Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Unsentimental Journey; or Byways of the Modern Babylon, by James Greenwood, 1867


   AS the ground was covered with snow, and the weather so bitterly cold, that had the mercury in the glass grown six degrees taller freezing point would still have had the start of it, I was in doubt whether Mr. Dodd's "eliminators " would be at work. So I intimated to the "yard foreman," at whose house I called one morning at the extremity of the year. As, however, that polite person pronounced that "nothing but rain licked 'em," I buttoned up my great coat, while he lit his pipe and rolled up the sleeves of his blue guernsey, and we set off. There are several "yards" connected with the establishment; but the one I wanted was that devoted to dust, and I found it between the stabling department and another, set apart for the reception of monstrous slopcarts and all else pertaining to scavengering. The dust-yard was, as near as I could guess, about a hundred and fifty feet wide and seventy broad, one end opening on to the main street and the other to the Regent's Canal. Flanking one side of the yard were a score or so of upreared dustcarts, and on the other side, extending almost from the outer gate to the water's brink, were great mounds of ordinary dustbin muck; and in the midst of the mounds-literally, so that in many cases part only of their bodies were visible-were thirty or forty women and girls. In view of the canal, the surface covered with big slabs of yellow ice,-with a rasping north wind blowing continuously through the yard, and with frost and snow everywhere to be seen, there sat the "hill-women," girls of sixteen and old dames of sixty, each holding before her a sieve as large as the top of a small loo-table, in which she dexterously caught the huge shovelful supplied by the "feeder," all as busy as bees, and as cheerful.
   As a body, the females evinced by their attire little taste and less premeditation: indeed, in most cases they presented an appearance of having crawled through a bundle of rags, trusting entirely to chance as to the part of it from which their heads might emerge. It is only just, however, to mention that the above remarks applied chiefly to elderly parties, ladies who had outlived the frivolities of youth; but maidens there were much more scrupulous, wearing the bonnet fully trimmed and fashionably off their heads, revealing tresses copiously oiled and evenly parted. Respecting this latter feature, the advantage of having light hair was plainly manifest; in all such cases the parting was plainly distinguishable as a dusty lane between two hedges; whereas with ladies of raven locks all that was observable was a centre channel, suggestive of the system of drainage patronised by our forefathers, and still to be seen in ancient alleys. Most of the ladies wore coarse, fingerless gloves, and all of them had great lace-up boots, such as carmen wear, and great sackcloth aprons, such as few carmen would care to be burdened with.
   Conversing afterwards with a gentleman in the employ of the firm, said he, "How they exist is marvellous. They are here these bitter mornings before half London have left their beds, and they stay here till dark. I suppose they have some sort of breakfast before they come, and something more when they get home; they'd need, for all they get to eat between times is hardly worth mentioning. Meat is entirely out of the question A lot of them club together, and about twelve o'clock one makes a fire of breeze and brews an old kettleful of weak tea, and this, with a slice or two of bread, or at most a herring, is their dinner, year in and year out." To look at them, however, such a suspicion would never enter one's mind. I have been amongst factory-workers and "mill-hands," and market-garden women, and assistants at City establishments, but I never yet met a body of female labourers looking so thoroughly healthy and jolly. Every one was fat, every one was rosy, and laughing and singing as though it were capital fun to grovel among the refuse of the town out in the open air-a Siberian air, bleak and withering. The least likely-looking of the company was a corpulent lady, aged about fifty, and with her jaws bound round with a red rag; but even she was not so poorly but that she puffed away at a hideous little pipe with an appetite, and which, without taking her hands from the sieve, she dexterously shifted to the corner of her mouth so as to admit of her swelling the chorus of a ditty a leather- lunged young Irishwoman was at the time singing. I have since ascertained-and I am thankful for tile discovery-that my impressions as to the healthiness of these toilers amongst filth and ashes were not erroneous. I have Dr. Guy's authority for stating that, despite their constant and immediate contact with the most loathsome refuse, they are among the healthiest of our working population. The medical authority in question states them to be a "healthy, ruddy-complexioned race-the healthiest set of men I have ever seen. I do not think, whether in town or country, such another body of men could be brought together, except by selection. It is not going too far to assert of them that, if the comparison were limited to the inhabitants of London, or our large towns, no score of selected tradesmen could be found to match the same number of dustmen brought casually together." It would seem from this startling statement that sanitarians who protest against neglected dust-heaps do not know what they are talking about, and that the Board of Health is quite mistaken in prose- cuting owners of reeking dust-bins. It should, however, be borne in mind that, during the operation of sifting, the dust is exposed in an open space. Despite the well- known power of ashes to absorb every sort of noxious emanation, if the hill-women pursued their labours in a covered building the results would doubtless be very different. To return, however, to the dust-yard. I observed that every sifter had near at hand two or three old baskets, and that each time she called out " sarve," and a youth, by tipping into her ready sieve a shovelful from a "raw" heap "sarved " her, she gave the fresh supply a handy twist, so as to spread the material over the entire surface of the sieve, and proceeded to deal with it in a way that I could not readily understand. Resting the outer edge of the great sieve against the heap before her, and its other extreme on her knees, she dived into it with both her hands, and went through a series of evolutions that, for rapidity, were unmatched by any conjurer I ever yet saw. Whatever it was she plucked from the sieve, was tossed over her left shoulder, over her right shoulder, and under either arm, and never failed to find a lodgment in one or other of the baskets. "What is she picking out ? " inquired I of my guide. "She's picking out heverything," replied he. "She's picking 'hard-core,' and 'fine-core,' and rags, and bread, and bones, and bits of metal, and cabbage-stumps, and that sort of awful (offal), and bits of iron, and old tin pots, and old boots and shoes, and paper, and wood, likewise broken glass. After that's done, she can get along with the breeze and ashes straightfor'ard." "She retains the scraps you have enumerated as perquisites, I presume ?" I observed. "Oh no, she don't ! " replied Mr. Scorch, shaking his head vigorously. "She retains only what's give to her, and that's the wood. She don't retain nothing else- leastways, not if I know it." "Oh, indeed! all claimed by Mr. Dodd, eh ? "Wrong again, sir; it's all claimed by me, and I'll tell you how it's worked. Mr. Dodd employs so many 'collectors'-dustmen as you call them. They go about the parts the governor contracts for, getting ten shillings a week, besides what they have give them, and being obliged to bring in so many loads a day. For a certain sum I undertake to sift every load and get out of it, for the governor, the breeze, the ashes, the manure, and the 'core' (broken crockery, oyster-shells, broken bottles, &c., used for the foundation of new roads). All the other stuff my women find in the dust belongs to me." "And you find the rubbish worth saving, eh ?" "Rubbish! worth saving!" ejaculated the foreman. "Well, I should rather say I did. You see that building over there ?" pointing out an extensive brick edifice, crowned with a tall chimney. "Well, the rubbish, as you call it, is so well worth saving that our master went to a precious many hundred pounds' expense that it might be made the most of. It's my warehouse, that building is, where my rag-sorters, and rag-washers, and rag-driers work, and where I store everything that is found out here that may be turned into money. Come and look at it."
   He led the way through the great yard, and close to the edge of the canal I found the building with the tall shaft he had pointed out in the distance; and, ascending some steps and pushing open a door, we entered. With a creak the door banged to, and suddenly I found myself in the most curious of all the curious places it ever was my fortune-good or bad-to set foot. There was noneed for tedious exploration in discovering the wonders. As soon as your foot crossed the threshold of the building, there you were in the midst of them.
   "Mind the hole " sharply ejaculated my guide, and not without reason; for there, dimly revealed in the twilight that filled the place, and within a pace of the door, was a black gulf, broad, wide, and of unknown depth, filled within a few feet of the floor's surface with old shoes and boots !-thousands, tens of thousands of them; all sorts, all sizes; baby's first little strapped shoe, hustled into and peeping out at the gaping toe of the dilapidated "Wellington," the huge " ankle-jack," the tramp's boot, with the iron-plated heel worn all aslant, the heavy uppers botched with twine-sown patches (a wayside job, evidently), and mutilated "tongues," now lolling at rest above the leather thongs, but plainly revealing the derivation of the patch-pieces; the dainty satin dancing-shoe cuddled into the russet, lime-burned foot-casing of the burly brickmaker; the still substantial gouty shoe, longer lived than its master; the narrow-waisted, fashionable abomination, cursed through its life, and at last joyfully kicked off because of its corn-inducing propensities: here they were, some blue with mildew, some still bearing traces of a polish, and some half eaten by rats; here they were, as many shoes and boots at the very least as there are legs at a gallows show. "Of what use are they ?" inquired I of Mr. Scorch, who evidently regarded me as curiously as I regarded his old boots.
   "Jews," responded Mr. Scorch, with a mysterious wink, "they knows what to do with 'em better than we do, mister. What do you think of this lot ? " The "lot" in question consisted of crumpled-up paper of every texture and colour, about a ton in weight, and all of it tolerably clean. I thought it a rather valuable heap, and told him so.
   "You are right," said he. "I get half-a-crown a hundred for it." Mr. Scorch again winked, and in a very artful way, as he named the tremendous sum; but when I reflected that the price he received for his waste paper was fifty shillings a ton, and that of the article re-made ranged from forty to seventy pounds for the same quantity, it seemed to me that by looking about him he might possibly find a better market.
   The next article he introduced to my notice bore so unsightly and valueless an appearance that the affectionate way in which he patted and poked it considerably sur- prised me. It was contained in a huge basket, and more than anything resembled odd corners and chunks of muddy wood, or broken, half-burnt bricks.
   "We find a tidy lot of that, and I wish we found a lot more," said he. "It's first-rate stuff, that is."
   "For burning ?" was my natural observation.
   "Oh, no," replied he; "for eating. It's bread-pigs' wittles !"
   "Come down here," said Mr. Scorch, leaping down into the shoe-gulf, "and I'll show you my wash-house." Not without a twinge of nervousness I too leaped and strode after him towards a dark passage. Just, however, as I was about to turn into it I caught sight, through a dungeon-like doorway, the iron door of which stood ajar, of a great chamber, dark as night, the floor of it ribbed with iron bars, like a monstrous gridiron, and cruelly suggestive of the Inquisition and the days of the rapacious Jews and the mild barons.
   "Ah," said my guide, politely retracing his way to where I stood; "that's a queer place, isn't it? Get inside!"
   I cannot lay claim to bravery through entering the horrid place, because, coming up behind, and being eager to show it, he pressed me forward and sheer on to the gridiron. The chamber, which still retained the scent of burning, was partly filled with crates and baskets.
   "This," said my guide, "is our furnace: the shaft you noticed when you were outside belongs to it. Everything we collect we are bound to get rid of, and, of course, among the rest, you can't help taking a lot of rubbish, such as worn-out oil-cloth, old bonnet-boxes, cocoa-nut matting, and that sort of thing, that can't possibly be worked in for any purpose. Unless we can find a shoot for it, there is nothing left but to destroy it by fire. This is how we do it. If you look through the grating you will see a hole beneath; well, in that hole we make a roaring coke fire. Now, if you look up you will see daylight coming through a loophole to the left; we have to go up stairs to get at that hole, which is fitted with a sliding-door of iron. There is shot the "light stuff," as we call it, which falls on the grating here, and is at once consumed, without putting the fire out, or even deadening it."
   Glad to escape from the furnace, I begged to be taken to the " wash-house." I cannot say it was a handsome place, or a place where a fastidious person would care to sojourn for a long period; but this I am bound to say: considering the quality of the goods to be operated on, and the limited space available for the operation, the rag-washing apparatus was as commodious as possible; the proprietor having no further interest therein than a laudable desire to prevent waste. Along one side of the chamber, and facing a window, were two enormous vats, capable of holding several gallons of water, and before one of the vats, and with its nose resting on the edge of it, was a powerful pump. Connecting this vat with the second was a spout, and the "washing" was managed by simply trundling a heap of the filthy rags into the first vat, and keeping them stirred, a man pumping the while, and the connecting spout in full action, till from inky blackness the water in the rag-tub gradually became clean, and then the rags were raked out, and wrung as dry as possible.
   Not dry enough, however, to be sorted or stacked away. A drying-room is required, and one is provided; an iron and brick chamber this was, with a floor of oven- tiles, and entirely fireproof. Round the walls were fixed close rows of wire "lines," on which to hang the wet rags; and overhead, suspended from the ceiling, was a screen of iron wire, on which to lay rags too small to hang on the lines; while here and there about the gloomy apartment were several immense braiers, such as are used by the layers of gas-mains in public thoroughfares. It was all very curious; but the air of the place seemed so heavy, everything was so terribly ashy-ashy rags, ashy bread, and ashy boots and bones-that I was anything but sorry when Mr. Scorch announced that he had nothing more to show me.