Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Worst Jobs in Victorian London, part 2

Here's the Introduction from my new ebook Dust, Mud, Soot & Soil : The Worst Jobs in Victorian London (see previous post) ...


I went home by way of Holborn, and the fog was denser than ever,— very black, indeed, more like a distillation of mud than anything else; the ghost of mud,—the spiritualized medium of departed mud, through which the dead citizens of London probably tread, in the Hades whither they are translated. So heavy was the gloom, that gas was lighted in all the shop-windows; and the little charcoal-furnaces of the women and boys, roasting chestnuts, threw a ruddy, misty glow around them. And yet I liked it. This fog seems an atmosphere proper to huge, grimy London; as proper to London, as that light neither of the sun nor moon is to the New Jerusalem.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, English Notebooks, 1857
As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth … Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House, 1852

'Huge, grimy London' could simultaneously inspire and disgust its inhabitants. Some, like Hawthorne, discovered a certain romance in the swirling fog; others, traipsing through streets coated with mud, succumbed to Dickens' 'general infection of ill temper'. Dirt was certainly a significant problem in the 1850s: the capital's sewers pouring filth into the Thames; mountains of rubbish accumulating in the slums; the very air poisoned by fog. Of course, the Victorians were not short of reforming zeal in these matters – we shall touch on some of their successes and failures – but the cleansing of the capital, a city whose burgeoning population swelled to over six million by the end of the nineteenth century, was a gargantuan task. 'We have,' said one journalist in 1889, 'an accumulation of matter in the wrong place unexampled in the world's history'. Fighting this rising tide of dirt were an army of workers, from crossing-sweepers, chimney-sweeps and dustmen, to those in less well-known occupations, such as dust-yard sifters, sewer flushers and street orderlies. This book examines the work of these men and women, using their experience as a prism through which we can observe the inner workings of the Victorian metropolis. Along the way, we will uncover many mundane but fascinating details of daily life: what Victorian householders threw in the rubbish; the colour and composition of London 'mud'; why 'climbing-boys' went barefoot on the streets; the decidedly unhygienic habits of Soho attic-dwellers; the dangers of dust-yard pigs … and a good deal more besides. In particular, I hope this book will appeal to anyone intrigued by social or family history. For those with ancestors in such trades, it will answer the important, often neglected question 'But what did they actually do?' For those without, it will provide clues to whether your great-great-grandparents had a toilet, or where they put their dustbin – small things, but rather important.
     Dirt came in various guises. There was no escaping the mud that caked the city's roads.  Of  course, 'mud' was something of a euphemism: this was predominantly horse-dung. There were additional elements: flecks of granite (from loose macadam, the stone fragments, pummelled tightly together, used to surface most of the capital's thoroughfares); traces of iron (from horse shoes and metal-shod wheels); a smattering of litter and household refuse. Nonetheless, it was consistently and principally dung. When wet, it turned the busiest streets into an impassable bog; when dry, it created a noxious dust, that had to be dampened down by the spray from parish water-carts, waggons with wooden water tanks at the rear, fitted with a metal sprinkler.
    If the mud clung to your boots, then Nathaniel Hawthorne's 'distillation of mud' – London fog – clung your clothes and stuck in your throat. It came in the winter months, and was heavy with the waste-products of countless soot-belching chimneys. These were not only domestic chimneys but also those belonging to the factories, breweries and tanneries that filled Lambeth and Southwark, and the chemical and industrial plants along the River Lea, east of the capital. Some found the swirling gloom inspiring. Claude Monet returned to paint the fog-ridden Thames repeatedly, trying to capture it on canvas.  The chromatic possibilities of a London fog were manifold, according the vagaries of its chemical composition: it could be 'pea-soup yellow' (the most reported variety) but also deep orange; black; 'bottle green'; white, grey or brown. Yet for most Londoners, it was an unwelcome and ill-omened visitor. A dense fog meant deaths from traffic and other accidents; cases of drowning in the docks and along canals were commonplace. It also led to increased mortality and incapacity arising from bronchial complaints. London fog smelt of sulphur, induced choking fits, and tainted everything it touched, leaving 'smuts' on windows, rendering clothing black and greasy to the touch. It even crept into the house, wreaths of mist, curling past shutters and heavy curtains, leaving a fine layer of black soot in its wake.
     While sulphurous fogs gave London a distinctive aroma in the winter, the summer months also had their own particular scent – raw sewage. Until the 1860s, the capital's inadequate sewer system was pouring an ever-increasing amount of human waste directly into the Thames (a disaster in a tidal river, where the sewage might flow towards the estuary and then immediately be swept back towards civilisation). The problem came to a head with the infamous 'Great Stink' of 1858, where the river's pestilential odour became unbearable. The principal cause of the 'Stink' was, ironically, the increasing popularity of the flush toilet (as opposed to the traditional household cesspool, emptied every year or two). The new toilets removed waste from the house very effectively, but London's ageing sewers were not equipped to deal the consequences. When the stench reached even the hallowed halls of the Palace of Westminster, MPs supported a grand design for a new system of  intercepting sewers beneath the streets of London, coupled with cathedral-like pumping stations at remote Abbey Mills and Crossness. These would lift up the effluent, allowing it to progress even further eastwards, away from the bounds of the metropolis. The scheme was a remarkable, gargantuan undertaking that took almost twenty years to complete.
     There was filth inside the home, as well as without. We have already alluded to cesspools and toilets, but the main agent of household dirt was the coal fire: creating ash and cinders, and soot-ridden chimneys that required the regular attention of a sweep. Secondary to this, in volume of material, was more general rubbish, of the sort that enters our dustbins today, albeit not so much of it. The Victorians were not a 'throwaway society'. There was less in the way of discarded food than in modern Britain. The principle of 'waste not, want not' was widely applied and 'left-overs' were often artfully incorporated into the following breakfast or dinner.  If a household was thrifty, the remaining food scraps might be composted, or dried out and burnt in the household range. Food also had no extravagant packaging (paper was the general all-purpose wrapping).  The contents of a Victorian dustbin were, therefore, mainly pieces of  intractable 'stuff' that could not be recycled or mended in the home: some food scraps and offal, but principally ash and cinders (hence 'dust' and 'dustbin') with occasional pieces of smashed crockery; bones; old rags; household items such as 'worn-out oil-cloth, old bonnet-boxes, cocoa-nut matting'. All of this material was destined for the city's suburban 'dust-yards' – recycling centres, containing great mounds of rubbish to be sifted and sorted.
     We shall, in fact, begin our examination of the dirtiest  jobs in London with the dustman and his milieu. There is no lack of drama in dust. For, amidst the filth and rubbish, fortunes were made and lost.

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