Thursday, December 16, 2010

London's dustmen

Thursday, December 16, 2010
Loretta reports:

Following up on my blog about ticket porters

Another figure on the London streets was the dustman.  We still have refuse collectors today, of course—but unlike those of old London, they don't pay for the honor.  And while the U.S. seems to be slowly catching on to recycling, we have a ways to go before we get to the Absolutely-Nothing-Wasted approach of our ancestors.

The 17th century’s dire bouts of plague led London in 1670 to set up a “regular body of scavengers, and dustmen, the former to sweep the open streets, and cart away the filth, and stagnant dirt; and the latter, to collect from door to door such waste materials as composed the dunghills.” 

Originally, these contractors were paid for their work.  Before long, though, the commissioners saw their error:  “Time has brought to light, that industry, aided by experiment, can turn everything to advantage, and that rubbish and filth, the former pests of the city, are now become a source of utility and wealth. The people who perform the duties of scavenger, and dustman, now pay a sum of money for the contract, and for being allowed the exclusive privilege of carting away the rubbish.

“Amongst other advantages which the public experience from this custom, must be mentioned, that it furnishes the means of an honest livelihood for a great number of men and women, of the lowest order, who are employed in separating the different materials, which are heaped together upon the dust hills.  The sea-coal cinders are picked out and sifted; the largest are sold to the brick-makers to burn in their kilns; the siftings are used as a manure.  The rags are picked out and sorted for making various sorts of paper.  The bones are reserved for making ivory black, and various other purposes; and the residue of the rubbish is used for manure, for mending the roads, or is applied to some useful occasion.”

Excerpts and illustration are from the hard-to-find Pyne’s British Costume, originally published in 1805 as The Costume of Great Britain.

If you have any doubts about the business’s profitability, look into Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, in which a dustman and his dust heaps play leading roles.


Rachael Hale said...

Just found you via twitter, great post and really interesting site. I will be back. :)

Charles Bazalgette said...

This is in contrast with Old Manhattan, where pigs ran loose and dealt with the garbage until at least 1825.

"In 1822 Franklin Market at the foot of William Street (Old Slip) was erected and opened. Hogs were permitted still to run at large in the streets although the practice was objected to by most of the citizens and the frequent mortifying references thereto of Boston and Philadelphia editors added to the opposition; yet the common opinion was that the hogs were the best scavengers was supported for many years after the indifference to the practice shown by the Common Council. In support of this inaction it is to be considered that at this period all garbage and refuse matter from dwellings was thrown into the street. Some years after 1825 an ordinance of the Common Council authorized the furnishing and equipment of a cart and operators to arrest swine in the streets. The advent of the cart and the endeavor to arrest the swine were attended with such forcible opposition by men and boys that the ordinance necessarily became a dead letter until the amour propre of our citizens despite the unpopularity of the cart was aroused; the enormity of the practice was realized and swine were removed from the streets."

[Reminiscences of an Octogenerian of the city of New York (1816-1860) by Charles Haynes Haswell]

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating, and reminds me of that 1960s Lonnie Donegan song "My old man's a dustman."

Alexa Adams said...

Ah Alfred P. Doolittle. I understand you at last.

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