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I’m demonstrating how sifters sift the dust.

At the November gathering of the Dickens Fellowship in Philadelphia, I gave a talk on one of the main motifs of Our Mutual Friend—dust. Most of this “dust” consisted of ashes and cinders from coal fires, also the source of the famous London fog (actually smog). In the 1850s each London household burned an estimated average of 11 tons of coal a year.

Localities arranged for dust-contractors to haul away the contents of household dustbins, leading to huge dust heaps rising like volcanic mountains on the city’s outskirts. Profits from the heaps made the contractors wealthy. How do you get rich from trash? Almost every item collected from the city’s dustbins—the ashes and cinders, along with other household refuse–marrow bones, cabbage stalks, worn-out shoes, crumpled paper, dirty rags, and the like—was sold and put to use. Nothing went to waste.


A dust heap at King’s Cross

Two-man teams, each equipped with horse, cart, ladder, shovels, and baskets, went house to house, calling “Dust oh-ey,” to alert the household. The filler shoveled the dustbin’s contents into his basket. The carrier brought the full baskets to the cart and dumped them. Once their cart was full, they headed for one of the dust-yards to “shoot” their load onto the heap.


Flying Dustmen

Householders usually arranged for the dustmen to come by once a week. What if a householder or servant failed to heed the dustman’s cry? No fear. The flying, or running, dustmen to the rescue.

These chaps ran their own independent, somewhat shady, business. They’d offer to clean out the house’s dustbins, for which they expected a good tip. If the tip wasn’t to their liking, they were apt to drag their muddy boots along the carpet or smear the wallpaper with slime. Once their cart was full, they sifted through the dust for whatever of value they could find. Unlike the large contractors, they had no way of disposing of the ashes and cinders that made up the bulk of their cargo. So they’d wait until dark, drive out to some deserted road, open the back of the cart and let its contents spill out as they drove along.

At the yard, the dustmen’s wives and children processed the dust. A woman, usually, called a hillwoman, supervised operations. When a sifter, a woman aged 16 to 60+, held out her sieve and shouted, “Sarve!” a teenage boy, called a filler-in, tossed in a shovelful of dust from the heap. Each woman rapidly sorted the contents of her sieve, flinging marrow bones, worn-out shoes, bits of coal, crumpled paper, dirty rags, cabbage leaves, sometimes, if she was lucky, a dead cat into baskets. Then, giving the sieve a strong shake, she let the fine ashes, or soil, sift through, leaving only the cinders, or breeze, to dump into another basket, which the children carried off.

Small children helped their mothers sort. As soon as they were strong enough to carry a basket across the yard, they were paid a few pence a day. Despite the dire warnings in the press, the dustmen,  the sifters, and their children were a healthy lot. The smell didn’t bother them, they claimed. They rarely got sick. Neither the plague nor cholera seems to have touched them.


Children grew up into the business.

The contractor who owned the yard sold the soil and cinders to brickmakers and farmers. Mixed with clay, soil made fine bricks. Spread on fields, it made good fertilizer. Brickmakers used cinders to burn bricks. Other found items belonged to the hillwoman. Any rags, bones, or metal, for example, she sold to marine store dealers, old boots and shoes to manufacturers of a pigment called Prussian-blue. Tin objects, such as kettles, went to trunk makers, who used them to make clamps. Valuables like jewelry and coins were supposedly sold and the money shared between the hillwoman and the workers. Usually, however, despite the threat of immediate dismissal, a worker who found a valuable item quietly pocketed it.

Other Victorian scavengers included mudlarks, who searched the muddy shores of the Thames for coal from barges, rope, wood chips and the like, and dredgermen who searched the river for debris, including corpses. Many old woman were pure-finders, scavengers who collected pure, or dog dung, to sell to leather tanners. It was good for purifying hides, hence the name.

Something for dog owners to think about when they scoop poop. Victorians could find a use for anything.