Matter Out of Place

This piece on the Wellcome Collection’s Dirt exhibition appeared in the Telegraph.

In the annals of Victorian filth – real dirt, that is, not just moral or metaphorical – there are few scenes more alarming or vile than the one that opens Charles Dickens’s 1865 novel Our Mutual Friend.

We are in “a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance” on the Thames, with Gaffer Hexam and his daughter Lizzie, scavenging for dead bodies. Hexam is so much a part of the putrid river he plies that he appears, Dickens tells us, to be actually dressed in mud. He is watching the ooze and slime on the river’s surface, and Lizzie is watching his face: “In the intensity of her look there was a touch of dread or horror.”

At last they find what they are looking for: a corpse that Hexam relieves of money and tows to shore. Lizzie shudders at their grisly catch, but her father puts her disgust in perspective: “As if it wasn’t meat and drink to you!”

Dickens based his portrait of London’s lowliest scavengers on contemporary journalistic accounts. In July 1850 in his own magazine Household Words, there appeared an article by R H Horne entitled “Dust, or Ugliness Redeemed” describing the extraordinary dust heap that then rose above London’s Euston Road.

Today that thoroughfare is home to the rather more pristine Wellcome Collection, where an ambitious and frequently revolting new exhibition Dirt: the Filthy Reality of Everyday Life features a watercolour depicting an earlier dust heap at King’s Cross. The stinking mound looks less like a single mountain than a small range: a couple of horse-drawn carts are moving up the grey valley at its centre.

The Euston Road heap was a veritable hill, composed largely of ash and cinders, but these generously intermixed with rotting vegetable matter, bones and scraps of meat, whole animal carcases (especially prized by the unfortunates who picked among the rubbish for a living), rags, bits of metal, glass, and the occasional misplaced article of jewellery. The “black mountain”, writes Horne, was teeming with scavengers devoted to its varied treasures, from lumps of coal to dead cats.

A compelling survey on the theme of dirt and its management, the Wellcome exhibition reminds us that such scenes are not as distant, historically or culturally, as we might hope. Even modern London depends economically on individuals willing to carry out tasks at which most of us would blanch or retch. (Think of the ceaseless job of clearing congealed fat from the city’s sewers.) And many millions of people worldwide live in proximity to watercourses scarcely less disgusting than the Thames was in the mid-19th century.

The exhibits at the Wellcome – they include images of urban filth past and present, early drawings of bacteria, Joseph Lister’s scientific equipment, as well as modern and contemporary artworks on the subjects of dust and hygiene – attest to a simple but profound fact about dirt: it is never very far away, but the precise distance is essential to our sense of ourselves and our sophistication.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas famously claimed that dirt was “matter out of place” – it is as much a cultural convention as an inconvenient material reality. On the evidence of the exhibition, the definition of what is “dirty” has certainly altered much in the past few centuries and varied from one culture to another.

As the geographer Rosie Cox notes in the exhibition catalogue, regular dusting, sweeping and washing of domestic floors only became widespread in the 18th century. Carpets and curtains would have been cleaned far less frequently, if at all. (There were exceptions: the housekeeping manual of one Susanna Whatman, wife of a Kentish mill owner late in the century, required of her servants that they beat and “whisk” hangings and floorings every Saturday.)

The English and Dutch were at this time considered especially assiduous when it came to washing and dusting, but Scots had a reputation for grubby or noisome laxity. John Loveday, writing in 1732, claimed they failed to empty their chamber pots until they were full to the brim.

Dirt is divided into six sections, including displays on Joseph Lister’s work at Glasgow Royal Infirmary in the 1860s, and the Hygiene Museum in Dresden that was founded in 1911 and later appropriated by the Nazis for a more sinister vision of cultural cleansing.

Seventeenth-century Holland provides the earliest example of a culture of dirt management; in Pieter de Hooch’s painting A Mother’s Duty, a woman delouses her child’s hair among reminders of Dutch hygiene: well swept tiles and an open window. In the second section, devoted to Victorian London, fresh air itself is key to the story. This section is organised around the physician John Snow’s efforts to prove that the cholera that regularly blighted the city during the midcentury was waterborne and not, as was stubbornly believed, a product of bad air or a noxious “miasma”.

The latter theory, then applied to all manner of ailments, made sense in a city cut through and cursed by a river of such foulness that in 1858 a “Great Stink” caused rail passengers to vomit on alighting at London Bridge and necessitated the temporary closure of the Palace of Westminster.

But cholera was, in fact, then as now, caused by the contamination of drinking water by human waste – the stench of the Thames was merely further evidence of the extent to which filth threatened Londoners’ health.

When cholera hit Soho late in August of 1854, Snow had already long suspected that drinking water was the culprit and he used the new outbreak to prove his theory. More than 700 people died in just two weeks and the deaths described a pattern around a pump at Broad Street from which locals drank.

At the Wellcome, one can see the map Snow used to trace the progress of the outbreak and convince local authorities to remove the handle from the pump.

Snow’s is an instructive tale regarding the progress of epidemiology and the tenacity of received wisdom, but it’s also a startling reminder of how much ordure a city such as London could not dispose of – there were reports of cellars three-feet deep, and a heap of human dung in Spitalfields “the size of a tolerably large house”.

The history of cities, the Wellcome show attests, is to a large extent the history of how to deal with dirt. The narrative of the Victorians’ protracted wrangling with the problem – and sewage was only the start: there remained the matter of household rubbish and the overcrowding of the city’s cemeteries – now amazes by the sheer visibility of filth.

But as another section of the exhibition devoted to the slums of New Delhi shows, millions still live without the basic sanitation that would obviate the risk of cholera or the more prevalent and banal (though also deadly) diarrhoea.

Nor has the sort of scavenging that Dickens described vanished. There are photographs in the show of individuals picking through rubbish dumps in India, and we may think of the hapless souls who labour daily around the world to dismantle the frequently toxic remains of discarded technology.

The dust heaps of Victorian London had at least the advantage of being made up mostly of biodegradable waste or material that could be relatively easily recycled, such as ash for brick manufacture. Modern detritus is notable for its longevity, hanging around in landfills like a vast archive of our throwaway culture.

Part of the exhibition is devoted to the Fresh Kills landfill in New York: the city’s principal dump and once the largest such site in the world. Opened in the late Forties, Fresh Kills went largely unregulated for decades; by the Eighties it was the only option New York had for disposing of its 22,000 tons of rubbish each day and it was clear the site violated numerous environmental laws. Now closed, today is being turned into a park.

The story of Fresh Kills, like the exhibition as a whole, is a noxious and fascinating reminder that not only do we like to keep dirt out of sight, but we also tend to repress its memory and the consequences of our propriety.


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