The Golden Dustmen of Dickens’ time

Dust heap Somers TownA central character in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (1865) is Nicodemus Boffin, nicknamed ‘The Golden Dustman ‘ because of the wealth he inherited from his old employer John Harmon, who had made his fortune as a Dust Contractor at Somers Town. These famous rubbish piles stood where the filthy Maiden’s Lane (now roughly York Way) joined onto Pentonville Road, near where Kings Cross station now stands. Here, just about anything could be found—‘dust ‘ was a Victorian euphemism; there was more likely to be dead dogs ,cats, horses, discarded pots and pans, crockery, shoes, boots, old clothes and all sorts of debris from the surface of roads, including grit, horse dung, dog dirt, as well as the human excrement collected by the scavengers. All this so called ‘dust’, once separated, could be sold to various factory owners for large profits. Dickens, who loved exploring London, once lived in Doughty Street, which is just a mile from the famous Somers Town dust heaps, and must have known them well. He also became friendly with a wealthy Dust Contractor from Islington called Henry Dodd who, at his death in 1881, left a fortune of £111,000. It has been argued that the character of Boffin was based on Dodd.
A contemporary sketch of the Somers Town site is dated 1836, but doubtless contractors had been adding to the muck heaps for many years up this date. Scavengers are depicted clambering over the filthy heaps in search of the more valuable items to sell on, a process that still takes place in some third world countries. It is interesting to find, therefore, a London Times classified advertisement of December 6th 1820, when Dickens was a boy of eight, requesting Dust Contractors to tender for a contract in Chelsea.

DISTRICT of HANS-TOWN, Chelsea, November, 1820. To DUSTMAN and SCAVENGERS. The Commissioners acting under the Hans Town Acts of Parliament, of 30th and 43rd Geo. 3 will meet at their Board Room at the Watch-house in Symons-street, Sloane Square , on Tuesday, 12th of December next, at 11 o’clock in the forenoon, to CONTRACT with such persons or persons who will be willing to COLLECT and carry away all the DUST, Ashes, Litter and Filth, from the several houses in the above district, being in number about 950, whenever it shall be required by any of the inhabitants, for one year from 18th of January next. Also to Fill and Cart Away the Road Scrapings during the same period; all to be done within the 24 hours after the same are scraped together, and slop carts, horses and necessary implements to be provided for that purpose. The proposals for which to be either together with, or separate from, the collection of dust and ashes. The proposals to be sealed up and addressed “Tender for Collecting Dust” or “Carting Road Sand” and left at the Clerk to the Commissioners, 77, Sloane-street, free of postage, on or before Monday 11th of December, after which no proposal will be received. Note, an Act of Parliament prohibits running dustmen from receiving dust and ashes within the said districts, and thereby secures the same to the contractors; the contractors will not be required to scrape together the road sand. None but principals will be treated with and they are required to attend the meeting prepared with the names of two sureties willing to enter into bond for the performance of the contract; each quarter’s instalment for the dust is to be paid in advance.

Incidentally, in 1820 Hans Town, a new development of large stuccoed houses named after collector and philanthropist Sir Hans Sloane, was still being built. It is a measure of the wealth of its residents, who Cobbett would have excoriated as ‘ stock-jobbers ‘ and ‘ tax-eaters ‘, that they could afford to pay a contractor to keep their exclusive enclave clean and tidy. Today, this grid of streets centred on Sloane Square is still one of the most exclusive and expensive parts of London. [RR]

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