Thursday, 30 April 2015


I wasn't sure about the concept of the BBC's 24 Hours in the Past at first. Watching celebrities complain about the frankly unpleasant nineteenth century tasks they had to undertake didn't sound very appealing. However, I was impressed by how realistic the scenes in the first episode were. Filmed at the wonderful Black Country Living Museum, episode 1 was set in a dust-yard where dust and other rubbish was sifted through to collect bones, rags and pieces of metal. 

'Removing Street Refuse' from Living London (circa 1901)
The street was covered with horse manure and the celebrities were expected to clean it up while looking out for valuable 'pure' which was mixed in. Zoe Lucker, quickly getting fed up with her shovel, got stuck in and used her bare hands to pick up the manure.

While this is shocking to the modern eye, for the lower working-classes it was simply a fact of life. 'Pure-finders' spent every working day picking up dog excrement to sell on for a premium to leather-dressers and tanners (it was used to soften the animal skins before the actual tanning could take place).

Upper-class Victorians who happened to witness this daily task were equally as shocked. An American, John Henry Sherburne, who visited England in 1847, wrote that on passing through the great thoroughfares of Liverpool, ‘the most disgusting sight’ to him ‘was seeing women and young girls employed in scraping up street manure with their naked hands, and placing it in baskets, or their aprons’. He concluded, ‘These scenes are so common, as not to be noticed by the citizens'.

'Sorting a Dust-heap at a County Council Depot' from Living London (circa 1901)
The dust-yard was the Victorian version of today's recycling factories. No landfill for them! Nothing was thrown away because every single thing had a value and could be re-used in different forms. Rags were sold to paper makers after washing; bones were used to make knife handles and ornaments, and the grease from them was a component of the soap-making process; coal and cinders were needed for brickmaking; while horse manure mixed with night-soil (human excrement) and hops made an excellent fertiliser.

This first episode of 24 Hours in the Past illustrated the back-breaking manual labour our working-class ancestors had to carry out on a daily basis for a pittance; they lived a stark hand to mouth existence - when there was no work, there was no pay and no food. We take so much for granted today and this episode was a timely reminder of that.

'A Crossing Sweeper' from Living London (circa 1901)

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