Monday 21 March 2011


I've pointed out before that the Victorians 'recycled' with a vengeance. Here's what they did with their rubbish, all done by 'sifters' (generally women) who worked the mounds of 'dust':
The principal ingredient of all these Dust-heaps is fine cinders and ashes; but as they are accumulated from the contents of all the dust-holes and bins of the vicinity, and as many more as possible, the fresh arrivals in their original state present very heterogeneous materials. We cannot better describe them than by presenting a brief sketch of the different departments of the Searchers and Sorters, who are assembled below to busy themselves upon the mass of original matters which are shot out from the carts of the dustmen.
    The bits of coal, the pretty numerous results of accident and servants' carelessness, are picked out, to be sold forthwith; the largest and best of the cinders are also selected, by another party, who sell them to laundresses, or to braziers (for whose purposes coke would do as well;) and the next sort of cinders, called the breeze, because it is left after the wind has blown the finer cinders through an upright sieve, is sold to the brick-makers.
    Two other departments, called the "soft-ware" and the "hard-ware," are very important. The former includes all vegetable and animal matters--everything that will decompose. These are selected and bagged at once, and carried off as soon as possible, to be sold as manure for plowed land, wheat, barley, &c. Under this head, also, the dead cats are comprised. They are generally the perquisites of the women searchers. Dealers come to the wharf, or dust-field, every evening; they give sixpence for a white cat, fourpence for a colored cat, and for a black one according to her quality. The "hard-ware" includes all broken pottery pans, crockery, earthenware, oyster-shells, &c., which are sold to make new roads.
    The bones are selected with care, and sold to the soap-boiler. He boils out the fat and marrow first, for special use, and the bones are then crushed and sold for manure.
    Of rags, the woollen rags are bagged and sent off for hop-manure; the white linen rags are washed, and sold to make paper, &c.
    The "tin things" are collected and put into an oven with a grating at the bottom, so that the solder which unites the parts melts, and runs through into a receiver. This is sold separately; the detached pieces of tin are then sold to be melted up with old iron, &c.
    Bits of old brass, lead, &c., are sold to be molted up separately, or in the mixture of ores.
    All broken glass vessels, as cruets, mustard-pots, tumblers, wine-glasses, bottles, &c., are sold to the old-glass shops.
    As for any articles of jewelry, silver spoons, forks, thimbles, or other plate and valuables, they are pocketed off-hand by the first finder. Coins of gold and silver are often found, and many "coppers."
    Meantime, everybody is hard at work near the base of the great Dust-heap. A certain number of cart-loads having been raked and searched for all the different things just described, the whole of it now undergoes the process of sifting. The men throw up the stuff, and the women sift it.
Household Words, 1850


  1. Who in his right mind would throw away jewelry and silver spoons??? Either someone very stupid or very rich.

    We think we're being innovative with our ten different kinds of recycling bins, but once again, the Victorians did it first.

    I enjoyed reading your post!

  2. I do enjoy your blog- it's consistently fascinating.

    I don't know who wrote the above, but I know Dickens wrote for Household words, and this sounds like a description of the giant Battle- bridge dust heap at what's now King's Cross. Maybe you saw this article in yesterday's Guardian with a superb picture of the dust heap. A disaster waiting to happen- an artificial mountain with people living right underneath it.

    Just look at that crowd of seagulls circling above.

    Here's another picture.

    Of course the dust heap plays an important role in "our Mutual Friend".

    There's a great story by Bram Stoker about a giant dust heap in Paris- with a whole community of scavengers living there. It's set in 1850.

    Here it is- The Burial of the Rats:

  3. Thanks for that - I didn't know about the Stoker story ... the (I think it is) Dickens piece can be found in full here together with lots of other descriptions of dust-yards and the 'sifters' et al. who worked there.

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