Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Cleaning, Rubbish Collection and Scavenging - Dustmen

a Dustman
taken from George Cruikshank's London Characters (1829)

see also James Greenwood in The Wilds of London - click here

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Street Life in London - by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877    

[back to menu for this book ...]


THE removal of dust and refuse from the houses of the metropolis is a task which devolves on the officers of the various parishes. Although the duty of collecting dust is not always discharged to the satisfaction of householders, it must be admitted, when the gigantic nature of the work is taken into account, that there is very little ground for complaint. In the parish of Lambeth alone there are about 40,000 rateable houses. Each house is calculated to contribute on an average three loads of dust in the course of the year, so that the accumulated annual refuse of this section of London would form a mound of no mean proportions. In this parish matters are so arranged that a dust-cart is supposed to pass each door twice a week. The faithful observance of this and other rules depends jointly on the men themselves, and on the efficient supervision of foremen set over them. These foremen are in the pay of the vestry, while the men and carts are hired by the day from a contractor. The rubbish thus collected is carted away in part to "shoots" found by the vestry within the area of the parish, and in part to the Thames, where it is deposited in boats hired for its removal at one pound sterling per load. 
    Formerly, contractors were employed to remove the dust in their own way, and held responsible for the proper fulfilment of their contracts. As the system proved costly and unsatisfactory, it was resolved that the parish should collect its own dust, and so dispose of it as to effect a reduction in the rates. Part of the scheme has been successfully carried out, but as yet no profit has accrued from the contents of the dust-carts. It is treated as waste material. Under the old system, householders were incessantly lodging complaints against the dustman, who was seldom to be found when his services were in demand. Not only had ratepayers to solicit the aid of that useful functionary, but he had his own way of letting it be understood that his services were not gratuitous. The dry dust would get into his throat, causing an abnormal thirst and choking sensation which could only be allayed by a copious draught of beer, or by a few pence to purchase the needful stimulant. This sort of "black mail" is still levied, although the authorities of the parish are making the most strenuous efforts to have it abolished, having inscribed on each cart a caution against the bestowal of gratuities.
    For all that, the crafty dustman expects, and frequently receives, his accustomed "tip." When it is not forthcoming his visits become both dangerous and disagreeable. Rough at all times and heavy-booted, he calls on a wet day, and brings a trail of mud with him from the outer world. At other times he discovers that the passage from the dust-bin to the door is too contracted to admit of his exit without leaving some trace of his visit on the wall-paper or floor; or he pleads that his cart is too full and that he must call again.
    Not many years ago dust had a high value; it yielded the following among other marketable products:- Fine dust, used in making bricks and as manure; coarse dust or "breeze," used in burning bricks; rags, bones, fragments of tin and other metals, old boots and shoes, paper, &c. That the refuse of the metropolis continues to be of some value, may be gathered from a visit to the establishment at Belvedere Wharf, where there is every appliance for sifting the dust of one of the city parishes, and turning it to profitable account. In some yards the fine dust is mixed with road- sweepings, and forms an excellent manure for poor land. "Breeze" is also employed by some builders to mix with mortar. It is cheaper than sand, and is supposed to answer the same purpose. I myself have seen in a single day, the contents of half-a-dozen dust-carts discharged on the road close to a suburban building plot. This heap remained for weeks in the same spot, until indeed it had assumed vast proportions and was emitting the foulest odours. It was then sifted into another heap, beneath which a fire of coal had been kindled for the purpose of burning out soft perishable foreign matter. There could be no fault found with the breeze thus produced, provided the entire heap could have been raised to a red heat, or that the subsequent admixture of lime it received was sufficient to destroy all animal and vegetable matter. In some instances sufficient mortar is not added to make this muddy compound cohere as it ought. The result is a new danger to the individuals who invest in new abodes and inhabit them before the walls are dry. They may possibly breathe noxious and infectious gasses, given off by the damp decomposing matter of the transformed dust-heap. They will also find to their dismay, difficulty in persuading walls thus plastered to hold a nail, while the ceilings will in time manifest signs of decomposition by dissolving partnership with their elaborate stucco ornaments and thin coating of white plaster. On the other hand, if the dust is properly sifted, burned, and strengthened by a suitable proportion of lime, the resulting mortar will prove of excellent quality. Rags, bones, and fragments of old metal found in dust-yards, realize prices that leave a handsome profit after paying the expense of sifting. There are, indeed, establishments in London where such miscellaneous refuse is received, sifted anew, and bought up by merchants and manufacturers. The collecting and sorting of waste-paper alone, forms a special industry. Many young women find daily employment in sorting paper picked out of refuse. In the houses where such labour is employed, tons of sweepings may be seen piled up in huge sacks. These are duly emptied and examined by the nimble fingers of the women, who assort the contents into lots according to quality. These lots are ultimately utilized in a variety of ways. The enormous quantities of old iron utensils, empty meat and biscuit tins, are sold to the makers of small tin boxes and to trunk makers for clamping the corners of their trunks. It will be seen therefore, that the filthy refuse collected from houses can still be transmuted into coin, although the coin may be bronze in place of silver as in former days. When the trade of dust-collecting was more lucrative, Flying Dustmen appeared and pursued their craft in defiance of law, if not of order.
    The men photographed are types of this class of "Street Labourers," who obtained their cognomen from their habit of flying from one district to another. When in danger of collision with an inspector of nuisances, they adroitly change the scene of their labours. Flying dustmen are, however, neither totally unacquainted with the interior of police courts, nor have they invariably escaped being fined for their raids upon the parish. The cart pictured is the regulation shape, and might be mistaken for a parish conveyance, were it not for the horse, whose flying days may be fairly said to be over. The old dustman, in spite of misfortune, has followed his itinerant calling for a long term of years, and has met with a sort of quasi recognition in the parish as a civil and obliging dustman.
    Flying dustmen are unreliable in their movements, while at night, like flying comets, some of them may be traced in their course by the tail they throw out behind. Having no fixed "shoot," after the day's labour is done and the load denuded of its saleable contents, the tail of the conveyance is partially opened. The owner then seeking some by-way, proceeds to distribute the dust in a thin layer over the road, and thus lightens his burden at every step. On more occasions than one, inspectors of nuisances have traced the erratic course of these men, and at last caught them shooting the contents of their cart into some quiet field, or beneath the deep shadow of a railway arch. The industry is on the whole managed in such a way as to make it pay. Old bottles, tins, rags, and bones, are disposed of for about three shillings per hundredweight. The flying dustmen also study the routes of regulars, and follow in their wake. In this way they pick up customers who have been overlooked, or who have failed to catch the husky croak of "dust ho!" In their plight housewives accept the proffered aid, and agree to have their bins emptied for a consideration. It is, of course, necessary to point out to those in pressing need, that the regular dustmen have just gone, and cannot appear again for at least a week. Difficulties are also raised as to the quality and quantity of dust to be removed. At last all is adjusted to the satisfaction of employer and contractor, and the flying dustman proceeds upon his rounds.
    It is a question worthy of the serious consideration of chemists, and of some at least of the vestries of London, whether some advance could not be made in the utilization of the ever-increasing quantity of refuse discharged from the houses of the metropolis? It can hardly be conducive to the health of the community to cast away all sorts of garbage, and to deposit the filthy contents of the carts in a shoot within a densely-populous suburb. In summer, the proximity of a dust-cart even may be ascertained by the mouldy taint it distributes through the air. In times of epidemic disease, the air may not only be charged with disagreeable odours, but with the germs of infection existing in the dust and litter conveyed from fever-stricken abodes. If the germs of zymotic disease remain active for even a short period, it is manifest that shooting household refuse into suburban gravel pits is attended with danger to the community. It seems to me that under efficient supervision, in the hands of experienced contractors for road-cleansing, the bulk of road-sweepings and domestic refuse might be mingled and used as manure. This has already been done, but on too limited a scale. Again, it has been shown that the filthiest rags prove an excellent manure in the hands of hop-growers, who transform what is positively dangerous and offensive if allowed to rot on a dust heap, into the material used in preparing one of our chief beverages.
    The Chinese, who are eminently an agricultural people, turn the dust and refuse collected within their abodes to better account than we do in London. Animal and vegetable matter, rags and dust are consigned to manure pits, and there mingled with ordinary sewage. When ripe, the liquid compound is transferred to fields required to yield two or three crops a year. If a body of Chinese emigrants had to deal with the garbage of a city so vast as London, we should find many of the poorest lands around the metropolis transformed into gardens and markets stocked with even a more abundant supply than we already possess of the choicest fruits and vegetables.

   An altogether different-looking person from the one we last chatted about, is the DUSTMAN. Unlike the policeman, here we have no gloved, clean, neat-as-a-pin individual, but a tall, strong-looking fellow, wearing a large fantail hat, coarse grey jacket, and trousers tightly drawn in just below the knee with a strap and buckle. The little bit of hair showing below the rim of his hat is full of dust, and his hands and face are begrimed with dirt. But our friend has not made himself so dirty just for fun or fancy, but has become so in doing his duty. For his business is to take away the dust, ashes, and rubbish, that are put into the dust-bins in our back gardens. You have perhaps watched him at work. He draws the high box-cart close alongside the pavement in front of the house, and then he and his fellow-workman go to the dust-bin, and proceed to empty it with their shovels and baskets. As soon as one basket is filled, the ?filler? helps it on to the shoulder of the ?carrier,? who takes it to the cart, mounting up. the side of the cart by means of a ladder, and then returning for the other basket, which the filler has filled during that time. This process is repeated at different houses till the cart is filled; then the men make the best of their way to the dust-yard, where they shoot the contents of the cart on to the dust-heap, and again proceed on their rounds.
    Many years ago, when our fathers and mothers were children, people, if they wanted the dust cleared away, had to keep their ears open for the noise of a large hand-bell which the dustman used to ring to give notice to house?keepers of his approach. But such bell-ringing became a nuisance, and so it was stopped, and then the men had to employ the musical instrument they were born with, I mean the voice. Have you ever had some dust down your throat? How it does tickle and make you cough! You don?t feel like singing then, do you? No; but these men, living amongst the dirt and breathing in the dust, are continually showing the power of a good pair of lungs, as they sing out in loud and clear tones, ?Dust-oy-ee! Dust-oy-ee!?
    The dust-yards are the places where the dust is brought and sifted, and these are generally to be found as near as possible to the river or to some canal. These places are chosen because a large quantity of soil or ashes is taken by sailing barges down the river to Faversham, Sittingbourne, and other places in Kent, where there are large brick-making fields. Near the centre of the dust-yard the largest heap of ?soil,? or the finer portion of the dust, is placed; and around it are a number of smaller heaps, consisting of the mixed dust and rubbish waking to be sifted.
    Among the heaps are the sifters, old men and women: the women wear coarse, dirty cotton gowns tucked up behind them, their arms bared above the elbows, their bonnets crushed and battered, and over their gowns a strong leather apron. Furnished with iron sieves, they quickly separate the ?soil? from the ?breeze? or cinders, which is placed in another large heap at some other part of the yard. It is a scene full of life, especially in one of the dust-yards just outside London. The sieves are jerked busily backwards and forwards by the sifters, and other workers are actively pitching the sifted soil by shovelfuls to the top of the lofty pile, while children scrape amongst the rubbish for rags and bones, oyster-shells, old bricks, old tin pots, and old boots.  These they carry away to separate heaps. Carts fully loaded conic in, and empty ones go out, and poultry and pigs scratch and cackle and grunt amongst the heaps.
    The dust that is thins collected and sifted is used either for manure or for making bricks. The finer soil is found to be just what is wanted to mix with marshy soil so as to make it fit for cultivation. For making bricks it is mixed with the clay. When the bricks are put in the kiln to bake, the coarser portion of the dust-heap, or breeze, is placed between the bricks and on top of the kiln. So you see how we may enrich our land or build our houses from the contents of the dust-bin. The old bricks and oyster-shells are sold to the builder, and with them he prepares the ground on which he builds; they also help in making roads. The old tin pots are re-made into new articles. The old boots go to the London bootmakers, who use them as stuffing between the in-sole and the outer one. The rags after a time are turned into paper, &c.; and from the bones are made buttons and various useful little articles.
   Now, as you hear of all the useful things that can be made from such very unpromising materials, do you not understand better than before the wisdom of the command, ? Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost??

Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)

see also A.R.Bennett in London and Londoners - click here