Living Off the Slum- Charles Keeley

One way the working class challenged middle class ideas of cleanliness and domesticity was in the way they successfully lived and made their livelihood in the slums. An example of this is the men, women, and children who worked on the giant dust heaps that could be found in the slums. The dust and rubbish that made the dust heaps came primarily from the residuum of fires people had in their houses. It was feared that if the ashes and cinders the fires produced was allowed to remain scattered, it would render all the streets of London impassable. To combat this the Officers of the various parishes entered into an agreement with ‘dust contractors’ to empty the ‘dustbins’. They were usually a person of considerable wealth, as they had to have all the necessary equipment- including horses, baskets, and a plot of waste ground to deposit the refuse.[1]

The Dust-Heaps, Somers Town, in 1836
Dust-Heaps, Somers Town, 1836, in Old and New London, 1880 (2)

This image of the dust heaps in Somers Town, London, was originally published in Old and New London (1880) by Edward Wolford, however the image itself depicts an earlier scene dated 1836. The image shows dust heaps, which could be found all round London, created mainly by the enormous consumption of coal in London during the nineteenth century. The dust heaps consisted mainly of ‘soil’ or fine dust, ‘brieze’ or cinders, and a number of other waste items including rags, bones, and old metals.[3] The focus of the image, however, is the people that can be seen working on the dust heaps. Many working class men and women made their living from the dust and refuse that made the dust heaps.  The men who collected and transported the dust became known as ‘dustmen’, and those that sorted through the dust heaps for materials they could sell were known as ‘sifters’ or ‘scavengers’.

Sketch taken on the spot of ‘sifters’, in London Labour and The London Poor (4)

The ‘sifters’ or ‘scavengers’ were mainly women, children, and old men, who spent their days on the dust heaps with a sieve separating the ‘brieze’ from the ‘soil’.This was so they could sell ‘soil’ and ‘ to brick-makers for making bricks and to farmers for manure. The Brieze could then be sold to brick-makers for burning bricks.[5] Henry Mayhew (1812-1887) was an investigative journalist who wrote about the conditions and the inhabitants of the slums, in his book series London Labour and the London Poor he described the “curious sight” of the sifters at work.

They were almost up to their middle in dust…in front of that part of the heap which was being ‘worked;’ each had before her a small mound of soil which had fallen through her sieve… The appearance of the entire group at their work was most peculiar.”[6]

Mayhew’s description of the sifters shows how the idea of making a livelihood on the dust heaps was strange to the middle classes, due to their ideas of sanitation and cleanliness. Sifters lives were not easy, the conditions on the dust heaps were terrible and they were only paid 1s. per day when employed. However the employment was not constant; the work could not be accomplished in the rain, and the sifters were only required when a large heap had accumulated as they could sift much faster than the dust could be collected.[7]

dustman cropped
The London Dustman- Dust Ho! Dust Ho! (8)

The ‘dustmen’ were the men who collected and transported the dust from the dustbins outside people’s homes to the dust heaps. The dustmen would go down the streets in a heavily-built box cart shouting “Dust Ho!” to announce their approach, and would fill their baskets with the dust from the dustbins and discharge it into the cart.  Dustmen who collected five loads in a day could earn 8d per load. Henry Mayhew reported that the dustmen were mostly illiterate, claiming that in one yard of twenty dustmen only five could read, and two out of those five could write.[9] He also claimed that at least half of the dustman’s earnings was spent on alcohol. However not all the dustmen were like this, Mayhew interviewed a dustman who was a prudent, well-behaved man, who kept himself distant from the drunkenness and dissipation of the dustmen. As it was for the sifters, the life of a dustman was hard. This can be seen by the fact that if a dust man became ill or injured and was completely incapable of labour, due to there being no ‘society’ or union their refuge was the workhouse, which was seen as an asylum and a resting place in their old-age.[10]

Writers at the time, including Charles Dickens, noticed the value of dust heaps to the working class. The article ‘Dust; or Ugliness Redeemed’ by Richard. H. Horne was published in Dickens’s journal Household Worlds in 1850. The article describes the ‘Great Dust Heap’ in London, which had just been removed to make room for the building of King’s Cross Station.

A huge Dust-heap of dirty black colour- being, in fact, one of those immense mounds of cinders, ashes and other emptyings from dust-holes and bins…. A Dust-heap of this kind is often worth thousands of pounds… It was in fact a large hill, and being in the vicinity of small suburb cottages, it rose above them like a great black mountain…. The Searchers and Sorters, who are assembled below to busy themselves upon the mass of original matters which are shot out from the carts of the dustmen.[11]

Dust heap KC
‘Great Dust-Heap at Kings Cross’ by E. H. Dixon, 1837 (12)


The image of the Great Dust Heap shows the monstrous size a dust heap was able to reach, and therefore also shows the amount of ‘dust and dirt’ that was present in the slums. The way in which the working class were able to make use of this shows how they were able to challenge the middle class ideas of cleanliness. Journalists and writers at the time, such as George R. Sims and James P. Kay, commented on the terrible conditions of the slums. The ability of the working class to turn the abundance of dust and dirt in the slums, which was one of its greatest problems, into an economic asset shows how they challenged middle class ideas of cleanliness and domesticity. [13]

Charles Keeley


[1] Mayhew, H., London Labour and the London Poor. Vol. 2, The London Street Folk (continued), 1861-1862, (New York; London: Dover Publications; Constable, 1968) p. 166

[2] The Dust-Heaps, Somers Town, in 1836. Illustration from Old and New London by Edward Walford (Cassell, c 1880), Available Online:, Date Accessed: 12th October,2015.

[3] Mayhew., London Labour and the London Poor, p. 171

[4] View of a Dust-Yard, in Mayhew London Labour and the London Poor, Available online: , Date Accessed: 28th November, 2015

[5] Mayhew., London Labour and the London Poor, p.171

[6] Mayhew., London Labour and the London Poor, p.171

[7] Mayhew., London Labour and the London Poor, p.173

[8] The London Dustman, in Mayhew London Labour and the London Poor, Available online:, Date Accessed: 28th November, 2015

[9] Mayhew., London Labour and the London Poor, p.176

[10] Mayhew., London Labour and the London Poor, p.177

[11] Horne, R., ‘Dust; or Ugliness Redeemed’, Household Worlds, vol. 1, (1850), Available online:

[12] The Great Dust-Heap, by E. H. Dixon, 1837, Available online:, Date Accessed: 12th October, 2015

[13] Sims, G., ‘How the Poor Live’, in Donovan, S., Rubery, M., Secret Commissions: an anthology of Victorian investigative journalism, (Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2012), p.151, Kay, J., The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Class in England, in, Poovey, M., ‘Representing the Manchester Irish, in, Boyd, K., McWilliam, R., The Victorian Studies Reader, (London: Routledge, 2007), p.140


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