The Penguin Classics edition of excerpts from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor includes some illustrations from the original books. Volume I was devoted to street sellers, while Volume II takes up some of the other occupations we know from the Victorian novelists: mudlarks, chimney sweeps, crossing sweepers and dust-yard workers.
The prosperous dustman is an important character is Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. A fortune could be made from dust, and Mayhew explains how it is done. A dust contractor gets a contract with a parish to haul away its dust, mostly the residue from the thousands of coal fires. The dust is carted to a dustyard, where it is sifted, so that the particulate matter can be sold for enriching soil and making bricks. Men shovel the dust to women who wield great sieves, as shown in the illustration.
In a dust-yard lately visited the sifters formed a curious sight; they were almost up to their middle in dust, ranged in a semi-circle in front of that part of the heap which was being worked; each had before her a small mound of soil which had fullen through her sieve and formed a sort of embankment, behind which she stood…. Their coarse dirty cotton gowns were tucked up behind them…; over their gowns they wore a strong leathern apron, extending from their necks to the extremities of their petticoats…. In the process of their work they pushed the sieve from them and drew it back again with apparent violence, striking it against the outer leathern apron with such force that it produced each time a hollow sound, like a blow on the tenor drum.
The workers begin as children, since even small children can retrieve items from the dust. They continue in the life as adults because that is all they know. They are poorly paid, but they value the work because it is “steady,” unlike selling on the street.
Mayhew has really been there and seen how it was done. His descriptions of the other occupations and interviews with the workers are similarly concrete, whether of mudlarks searching for items in the Thamses mud or chimney sweepers visiting the public baths — some daily, some weekly, and some not at all.