dust heaps.

The painting above does not really give the sense of how large these heaps could be although the small figure of the Dustman’s horse and cart making it’s way to the top does go some way. Once the heap had reached these proportions it seems that small communities grew up around them consisting of families who’s occupation was to scavenge anything that could be sold from these fetid heaps of rotting food and general waste. To give some perspective on the size of one of the largest heaps which stood just about where Kings Cross railway station is today, I’ve plotted the area taken from accounts of the time on the map below. The area itself is rather large , but this heap was in some places estimated to be around fifty feet high.

This system couldn’t be continued indefinitely and the two main authorities of the time, the City of London Corporation and the Metropolitan Board of Works began to reform the system, but it wasn’t until the creation of the London County Council in 1889 that widespread reforms were pushed through and the collections and disposal became more like those we have today.

Just to reprove the old adage of where there’s muck there’s brass the dust heaps were mainly sold off wholesale and the land used for building. In one instance I found a slightly smaller heap to the Kings Cross site which was sold in it’s entirety to the Russian Government to be used in the rebuilding of Moscow, which cost the Russians £20,000, around £250,000 today.

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