The most disgusting job in Victorian London

Collecting dog dung for a living has to be about the most revolting job ever created. I’ve been re-reading the works of a Victorian Londoner called Henry Mayhew who, in 1851, published a book describing the appalling ways in which people were forced to make a living. The scraping of “Pure” (the slang word for dog excrement) from the streets has to be the worst.

Why on earth, you may reasonably ask, was dog dung referred to as “Pure” and what possessed anybody to go out and collect it? Well, it’s all to do with turning animal skins into leather. In the Victorian period, this would be done at a tannery. That would be a workshop where animal skins were delivered to be cleaned; the fat and hair scraped off and then fermented using dog or pigeon dung.

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Needless to say, tanneries stank. I mean, really reeked. And so they were normally placed out of the centres of town by the 19th century – though not always. The leather created using dog dung transformed goat and calf skins into book covers, gloves and other quality items. So, if you have a leather bound book from the Victorian era, I’m afraid dog dung may have been involved in its production.

The supply of dog poo was done by people called “Pure Finders”. The brown stuff was called “Pure” because it cleansed and purified the animal skins turning them into leather.

In 1851, Mayhew tells us that Pure Finders could make between eight and ten pennies per bucket – and maybe more if the quality was good. The highest price was for something described as the “dry-limy-looking sort”. That apparently had more alkaline and so reacted better with the animal skins to make good leather.

There was always a temptation to doctor the dung to make it look more “limy”. That was done by mixing a bit of mortar with it. I can’t imagine how that was done – actually I can but I’m trying not to!

A lucky Pure Finder might have an arrangement to regularly clean some kennels and could make ten to fifteen shillings a week – good pay in the 1850s. But most had to scour the streets picking up what they could find. Their income was pretty miserable – this was a job you did if you’d fallen on hard times.

A typical tannery in the south London district of Bermondsey might employ 300 to 500 tanners – and in addition, retain 20 or so Pure Finders. Many of the finders were struggling to keep out of the workhouse by doing any job on the streets that was available. Mayhew heard about one finder who was totally unaware up until he died that he was the beneficiary of a vast legacy of thousands of pounds. Lawyers even placed advertisements in the newspapers to find him.

Fittingly, this man’s name was Mr Brown – I’m not kidding.

Tony Robinson is a TV historian and presenter in the United Kingdom and a few years back, he broadcast a series on horrible jobs in history. Here is his episode on the Victorians!

An introduction to Victorian London slang

Have you ever wanted to talk like a Victorian Londoner – not a posh one, but a street kid with plenty of 19th century attitude? Well, I’m now going to teach you how to talk like a London urchin circa 1851. I’m using various sources but Mayhew’s London published that year is where I’ve picked up most of the terrible language that follows!

If I said you were flatch kanurd – I’d have meant you were half-drunk. I might also add that you’re kennetseeno – which means stinking, but it was a word normally applied to rotten fish. There could be a police officer passing by and I’d tell you to cool the esclop (look at the policeman).

“Cool the” or “Cool ta” seems to have been a way of saying “look at that” – so if I was getting you to stare at an old woman, I’d say: “Cool ta the dillo nemo”. Or just to say “look at him” would be “cool him”.

The word for NO was “On” and the word for YES was “Say” – that’s just reversing those words. Often saying words backwards or messing with the letter order was a way of talking to avoid being understood by the police or people outside your group.

If you were warning your mates that somebody was a bad sort, you’d call them a “regular trosseno”. They might then respond that they understood you – “tumble to your barrikin”.

Expressions for money were:

Flatch = halfpenny (remember, flatch kanurd is half drunk)

Yenep = Penny (messing round with letter order there)

Exis Yenep = Sixpence

Couter – Sovereign (big gold coin)

Flatch ynork = Half-Crown

Then to conclude, I might say I’m on to the deb (I’m off to bed) or I was going to do the tightner (go to dinner).

During the Victorian period, Londoners soaked up Jewish expressions from new immigrants, foreign words they came across on the docks and made up stuff. London slang is still evolving today incorporating Jamaican, Bengali and words from other languages. I was told this week by a Londoner that I was “on fleek” – turns out I’m dressed well. Good to know.

Here is a young Londoner today teaching an American girl slang!

Top movies about London from the last hundred years!

Since the dawn of cinema, London has featured over and again in the movies. It’s provided an inspiring backdrop to thrillers, comedies and dramas. Here’s a selection of films you may not have seen and the introduce different aspects of London. The styles are very varied – enjoy!

Frenzy (1972)

This was a late Alfred Hitchcock directed thriller with the master of suspense returning to his home city, London, to make this movie. It’s not his greatest work but I love it. Frenzy involves a series of murders committed in and around the fruit and vegetable market of Covent Garden. That area of London has now been gentrified and the market has gone. So, it’s a real period piece – and fascinating to watch.

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

London based Hammer Film Productions is best known for its horror movies often featuring Dracula or Frankenstein. But in 1967, it brought out a classic science fiction drama. Based on a BBC TV series, the main protagonist was the very fatherly Professor Bernard Quatermass. He is called to a London Underground station where a Martian space craft has been discovered. It’s millions of years old but has a grim secret, which it decides to share in a devastating manner.

Passport to Pimlico (1949)

This film was produced by the Ealing Studios – which created a series of “Ealing comedies” in the 1940s. In 1949, Britain was still reeling from the economic after shocks of the Second World War. A group of disgruntled working class residents in the Pimlico district find out they have ancient rights that allow them to proclaim independence from the rest of Britain – but the government has other ideas.

Clockwork Orange (1972)

Legendary film director Stanley Kubrick took us to a dystopian London where extreme youth thuggery is tackled by the government using psychological torture. The movie included scenes shot in Chelsea and the Thamesmead estate – a brutalist housing development. Clockwork Orange was massively controversial for years after its release.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law were teamed up to play Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes in this high octane rendition of the classic detective tale from the author Arthur Conan Doyle. As everybody knows, Sherlock lived in Baker Street and it’s a huge tourist draw today. The incisive detective has been portrayed in very different ways from the sedate to the manic. What I liked about this movie was the capturing of Victorian London including the construction of Tower Bridge in the background.

Queen Victoria and her love of narcotics!

This is your blog author appearing in the latest episode of Private Lives of the Monarchs on Yesterday TV/UKTV – looking at the secret life of Queen Victoria. She spent much of her time in our city of London at Buckingham Palace and Windsor but what was this seemingly respectable woman getting up to behind closed doors. You can catch the programme every Monday and Tuesday evening on Yesterday TV/UKTV.

The She Barkers of Cranbourne Alley

As you come out of Leicester Square towards Charing Cross Road and the Leicester Square tube station, you can cross over at the traffic lights and continue down Cranbourn Street. It’s a pretty innocuous street – very unmemorable. But two hundred years ago, it was the known as Cranbourne Alley and regarded as the “great bonnet mart of London”. If you were a lady, you’d go and buy your fashionable bonnet to adorn your head in Cranbourne Alley.

Bad bonnets not allowed in Cranbourn Alley!
Bad bonnets not allowed in Cranbourn Alley!

But god forbid, if the bonnet you were wearing as you walked down the street was unfashionable. Because you would be badgered by the She Barkers, women employed to harass ladies whose bonnets desperately needed replacing. If you think shop assistants can sometimes be pushy now, that’s nothing compared to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. As a book I have from the 1830s explains:

Woe used to betide the woman of the middle classes who passed through Cranbourne Alley with an unfashionable bonnet! It was immediately seen from one end of the place to the other and twenty barkers beset her, each in turn, as she walked forward, arresting her course by invitations to inspect the ware that was for sale within. Many a one has had her cloak or shawl torn from her back by these rival sisters of trade during their struggles to draw her within their den, each pulling a different way.

London Chinese restaurant honours two great Victorian artists!

If you’ve ever been to Wong kei in London’s Chinatown, you may have experienced the joy of being shouted at by the waiters – it had the reputation for years of being the rudest restaurant in London. I understand that as of last year, they’ve refurbished the place and decided to tone down the bad attitude – even though many punters paid to be treated badly. It was all part of the fun.

Wong Kei Chinese restaurant
Wong Kei Chinese restaurant

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But what has often caught my eye on going into Wong kei – and I haven’t dined there for at least ten years – are the plaques on either side of the main door. One commemorates Sarah Bernhardt laying the foundation stone of the building in 1904. And who, you might ask, was she?

Sarah was the leading actress in the late Victorian period. Born in Paris of a Dutch prostitute and unknown father, she briefly trained to be a nun before taking up acting. She was very aware of her public image and projected herself as mystical and unknowable. This extended to having some very odd pets including a boa constrictor and an alligator fed on milk and champagne (it died). When I first came across her story what struck me was the choice of resting place at night – Sara slept in a coffin, which she took with her on tour. When the great actress died, hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of Paris to bid her adieu.

The other plaque is to another legend of the same period, Sir Henry Irving. He laid the coping stone in 1905. Irving was both an actor and theatre manager – a very hands-on member of the acting fraternity. He had a close association with the Lyceum Theatre, near the Strand, which today has been hosting the Lion King for what seems like an eternity. Irving found a sound financial manger for the Lyceum in the form of a Dubliner called Bram Stoker.  Yes – THAT Bram Stoker! The creator of Dracula.

I’m not going into all the detail here but there’s a debate that has raged for a hundred years over whether Irving was the model for Dracula. The theory tends to emphasise a history of conflict between the two men with Stoker seething with hatred for the overbearing and evil Irving. The truth doesn’t quite bear that out – though they seem to have had stormy episodes, they co-operated for decades in running the Lyceum.

So why are these two plaques outside Wong kei? Well, the building originally opened as a theatrical costume shop in the heart of London’s bohemian Soho. Little could Bernhardt and Irving have known that the thespians would one day give way to scoffers of crispy duck noodles.

The terrifying London garroters of the 1860s

1862 saw a new crime trend hit the streets of London.  The criminals robbed well-to-do people while an accomplice gripped the victim by the throat from behind.  This outbreak of “garroting” horrified the great and the powerful – especially when a member of parliament fell victim. In 1863, an indignant Lord Norton demanded that the garroters should be flogged in prison and the measure was passed with ease.

London garroters in action!
London garroters in action!

In the century before, thieves and robbers could still be tied to a cart and whipped in public. But these garroters were punished in private at Newgate. Well, not entirely in private. Because wealthy folks could gain access to the room with the “whipping press” to watch the brutal action unfold. They just had to get a ticket from the sheriff and demand was high!

A journalist who attended one flogging described it:

We entered a long, low room, ignorant of furniture, except a sort of press, waist-high against one wall and a long deal table by the other. What I liken unto the press was the whipping apparatus with stocks for the prisoner’s feet and holdfasts for his hands. He stepped into this appartus and his feet were forthwith imprisoned. Extending his arms, he placed them in the crescent hollow of a plank before him, another plank was let down and his wrists were pinioned in rings.

Then a jailer picked up a whip with nine cords and knots at the end of each – the infamous cat o’nine tails! The first garroter led in to be punished was, according to the journalist, a “sullen, lumpish thick-skinned brute, with an evil forehead”. I’ll spare you the full description in the book before me (the Victorians loved to describe a good beating!) though it says the jailer “plied the scourge airily, as a fly-fisher would his line”. A nice angling motif!

Supporters of corporal punishment in prisons – which did continue well into the 20th century – claimed it stopped the garrotting epidemic in its tracks. But even at the end of the 19th century, looking back at this very odd crime, the Liberal Home Secretary Lord Asquith (1892-95) said the crime had already subsided before Norton brought his flogging measure to the House. This view was supported by another Home Secretary, Lord Ridley (1895-1900).

Still – the throttlers had given the rich a big scare – and they’d retaliated with the whip!

Before the London Eye – there was the Earls Court Wheel !!

Behold the Earls Court wheel – forerunner to the London Eye. For just over ten years – 1895 to 1906 – this dominated the skyline at Earls Court in west London. It was a hit with visitors to exhibitions at the nearby large events venue. In one book of photos I have from the turn of the 20th century, there is a hilarious and very Victorian description of the ride I have to share with you:IMG_0880

This gigantic wheel, which forms such a prominent object in the landscape anywhere west of London is extensively patronised by the public during the Exhibitions at Earl’s Court and it matters very little if it is an Indian or Colonial or South African exhibition, the big wheel always has its crowd of patrons who like to experience the exhilarating effects of an ascent into the air minus the dangers attending a balloon and the probability of making an ascent rather higher than they had originally intended and the improbability of landing on the earth again in such a perfect condition. This slowly revolving wheel takes you up to a good height, from which you have a splendid view of bricks and mortar below you; and there is just that touch of danger which always gives piquancy to pleasure, that perhaps it may stop, and refuse to go on, and its patrons may have to be fed on buns and soda water by venturesome sailors until the machinery once more gets into working order and you slowly descend to your despairing relatives and expectant friends with tumultuous applause and you feel proudly conscious of something attempted and (thank goodness) something done.