The following is a reproduction of an article by Richard Henry Horner published in Charles Dickens’s own magazine Household Words,, entitled Dust: Or, Ugliness Redeemed. Appearing in July 1850, the work provides a good insight into the the lucrative dust heaps that appeared on the fringes of London in Victorian times. Horner, a friend of Dickens, was given a position as a sub-editor on the weekly magazine.
The dust heaps form part of the story of Charles Dickens Our Mutual Friend, writen from 1864–65. Horner’s article contains a number of situations and characters that are found in the novel. These include a dust heap, in which a legacy lies buried, a man with a wooden leg, who has an acute interest in the dust heap, Silas Wegg, and another character, Jenny Wren, with “poor withered legs”.
OR UGLINESS REDEEMED.
ON a murky morning in November, wind north-east, a poor old woman with a wooden leg was seen struggling against the fitful gusts of the bitter breeze, along a stony zigzag road full of deep and irregular cart-ruts. Her ragged petticoat was blue, and so was her wretched nose. A stick was in her left hand, which assisted her to dig and hobble her way along; and in her other hand, supported also beneath her withered arm, was a large rusty iron sieve. Dust and fine ashes filled up all the wrinkles in her face; and of these there were a prodigious number, for she was eighty-three years old. Her name was Peg Dotting.
About a quarter of a mile distant, having a long ditch and a broken-down fence as a foreground, there rose against the muddled-grey sky, a huge Dust-heap of a dirty black colour,––being, in fact, one of those immense mounds of cinders, ashes, and other emptyings from dust-holes and bins, which have conferred celebrity on certain suburban neighbourhoods of a great city. Towards this dusky mountain old Peg Dotting was now making her way.
Advancing towards the Dust-heap by an opposite path, very narrow and just reclaimed from the mud by a thick layer of freshly broken flints, there came at the same time Gaffer Doubleyear, with his bone-bag slung over his shoulder. The rags of his coat fluttered in the east-wind, which also whistled keenly round his almost rimless hat, and troubled his one eye. The other eye, having met with an accident, last week, he had covered neatly with an oyster-shell, which was kept in its place by a string at each side, fastened through a hole. He used no staff to help him along, though his body was nearly bent double, so that his face was constantly turned to the earth, like that of a four-footed creature. He was ninety-seven years of age. As these two patriarchal labourers approached the great Dust-heap, a discordant voice hallooed to them from the top of a broken wall. It was meant as a greeting of the morning, and proceeded from little Jem Clinker, a poor deformed lad whose back had been broken when a child. His nose and chin were much too large for the rest of his face, and he had lost nearly all his teeth from premature decay. But he had an eye gleaming with intelligence and life, and an expression at once patient and hopeful. He had balanced his misshapen frame on the top of the old wall, over which one shrivelled leg dangled, as if by the weight of a hob-nailed boot that covered a foot large enough for a plough-man.
In addition to his first morning’s salutation of his two aged friends, he now shouted out in a tone of triumph and self-gratulation, in which he felt assured of their sympathy–– “Two white skins, and a tor’shell-un.”
It may be requisite to state that little Jem Clinker belonged to the dead-cat department of the Dust-heap, and now announced that a prize of three skins, in superior condition, had rewarded him for being first in the field. He was enjoying a seat on the wall in order to recover himself from the excitement of his good fortune.
At the base of the great Dust-heap the two old people now met their young friend— a sort of great-grandson by mutual adoption ––and they at once joined the party who had by this time assembled as usual, and were already busy at their several occupations.
But besides all these, another individual, belonging to a very different class, formed a part of the scene, though appearing only on its outskirts. A canal ran along at the rear of the Dust-heap, and on the banks of its opposite side slowly wandered by––with hands clasped and hanging down in front of him, and eyes bent vacantly upon his hands––the forlorn figure of a man in a very shabby great-coat, which had evidently once belonged to one in the position of a gentleman. And to a gentleman it still belonged––but in what a position? A scholar, a man of wit, of high sentiment, of refinement, and a good fortune withal––now by a sudden ” turn of law ” bereft of the last only, and finding that none of the rest, for which (having his fortune) he had been so much admired, enabled him to gain a livelihood. His title-deeds had been lost or stolen, and so he was bereft of everything he possessed. He had talents, and such as would have been profitably available had he known how to use them for this new purpose; but he did not; he was misdirected; he made fruitless efforts, in his want of experience; and he was now starving. As he passed the great Dust-heap, he gave one vague, melancholy gaze that way, and then looked wistfully into the canal. And he continued to look into the canal as he slowly moved along, till he was out of sight.
A Dust-heap of this kind is often worth thousands of pounds. The present one was very large and very valuable. 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. Thistles, groundsel, and rank grass grew in knots on small parts which had remained for a long time undisturbed; crows often alighted on its top, and seemed to put on their spectacles and become very busy and serious; flocks of sparrows often made predatory descents upon it; an old goose and gander might sometimes be seen following each other up its side, nearly mid-way; pigs routed round its base,––and, now and then, one bolder than the rest would venture some way up, attracted by the mixed odours of some hidden marrow-bone enveloped in a decayed cabbage-leaf—a rare event, both of these articles being unusual oversights of the Searchers below.
The principal ingredient of all these Dust-heaps is fine cinders and ashes; but as they are accumulated from the contents of all the dust-holes and bins of the vicinity, and as many more as possible, the fresh arrivals in their original state present very heterogeneous materials. We cannot better describe them, than by presenting a brief sketch of the different departments of 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. The bits of coal, the pretty numerous results of accident and servants’ carelessness, are picked out, to be sold forthwith; the largest and best of the cinders are also selected, by another party, who sell them to laundresses, or to braziers (for whose purposes coke would not do so well); and the next sort of cinders, called the breeze, because it is left after the wind has blown the finer cinders through an upright sieve, is sold to the brick-makers.
Two other departments, called the “soft-ware ” and the ” hard-ware,” are very important. The former includes all vegetable find animal matters––everything that will decompose. These are selected and bagged at once, and carried off as soon as possible, to be sold as manure for ploughed land, wheat, barley, &c. Under this head, also, the dead cats are comprised. They are, generally, the perquisites of the women searchers. Dealers come to the wharf, or dust-field, every evening; they give sixpence for a white cat, fourpence for a coloured cat, and for a black one according to her quality. The ” hard-ware” includes all broken pottery,––pans, crockery, earthenware, oyster-shells, &c., which are sold to make new roads.
“The bones ” are selected with care, and sold to the soap-boiler. He boils out the fat and marrow first, for special use, and the bones are then crushed and sold for manure.
Of ” rags,” the woollen rags are bagged and sent off for hop-manure; the white linen rags are washed, and sold to make paper, &c.
The “tin things” are collected and put into an oven with a grating at the bottom, so that the solder which unites the parts melts, and runs through into a receiver. This is sold separately; the detached pieces of tin are then sold to be melted up with old iron, &c.
Bits of old brass, lead, &c., are sold to be melted up separately, or in the mixture of ores.
All broken glass vessels, as cruets, mustard-pots, tumblers, wine-glasses, bottles, &c., are sold to the old-glass shops.
As for any articles of jewellery,—silver spoons, forks, thimbles, or other plate and valuables, they are pocketed off-hand by the first finder. Coins of gold and silver are often found, and many ” coppers.”
Meantime, everybody is hard at work near the base of the great Dust-heap. A certain number of cart-loads having been raked and searched for all the different things just described, the whole of it now undergoes the process of sifting. The men throw up the stuff, and the women sift it.
“When I was a young girl,” said Peg Dotting––
“That’s a long while ago, Peggy,” interrupted one of the sifters: but Peg did not hear her.
“When I was quite a young thing,” continued she, addressing old John Doubleyear, who threw up the dust into her sieve, “it was the fashion to wear pink roses in the shoes, as bright as that morsel of ribbon Sally has just picked out of the dust; yes, and sometimes in the hair, too, on one side of the head, to set off the white powder and salve-stuff. I never wore one of these head-dresses myself––don’t throw up the dust so high, John–– but I lived only a few doors lower down from those as did. Don’t throw up the dust so high, I tell ‘ee—the wind takes it into my face.”
“Ah! There! What’s that? ” suddenly exclaimed little Jem, running, as fast as his poor withered legs would allow him, towards a fresh heap, which had just been shot down on the wharf from a dustman’s cart. He made a dive and a search––then another––then one deeper still. ” I ‘m sure I saw it!” cried he, and again made a dash with both hands into a fresh place, and began to distribute the ashes and dust and rubbish on every side, to the great merriment of all the rest.
“What did you see