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?


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