Dust and Dirt

Dust and dirt were an integral part of everyday life within the Victorian slum. We can explore how people related to it through a wide variety of sources, such as sanitary reports and depictions of the slum in literature and paintings. In these sources, ideas of middle-class domesticity and cleanliness are dominant, and it is clear that these ideas were challenged by the working-class slums. There was demand for reform from the middle class, while dust and dirt were often thought a necessary and unavoidable part of slums by the people who lived or worked in them. The demand from the middle class for change, alongside the emergence of investigative journalism, social surveys and investigations of living conditions by the likes of Edwin Chadwick and Charles Booth, all pressured the government into improving the slums. In addition, many people took it upon themselves to improve the slums, which lead to a rise in the popularity of philanthropy.

Although there was a demand from the middle class for reform, many of the people who inhabited the slums managed to endure the conditions and make the most of their situation through a number of different means. In some cases inhabitants made their living from the slum, for example by scavenging on dust heaps. This challenged middle class ideals and therefore gives us a different perspective on the campaign to improve conditions and to clear the slums . Whilst working class communities may not have not found the slums appealing, it was still part of their cultural background.

In the late nineteenth century, there were attempts to clean the slums and from the 1870s onward a number of Acts were initiated to rehouse those who lived within the slum.

Jenny Benson, Lewis Bly, Flow Fassih, Charles Keeley and Alisha Sana



(1)‘Homes of the Poor – would Labour representation alter them?’ The Birmingham Graphic (1883). Available Online: http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/diseased, Date Accessed: 14th October, 2015.

(2) The Dust-Heaps, Somers Town, in 1836. Illustration from Old and New London by Edward Walford (Cassell, c 1880), Available online: http://www.lookandlearn.com/history-images/M060930-88/The-Dust-Heaps-Somers-Town-in-1836?img=42953&search=English&bool=phrase, Date Accessed: 12th October,2015.

(3) A cluster of smallpox cases, c 1887, National Maritime Museum, Available online: http://www.portcities.org.uk/london/server/show/conMediaFile.1896/A-cluster-of-smallpox-cases.html, Date accessed: 1st December, 2015

(4) The Metropolitan Working Classes’ Association for Improving the Public Health, Bathing and Cleanliness (London: Hume Tracts, 1847).

(5) ‘Sir Edwin Chadwick’, Available Online: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/srs/our-services/academic-services/chadwick-trust, Date accessed: 2nd December, 2015.