The Wellcome Collection can always be relied upon for a quality dose of Victorian history. On my previous visit in 2009 to the Exquisite Bodies show I got to observe models of patients ravaged by syphilis pustules and circus freak portraits. ‘Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life’ isn’t as sensationalist as Exquisite Bodies yet it still triumphs in capturing the imagination and makes one feel glad to be living in 2011.
The Victorian era really excites me perhaps because although it is distant from us in culture and in the kind of lifestyles people lead it isn’t inconceivably far removed in time. My ancestors in the not too distant past were Victorians. They might have been slum dwellers living in overcrowded housing. Perhaps they led a hand-to-mouth existence in the workhouse or the gutter.
Life for poor Victorians was very hard and people who couldn’t look after themselves or their family would have been forced to live in the miserable, dehumanising workhouse. I was fascinated to learn about different kinds of people in Victorian England who subsisted on the waste economy to earn their crust, such as mudlarks who combed the Thames foreshore for stray coals to resell.
Scavengers were employed directly by the parish to keep the streets clean. Orphan children such as Joe in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House would have had no support but could earn tips from keeping a road crossing clear of muck. And there were yet more job titles for sweepers of one sort or another: chimney sweep; sweeper out; street orderly. Conclusion: the Victorian era was very dusty.
Most fascinating to learn about was the great dustheap by Kings Cross station. It was an enormous mound of dust brought in by the cartload to be resold for brick making. Man, horse, and cart would drive to the summit of the mound and offload the dust at the top. It much have been terribly damaging to the lungs of anyone permanently working on site as the air would have been thick with pollution and waste aggregate particles.
Out of poverty and necessity the Victorians were model recyclers. In their day glass bottles would always have been refilled and reused and paper would have been sparingly. Recycling was a fact of life; a necessity and not a conscious act that local authorities had to encourage or enforce. In their day one man’s trash was truly another man’s treasure.
Does anyone else find it fascinating to think that out of necessity (more expensive resources and landfill charges) we’re making a return to centuries-past recycling habits? Is there anything you think we could learn from the Victorians’ waste management habits?
The fate of the Heygate Estate, Elephant and Castle, was sealed in 1997 when Blair gave a landmark speech at nearby Aylesbury Estate, offering his assurances that Labour would deliver renewed hope and prosperity to its supposedly miserable inhabitants, whose social and economic disadvantage had given them the misfortune to live on London’s archetypal sink Estate.
From the moment of his speech all the Elephant estates became locked together in the public consciousness as dangerous, even lawless. The die was cast: the Heygate was to be knocked down and the area redeveloped with a public plaza and tram system. Meanwhile, Southwark Council began rehousing the residents of the Heygate further out in the borough than the conveniently situated Elephant, and where possible, pursued an agenda of persuading residents to replace their secure council tenancies with less predictable housing association contracts, in developments with colourful facades.
My bus journey to school took me past the long flank of the Heygate where the imposingly brutalist architecture of grey concrete and angular walkways as it appears immediately after the Elephant roundabout etched forbiddance in my mind, and until recently I took pains to avoid it. After 25 years I ventured into the estate to be struck with an enormous sense of waste, and a dispelled sense of fear.
Only a few residents remain in the boarded up estate as they hold out for reasonable offers from Southwark Council for their properties. One resident I spoke with was offered just £160,000 for his 3-bedroom maisonette; surely no equivalent, centrally-located property can be purchased for this negligible sum?
The Heygate is made up of a series of blocks facing each other with large inner courtyards, gardens, and communal greens in a totally unexpected, urban location. The longer the council tarries with its demolition, the more time nature has to reclaim the overgrown, once tended gardens, now filled with weeds.
I spoke with a team of guerrilla gardeners who have squatted vegetable plots in abandoned gardens for as long as it takes for Southwark Council to enforce evictions from the estate and start to demolish Heygate Estate. One gardener, Jen Jen who has waited for 16 years for an allotment in the borough has a modest, well-tended plot from which she hopes to harvest potatoes.
Elsewhere there was a troupe of free-runners practicing on what must be one of the most extraordinary sites in the city. This strange, abandoned landscape has been reclaimed.
Struck by an enormous sense of waste, I looked up at hundreds of abandoned satellite dishes. A staggering amount of concrete will be pulled down to leave a big hole in the Elephant, until yuppie flats and Starbucks move in. To demolish 40-year old buildings that are structurally sound and house thousands of people is criminal for climate and offers no solution to the estate’s supposed social problems.
London Councils think the solution to social problems is to knock down, rebuild, and disperse council tenants. Yet without investment in these communities the problems are merely being shifted elsewhere. Investment and proper maintenance would have brought decency and respect to the Heygate . But then perhaps it was already there, only I didn’t take the trouble to venture past the façade.